We cannot make sane decisions on global warming if the ‘experts’ present us with evidence that is biased
This month, after a three-year investigation, Harvard University suspended a prominent professor of psychology for scandalously overinterpreting videos of monkey behaviour. The incident has sent shock waves through science because it suggests that a body of data is unreliable. The professor, Marc Hauser, is now a pariah in his own field and his papers have been withdrawn. But the implications for society are not great — no policy had been based on his research.
Yesterday, after a four-month review, a committee of scientists concluded that the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has “assigned high confidence to statements for which there is very little evidence”, has failed to enforce its own guidelines, has been guilty of too little transparency, has ignored critical review comments and has had no policies on conflict of interest”.
Enormous and expensive policy changes have been based on the flawed work of these scientists. Yet there is apparently to be no investigation, blame, suspension or withdrawal of papers, just a gentle bureaucratic fattening of the organisation with new full-time posts.
IPCC reports are supposed to be the gold standard account of what is — and is not — known about global warming. The panel boasts that it uses only peer-reviewed scientific literature. But its claims about mountain ice turned out to be anecdotes from a climbing magazine, its claims on the Amazon’s vulnerability to drought from a Brazilian pressure group’s website and 42 per cent of the references in one chapter proved to be to reports by Greenpeace, WWF and other “grey” literature. Yesterday’s review finds that guidelines on the use of this grey literature “are vague and have not always been followed”.
For instance, the notorious claim that glaciers in the Himalayas would disappear by 2035 seems to have been based on a misprint (for 2350) in a document issued by a pressure group. When several reviewers challenged the assertion in draft, they were ignored. When Indian scientists challenged it after publication, they were not just dismissed but vilified and accused of “voodoo science” by the IPCC chairman, Rajendra Pachauri.
By contrast, when two academics, Ross McKitrick and Pat Michaels, found a strong link between temperature rise and local economic development — implying that recent warming is partly down to local, not global factors — their paper was ignored for two drafts, despite many review comments drawing attention to the omission. It was finally given a grudging reference, with a false assertion that the data were rebutted by other data that turned out to be non-existent.
We now know the back story of this episode: the e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia include this from Professor Phil Jones, referring to exactly this paper: “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”
(Note that the IPCC had appointed Professor Jones as co-ordinating lead author to pass judgment on his own papers, as well as those of his critics. Learning nothing, it has appointed one of Professor Jones’s closest colleagues for the next report. This is asking not to be taken seriously.) These are not merely procedural issues. They have real consequences for science and society. All the errors and biases that have come to light in recent months swerve in the direction of exaggerating the likely impact of climate change. According to the economist Richard Tol, one part of the 2007 report (produced by Working Group 2) systematically overstated the negative impacts of climate change, while another section (written by Working Group 3) systematically understated the costs of emissions reduction. Indur Goklany, an independent science scholar, likewise noticed that the report had quoted a study that estimated the number of people at increased risk of reduced water shortage in the future as a result of climate change, but omitted to mention the same source’s estimate of the number of people at decreased risk. The latter number was larger in all cases, so that “by the 2080s the net global population at risk declines by up to 2.1 billion people”.
This is not a new problem. The unilateral redrafting of IPCC reports by “lead authors” after reviewers had agreed them, and the writing of a sexed-up “summary for policy makers” before the report was complete, have discomfited many scientists since the first report. It is no great surprise that the “experts” who compiled one part of the 2007 report included three from Greenpeace, two Friends of the Earth representatives, two Climate Action Network representatives, and a person each from the activist organisations WWF, Environmental Defense Fund, and the David Suzuki Foundation.
Frankly, the whole process, not just the discredited Dr Pachauri (in shut-eyed denial at a press conference yesterday), needs purging or it will drag down the reputation of science with it. One of the most shocking things for those who champion science, as I do, has been the sight of the science Establishment reacting to each scandal in climate science with indifference or contempt. The contrast with the thorough investigation of the Hauser affair is striking.
Three years ago, not having paid much attention, I thought that IPCC reports were reliable, fair and transparent. No longer. Despite coming from a long line of coal-mining entrepreneurs, I’m not a “denier”: I think carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I’m not even a sceptic (yet): I think the climate has warmed and will warm further. But I am now a “lukewarmer” who has yet to see any evidence saying that the current warming is, or is likely to be, unprecedented, fast or tending to accelerate.
So I have concluded that global warming will most probably be a fairly minor problem — at least compared with others such as poverty and habitat loss — for nature as well as people. After watching the ecologically and economically destructive policies enacted in its name (biofuels, wind power), I think we run the risk of putting a tourniquet round our collective necks to stop a nosebleed.
Matt Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Fourth Estate)
The Times 31 August 2010