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February 03, 2010

Climate panel's future hangs in the balance

Former IPCC chair concedes sceptics are winning the media war

[Cover story from 3 February 2010 issue of Research Fortnight]

Influential scientists are pushing for major changes to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change following a string of embarrassing mistakes in its predictions of global climate impacts. Significant sections of the UK media are also calling for IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri to resign.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, former IPCC chairman Robert Watson said that continued revelations of peer-review lapses show that the IPCC’s peer-review system needs attention. He also said that the panel should start producing shorter, more policy-focused reports and consult a wider range of opinion.

The panel’s problems mounted over the weekend when Sunday newspapers, combing through its reports, spotted a student dissertation and an article in a mountaineering magazine as data sources. Pachauri has already had to apologise when a New Scientist article emerged as the source for an estimate of Himalayan glacier melting. Last week, the Information Commissioner chastised IPCC members at the University of East Anglia for withholding data requested under Freedom of Information legislation.

Commentators and mass-market newspapers are now using the controversy to question whether scientists can be trusted on the fundamental issue of whether human activities are changing global temperatures.

Watson, chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “The ammunition this is giving to the anti-global-warming camp is causing concern. The IPCC has slipped up and the sceptics have seized the day in the communications battle.”

So far, few mainstream scientists have stepped up to take on their critics in public events or in the media. Though this is about to change. Groups such as the Science Media Centre in London, for example, are preparing to mobilise their networks into action. Their aim will be to reinforce the large body of scientific opinion on climate change that is not contested.

Watson, nonetheless, acknowledges that the IPCC needs to open up more to minority voices in science. He revealed that he, too, was once a sceptic in the field of atmospheric chemistry and understands the value of scepticism to scientific progress. “I published papers that were critical of scientists who had won Nobel prizes, and my own PhD supervisor. But the basis of my scepticism was evidence and not ideology.”

Watson’s view is echoed by John Houghton, a former head of the Met Office and a senior IPCC member until 2002. Houghton says the IPCC should not be frightened of getting into debate with its critics. He explains that the organisation in the past was open to scientists who were critical about a human influence in climate change. But he warns the sceptics that the broader public interest is not served by being loose with facts. “It’s no good saying that climate models are no good. Lets have a debate on precise details.”

In recent weeks, the sceptical campaign has been boosted by a new high-powered think tank based in London called the Global Warming Policy Foundation, established and chaired by Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor. Its board of trustees and academic advisers constitute a Who’s Who of UK politicians, academics, journalists and the business community.

According to its director Benny Peiser, the foundation does not deny a human influence in global warming, but believes that the IPCC behaves as an activist organisation—for example when Pachauri criticises governments for not doing enough on climate change. “The IPCC should adhere to its original mandate and become policy-neutral,” says Peiser. He also agrees that the organisation needs a broader spread of opinion in its membership. “Including critics will make the review process more water tight.”

The IPCC was set up in 1988 to advise governments on the world’s climate. It produces five-yearly assessments and its scientists need to be nominated by member states of the UN. Governments have begun to invite applications for the fifth assessment, which will report in 2014.

Video of Ehsan Masood discussing this issue on Channel 4 News

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