Chair of IPCC Review Panel Backs Climate Science Assessment Process, Despite Flaws

Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

On Monday, Harold Shapiro, a former president of and current economics professor at Princeton University, formally presented the United Nations with a report assessing the procedures of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which had come under intense criticism for months, beginning with the so-called “climategate” affair late in 2009 and continuing with the discovery of a few errors in the panel’s most recent report, issued in 2007 (most notably the “glaciergate” misstep in reporting how quickly Himalayan glaciers will melt). Critics also accused the IPCC’s Chairman, Rajendra K. Pachauri, of conflicts of interest related to his financial dealings.

To get an independent assessment of the workings of the climate panel, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice president Al Gore in 2007, the U.N. turned to the InterAcademy Council (IAC), made up of representatives from 18 national science academies, which in turn recruited Shapiro to head up an investigative committee. The committee’s mandate: address deficiencies, real and perceived, in the IPCC process.

Yesterday, Shapiro spoke with Climate Central about the report and about the reactions it has received. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

ML: Has the press done a good job of reporting accurately on your report?

HS: Overall I’d say yes, it is a pretty fair treatment, especially if you overlook the headlines and read the actual articles. There are some publications that are pursuing their own objectives and distorting the message. We made some comments to the effect that [the IPCC] ought to be more careful in using non-peer-reviewed literature, and one headline came out in Europe saying we said: “the data is terrible.” Of course, we said nothing of the kind. But I think overall what I’ve seen so far has been reasonable.

ML: What about press reports saying you urged IPCC Chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri to resign?

IPCC Chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri.
Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

HS: [The report] does not say anything of [the] kind. It says that the whole senior leadership of IPCC – not only the chair but the senior co-chairs, in all, about eight or nine people – should serve for a period of only one assessment [the 2007 report was the fourth such assessment since the IPCC was formed in 1988], simply because we believe this area is so dynamic, and with so many different perspectives, that we all could benefit from some freshness in approach, some freshness in each assessment.

It was beyond our charter to even look at whether the current leadership was adequate or inadequate or super-terrific, and so we did not look. This suggestion [of term limits], from our point of view, does not come from any lack of confidence in the current director. It’s something we simply did not address.

We don’t recommend any change in the director’s position. We do propose a new position called executive director, who would head the secretariat in Geneva. We believe that should be a senior scientist, responsible for day-to-day operations of the secretariat and of the overall assessment. Someone who could really talk on a peer-to-peer basis with the working group co-chairs, and provide a better level of support for the working groups, which consist of hundreds of scientists all around the world.

ML: How do you go about assessing whether the IPCC is doing a good or bad job? Is there some other institution you can measure it against?

HS: The IPCC is a very unique organization. I think of it as an important social innovation to be able to bring together, under a decentralized framework, this vast array of scientists from all around the world. To produce a coherent report on such an important subject is an enormous accomplishment…. Our charge here was not to review the science, but simply to ask, “are their policies and practices set up in such a way as to minimize errors and generally achieve the authoritative nature they seek in the report?”

And so once you ask the question that way, it’s not a unique organization; it’s just a quality control problem. Not that it’s a simple problem, but it’s something you can look at whether you’re a climate scientist or not, and regardless of what background you come from, as long as you have experience in quality control. If you’ve been the editor of Nature or Science or any number of other organizations or had other posts in a research establishment, you know what quality control is, and that’s essentially what we were after.

ML: Did you go back into the history of the IPCC?

HS: We did go back. We didn’t write a history of IPCC; we were focused on its procedures and practices. But we did have to go into its history, inevitably, since it sits at the intersection between policy and science. You had to explore this, and how it was handled, just to see whether procedures were effective or not.

So to give you an example, we looked at how they handle and communicate uncertainty. Uncertainty is a huge problem in this area — just as in all areas of science, there’s always a marginal uncertainty in what you’re assessing. All science is uncertain. We only believe it until it’s proven wrong.

And so it becomes a matter of risk management. We looked very carefully at the question of how they communicate the level of uncertainty to policy makers. Do they do this effectively or ineffectively? We found out it was a mix. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes not so well. And so we made a series of recommendations about how they might communicate and deal with uncertainty as a general proposition, since all science is faced with that problem.

ML: You found that different sections of the IPCC reports dealt with uncertainty in different ways.

HS: They dealt with it in different ways, which is by itself not inappropriate; these working groups dealt with different areas of scholarship, and there are different amounts of evidence. There’s more contention over the evidence in some areas than in others.

But risk management is a science by itself, and there are ways of dealing with it. And our view is that the IPCC had pretty good guidance in this respect, but didn’t always follow it, especially in the summary for policymakers, which as you know summarizes a very large number of pages down to a small number. There were statements made where they expressed high confidence in a conclusion where there was very little evidence, and sometimes there were statements made which could not be falsified.

So to give you an example, they say it’s going to be cold in Eastern Europe. That’s probably true, but not very interesting — there’s no date associated with it. There were statements like that type, especially in the summary for policymakers, which I think — I’m guessing now — came out as they were trying to agree, governments trying to agree on how to phrase things, and where there were different interests, different values, different concerns of different governments, and they came up with statements that they all agree on. But they agree on essentially nothing.

I should say that even though we found errors of this type — and I was very surprised, because I thought that by this time every error that could possibly be in there would have been found, but we found some new ones — they were not major errors. They were not distorting facts in any significant way that we could understand. But they do undermine the credibility and authority of the report as long as they’re there. Now, in a report that’s a couple of thousand pages, you’ll always have some errors — hopefully minor ones — so we made a number of recommendations, just to improve things in this area.

ML: Did you speak with people from outside the IPCC as well as inside?

HS: Yes, inside and outside — supporters of IPCC and climate skeptics. We tried to get as varied a group as we could. We interviewed, and we sent out hundreds of questionnaires to, people who had spoken skeptically about IPCC and who had supported IPCC, and we got an enormous response. Many of them were very thoughtful. We also had public meetings, had both supporters and skeptics there. So we tried to approach this in as neutral a way as we could. I don’t want to claim that one is always perfectly neutral in these matters. But we tried to be very cautious in that respect because we knew it was such a controversial area.

ML: Did you hear from people who were angry?

HS: Oh, we talked to angry people, all right. There are people out there, some thoughtful people, who think the whole process ought to be abandoned. [They thought that] the whole thing was set up to demonstrate that humans were causing global warming, and guess what, they went out and found that humans were causing global warming. I think it’s understandable that some people feel that way, because [IPCC] were charged in the beginning with finding out the human contribution to climate change.

But it was our judgment that that wasn’t the case. We spoke to too many very thoughtful people who weren’t in any way dependent on IPCC or IPCC friends particularly, who really were very convinced by the science — given always that there is a margin of uncertainty. Everybody recognizes that.

And as I’ve tried to explain to people, all science is tentative, so you’re always engaged in risk management. You’re never engaged in anything other than risk management….It’s like buying insurance — you’ve heard that analogy many times. But it is like that. Nobody expects their house to go on fire tomorrow, but we all have fire insurance.

This is a different matter, of course, and it’s not so trivial as what I’ve suggested. But that’s what you’re faced with. Is it time to buy insurance? And if so, how much insurance do you want to buy? That’s really the question, and the more we know, the more certain we will be. Given the fact that we have all these enormous climate models with all the uncertainties built into them, these things happen on such extraordinary timescales, you don’t have that much past data — there’s all sorts of ways to be uncertain. But nevertheless, the committee didn’t try to come to an opinion on this.

My own opinion, having reviewed a lot of this evidence for the first time very carefully, is that I would sure buy insurance. But that’s just my opinion. The committee didn’t focus on that.

ML: If your panel concluded generally that the IPCC’s procedure is reasonable, even if it could use improvement, doesn’t that implicitly suggest that the science is sound?

HS: Yes, I think that’s fair. It suggests that it was convincing enough — this organization is not a fraud, this organization wasn’t perpetuating some sort of criminal act on us all — in fact, it’s extraordinary the number of scientists who participated. I know of no other comparable situation.

The ozone situation might be comparable in some ways. It was a big, worldwide problem, not understood very well at the beginning. It took them a decade or two before they could come to the Montreal Protocol and begin to solve the problem. It wasn’t easy. Because even if you convinced every scientist in the U.S. and Great Britain and western Europe that this was a problem, it was a worldwide problem: you had to convince a lot of people and a lot of governments.

ML: You say the press reaction has been generally fair. What about reactions from scientists and policymakers?

HS: I’ve had many letters in the past few days, emails, letters, from scientists, including well-known critics, like Roger Pielke, and John Christy at the University of Alabama, who both said this was a very positive step. Christy said, if they do this, if they adapt both the letter and the spirit of what you’ve said, things would be a lot better. So…I’m not sure that everybody feels that way. I don’t scan the blogosphere, so I don’t know what’s going on over there. But many skeptics — or people who are classified as skeptics, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way….Christy, I think, is a very thoughtful person and really cares about what he’s doing. He came to our committee at a time when it was extremely difficult for him to do and yet he made an effort to do it, and I have a lot of respect for him.

So a lot of these people say “this doesn’t solve all these problems, this doesn’t do away with a lot of the issues, but it would help strengthen the organization.” And I think it’s fair to say that our committee feels, and even many of the skeptics feel, that if you didn’t have IPCC you’d have to invent something like it. Someone like Nigel Lawson in Great Britain, the former chancellor of the exchequer, who is almost a violent critic of IPCC, he just thinks that we ought to toss it out and forget it and think of something else. I think very few of the skeptics actually believe that. They want major changes, they might want different approaches, different procedures, that’s my sense of it, but I’ve had very positive responses. I’m sure there are negative responses out there, you just have to look a little harder.

ML: Who decides whether to accept your recommendations?

HS: Well that’s up to the panel [the IPCC]. The panel, of course, are the governments that established IPCC in the first place, of course under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization and U.N. Environment Program, and they meet in plenary session in Korea, in the middle of October, which is why they wanted our report by August 30th. They’re the ones that decide.

There are some recommendations which the IPCC director, the working group chairs, could implement on their own — they may be important, but they don’t involve anything structurally important. We have some recommendations on how you communicate uncertainty, recommendations on the review process, recommendations on conflict of interest policy that would not require the panel to do anything. It’s just the leadership of IPCC that would have to decide to do it.

There are other recommendations, such as reorganizing the secretariat, appointing an executive director and so on, which really can only be done if the panel decides that’s a useful recommendation.

ML: How quickly could such changes reasonably be made?

HS: We think all of our recommendations, if they’re thought to be helpful and useful, could in our view be implemented in the Fifth Assessment [which is currently in progress]. It’ s my own judgment that when people say you have to wait for the Sixth Assessment, it’s just a way of postponing action.

ML: You could even replace the current Chairman?

HS: It’s all a question of what the panel wants to do. The current chair… I want to make clear it’s not a recommendation that he should resign. When I briefed him on the report, that’s the first question he asked me. And I said that was not our intention. He has spoken about this in the press in the last couple of days, saying this was up to the panel to decide, but as far as he was concerned—this was how I interpreted what he said—he’d like to carry through a lot of these changes as the Fifth Assessment goes on. Just how that will happen, what the panel will feel, I really don’t have any idea.

ML: Any other points you’d like to make?

HS: We talked a lot about communications. Since this is a matter of great public interest and public concern, you’ve got to find some way — it’s not just scientists talking to themselves — this is something you’ve got to be able to communicate to policy makers and the public at large. Everyone believes that the IPCC’s communications capacity is awful. So we have in the report…a set of recommendations. But it’s not an easy problem. There’s just a small number of people who can really communicate to both sides — speak to scientists, understand what they do, and speak to the public, which speaks a different language and so on. This is an important issue.

I briefed the State Department on this report yesterday, and we talked about communications, and the guy from the State Department said to me, “you’re not suggesting the IPCC has the capacity to do this, are you?” I don’t know what they’re going to do about this in the end, but my sense is that they’re going to have to rely, if they want to take this on, they’ll have to rely on some external people.