The world truly woke up to the threat of climate change on Friday 2 February 2007 when a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that humanity’s activities were – beyond all reasonable doubt – driving dangerous global warming. It remains the seminal moment, and the IPCC’s work was recognised with the award of the Nobel peace prize, shared with Al Gore.
How things change. Given much of the recent reporting of the IPCC’s work, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a tinpot group of green zealots, rather than the greatest feat of global scientific cooperation ever seen. Its reports are approved and endorsed by every nation on the planet, making it utterly unique and authoritative.
The most recent “controversy” was over the IPCC’s special report on renewable energy. “Its launch was hijacked by Greenpeace, with the actual report buried until weeks later,” screamed critics. Here’s what they failed, for some reason, to tell you.
1. The summary for policy makers (SPM) was released before the full report for the very same reason that gives the IPCC its unique clout. The SPM is discussed and then approved by all 194 countries, which means some changes are made to the draft. Those changes need to then be woven back into the full report, 1000 pages in this case. That takes time, but the SPM is already widely available. Suppressing the SPM until the revisions to the full report are made is simply impossible.
2. The scientist who works for Greenpeace, Sven Teske, was one of nine lead authors for the relevant chapter, one of whom worked for an oil company. The ultimate responsibility for the chapter, one of 11 in the report, was with two coordinating lead authors. Overall, 120 scientists authored the report, and there were 269 contributors and 340 or so reviewers.
3. The research suggesting 80% of electricity could be generated from renewable source by 2050 was in a Greenpeace report. But far more saliently, it was also peer reviewed and published in a respected scientific journal. It was the latter, not the former, that was part of the IPCC report.
4. The press release for the special report on renewables makes clear that over 160 scientific scenarios for the expansion of green energy sources were examined, with four looked at in depth. The most optimistic suggests 77% use by 2050, the least optimistic – cited in the next paragraph – suggest just 15%.
Has the IPCC made mistakes in its communication? Most certainly. The response to the revelation that in one 3,000-page report there was an erroneous claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 was extremely clumsy and counter-productive. Lessons have been learned and implemented to try to prevent future repeats, though no system will be foolproof in such a giant endeavour.
Does the IPCC’s crucial work make it above journalistic scrutiny or criticism? Absolutely not. Journalists should work without fear or favour, and I have done so myself in relation to information in the US diplomatic cables obtained by Wikileaks on how some senior IPCC figures were appointed.
Some critics has gone so far as to suggest that NGO scientists have no place as authors for IPCC reports. You’d think Nature, the most prestigious science journal publishers in the world, would agree. But they don’t. In fact they take quite the opposite view. An editorial in the August edition of Nature Climate Change (free registration) states:
Widening the circle of expertise and information contributing to the IPCC is essential for the organization’s evolution, and the [renewable energy] report should be commended in that regard. Some of the greatest insights into how we cope with climate change could come from such diversity, be that in the form of authors with industry or advocacy links, sources of information outside of journals, or meta-analyses
It is true that a perception of bias can be damaging, even if it is groundless. But that perception comes from biased reporting, shorn of proper context and omitting crucial facts.
The real IPCC scandal is altogether different. For a body of such unique global importance, its secretariat is scandalously tiny – just 12 staff. Not so long ago it was half that number. Its annual budget is a mere few million dollars, with just a single communications professional. It’s a miracle they get anything out.
How can this be? Ironically, it is once again for the same reason that gives the IPCC its unique authority. If you think getting 194 nations to agree on global warming, try getting 194 nations to agree on raising their subscription fees.
The IPCC certainly needs to communicate better and it needs the resources to do so. That, in my opinion, is something worth screaming about.
Note: In point 2 above in the original post I was did not use the IPPC’s exact terminology for the different author role, i.e. lead and coordinating lead. That’s now corrected. My thanks to Richard Klein.