Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Climate "Experts" Mainly Students

Donna Laframboise

Later this month thousands of bureaucrats, politicians, media, activists and scientists will travel to Durban, South Africa, for the latest round of UN climate talks. We’ll be advised that the world must slash its carbon-dioxide emissions because a United Nations report, prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has concluded that humans are changing the climate in dangerous ways.

The people who write the IPCC’s report — which is informally known as the Climate Bible — are supposedly the crème de la crème of world science. Rajendra Pachauri, the person who has been the IPCC’s chairman since 2002, tells us this repeatedly. In 2007 he explained to a newspaper how his organization selects individuals to help write the Climate Bible: “These are people who have been chosen on the basis of their track record, on their record of publications, on the research that they have done,” he said. “They are people who are at the top of their profession.”

Two years later, when testifying before a committee of the U.S. Senate, Pachauri argued that “all rational persons” should be persuaded by the IPCC’s conclusions since his organization mobilizes “the best talent available across the world.”

Whether he speaks in Austria or Australia, whether he gives an interview or writes articles himself, Pachauri says he “can’t think of a better set of qualified people” to write IPCC reports.

A close look at the IPCC’s roster of authors reveals that – on a wide range of topics including hurricanes, sea-level rise, and malaria – some of the world’s most seasoned specialists have been left out in the cold. In their stead, the IPCC has been recruiting 20-something graduate students.

For example, Laurens Bouwer is currently employed by an environmental studies institute at the VU University Amsterdam. In 1999-2000, he served as an IPCC lead author before earning his Masters degree in 2001.

How can a young man without even a master’s degree become an IPCC lead author? Bouwer’s expertise is in climate change and water resources. Yet the chapter for which he first served as a lead author was titled Insurance and Other Financial Services.

It turns out that, during part of 2000, Bouwer was a trainee at Munich Reinsurance Company. This means the IPCC chose as a lead author someone who was a trainee, who lacked a master’s degree, and was still a full decade away from receiving his 2010 PhD.

Who else falls into this category? As recently as 2008, Lisa Alexander was a research assistant at Australia’s Monash University. After completing her PhD in 2009, she was hired by another Aussie university – which noted in its hiring announcement that she had already “played a key role” in both the 2001 and 2007 editions of the Climate Bible.

In the first instance Alexander contributed to a chapter that addressed crucial questions such as How much is the world warming? and Is the warming unusual? This means that the IPCC’s leadership decided Alexander was a world-class expert 10 years before she, too, had earned her doctorate.

Sari Kovats, currently a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is an even more egregious example. She didn’t earn her PhD until 2010. Yet in 1994 – 16 years prior to that event and three years before her first academic paper was published – Kovats was one of only 21 people in the entire world selected to work on an IPCC chapter that examined how climate change might affect human health. On that occasion the IPCC said climate change would increase the percentage of the world’s population at risk of malaria – a finding that has been vigorously disputed by bona fide malaria experts ever since.

Chairman Pachauri’s credibility deficit doesn’t end there. In 2007 he told a newspaper: “So you can’t think of a more transparent process…than what we have in the IPCC.” In 2009 he insisted in a magazine interview: “The IPCC is a totally transparent organization…Whatever we do is available for scrutiny at every stage.”

But there’s the party line and then there are the experiences of real people. Last year the InterAcademy Council (an organization of science bodies from around the world) took an historic step. It established a committee to investigate the policies and procedures of the 21-year-old IPCC. Former IPCC participants were invited to complete an online questionnaire. Their responses were eventually made public after their names had been removed.

The person whose remarks begin on page three of the collected 678 pages of questionnaire answers is no IPCC novice. He or she has been a contributing author, a lead author, and even a coordinating lead author. Yet, when asked to comment on how the IPCC selects its lead authors, this person says: “I’m not clear how this actually happens…” Such confusion is widespread among IPCC insiders – who used words such as mysterious, closed-door, and black box when discussing this matter.

The fact is that Climate Bible authors are chosen via a secretive process. First, the IPCC receives nominations from governments – but it declines to make public the names of these nominees. Second, the IPCC fails to explain what selection criteria it uses. Third, when it announces who has been chosen, the only piece of information it feels obliged to provide is the name of the country the author represents.

In what other context, when a hiring announcement is made, is a person’s nationality announced yet no mention is made of their specific credentials?

We know that authors’ resumes are submitted as part of the nomination process – but they are then locked in a drawer. It would be easy for the IPCC to post these resumes on its website, but it chooses not to. In other words, an organization that claims to be utterly transparent expects us to simply take it on faith that the most qualified people were nominated and selected.

And then there’s the peer-review fairy tale. In its zeal to persuade us that its findings are credible, the IPCC has spent years claiming it examines only peer-reviewed literature, published in academic journals, prior to coming to its momentous conclusions.

In 2008, chairman Pachauri addressed a committee of the North Carolina legislature. Here’s what he said to those assembled lawmakers: “we carry out an assessment of climate change based on peer-reviewed literature, so everything that we look at and take into account in our assessments has to carry [the] credibility of peer-reviewed publications, we don’t settle for anything less than that.”

In 2009 a journalist asked Pachauri whether the IPCC’s next report would consider the findings of a discussion paper issued by India’s environment ministry that questioned the idea that Himalayan glaciers are endangered by climate change. Pachauri’s response was arrogantly dismissive. The “IPCC studies only peer-review science,” he said. “Let someone publish the data in a decent credible publication… otherwise we can just throw it into the dustbin.”

But the we-use-only-peer-reviewed-scientific-literature claim is total nonsense. It turns out those North Carolina legislators were misled by the head of the IPCC himself.

In early 2010 I was taken aback by a blog post authored by economist Richard Tol. He complained that, in a particular chapter of the 2007 Climate Bible, IPCC authors had ignored the findings of peer-reviewed studies and had instead cited non-peer-reviewed material to make the opposite case.

Looking up that chapter’s list of references online, I wondered how this could be. And yet, as I began to scan these references for the first time, I discovered the IPCC had relied on numerous sources that had not, in fact, been published in scientific journals.

Five weeks later, an audit of all 44 chapters of the 2007 Climate Bible (conducted by citizen volunteers recruited from 12 countries via my blog), determined that fully one-third of the IPCC’s references are to non-journal material.

Among the sources used to support IPCC assertions are newspaper and magazine articles, unpublished master’s and doctoral theses, Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund documents, and press releases.

Although Pachauri had declared the Indian government discussion paper fit only for the dustbin, we found that the Climate Bible cites dozens of discussion papers. In one case, the document relied on by the IPCC is clearly labelled as ‘version one’ of a draft.

Indeed, the peer-reviewed literature score was so dismal that, in 21 instances, the chapter would have received an F on a grade school report card (59% or lower).

The responses provided by IPCC insiders to the online questionnaire make it clear large numbers of them were fully aware that the IPCC’s use of non-peer-reviewed material is rampant. Again and again, they used terms such essential, necessary, and unavoidable while discussing such material.

Numerous individuals knew, therefore, that Pachauri’s public statements were at odds with reality. Hundreds of people involved in the IPCC knew perfectly well he was misleading top government officials as well as the public every time he made the we-only-use-peer-reviewed-sources claim.

In recent years, scientists affiliated with the IPCC have signed many open letters urging governments to pursue a variety of climate change measures. So where are the open letters, signed by hundreds of scientists, setting the record straight regarding the IPCC’s use of non-peer-reviewed material? Why have there been no public declarations to the effect that while the undersigned support the work of the IPCC, not everything being said by the IPCC’s leadership is borne out by the facts?

The willingness of everyone involved to overlook this discrepancy tells us that the IPCC is an outrageously spoiled child. No one expects it to follow the rules the rest of the world lives by. No one calls it onto the carpet when it tells tall tales. Keeping up the fiction of how admirable this child is has always been more important.

In other contexts, this would be called a conspiracy of silence. When people know that dramatic untruths are being uttered yet decline to challenge them, it means they belong to an organization that lacks integrity. A long, long list of IPCC officials flunked a basic test here. Like everyone else, they chose to avert their eyes.

But leadership failed on another level, as well. We are repeatedly told we should believe in dangerous, human-caused global warming because science academies from around the world have endorsed the IPCC’s findings. Climate skeptics are frequently asked why they imagine their own judgment to be more reliable than the judgment of such esteemed bodies.

The answer to that question is this: No science academy noticed that one in three references in the 2007 Climate Bible is actually to non-peer-reviewed, grey literature. If these academies are so well-informed why did it take a group of Internet-linked volunteers to bring this to the world’s attention? Why didn’t even one of these science academies subject chairman Pachauri’s rhetoric to rudimentary fact-checking?

If the world’s science organizations had spent the past decade helping to keep the IPCC honest that would be one thing. Instead, they have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with this delinquent teen, smiling for the cameras, and giving him absolutely no reason to pull up his socks.

Donna Laframboise is a Canadian journalist. This article has been republished at MercatorNet with permission from her book The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert, published this month by Ivy Avenue Press.

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