So, as I have mentioned in my first post, I am part of Working Group II of the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As some of you might know, Working Group II of the previous Assessment Report (AR4) was the one that caught a lot of flak for problematic conclusions and references regarding Himalayan Glacier melt and whatnot. On one hand, these were stupid errors that should have been corrected in the review process (which will be part of my job in AR5).  On the other, they really did not affect the overall conclusions or quality of the report – they just gave those who continue to have an issue with the idea of climate change an opening to attack the report.

Part of the problem for the IPCC is a perceived lack of openness – that something is going on behind closed doors that cannot be trusted.  This, in the end, was at the heart of the “climategate” circus – a recent report has exonerated all of the scientists implicated, but some people still believe that there is something sinister going on.

There is an easy solution to this – complete openness.  I’ve worked on global assessments before, and the science is sound.  I’ve been quite critical of the way in which one of the reports was framed (download “Applying DPSIR to Sustainable Development” here), but the science is solid and the conclusions are more refined than ever.  Showing people how this process works, and what we do exactly, would go a long way toward getting everyone on the same page with regard to global environmental change, and how we might best address it.

So I was dismayed this morning to receive a letter, quite formally titled “Letter No.7004-10/IPCC/AR5 from Dr Pachauri, Chaiman of the IPCC”, that might set such transparency back.  While the majority of the letter is a very nice congratulations on being selected as part of the IPCC, the third paragraph is completely misguided:

“I would also like to emphasize that enhanced media interest in the work of the IPCC would probably subject you to queries about your work and the IPCC. My sincere advice would be that you keep a distance from the media and should any questions be asked about the Working Group with which you are associated, please direct such media questions to the Co-chairs of your Working Group and for any questions regarding the IPCC to the secretariat of the IPCC.”

This “bunker mentality” will do nothing for the public image of the IPCC.  The members of my working group are among the finest minds in the world.  We are capable of speaking to the press about what we do without the help of minders or gatekeepers. I hope my colleagues feel the same way, and the IPCC sees the light . . .

UPDATE (16 July 2010):

The members of the IPCC AR5 received a letter from Dr. Pachauri today.  In it, he made clear the position of the IPCC with regard to media communications.  I find this letter articulate, clear and eminently reasonable – everything the original letter was not.  To quote Dr. Pachauri

“In my letter, I cautioned you to “keep a distance from the media” if asked about your work for the IPCC. This was a poor choice of words on my part and not reflective of IPCC policy. My only intent was to advise new authors not to speak “on behalf of the IPCC” because we are an inter-governmental body consisting of 194 states.

I want to reassure everyone the IPCC is a transparent organization. At a time when the work of climate scientists is undergoing intense scrutiny, it is essential that we promote clear and open communication with the media and the public.

While the media have at times been critical of the IPCC, I have a profound respect for their responsibility to inform the public about our activities. A free flow of information is a fundamental component of our commitment to transparency.”

I believe this puts to rest the idea that the letter was meant to muzzle the members of AR5.  As I argued, the original letter was poorly worded and thought through, not nefarious.  However, I am still a bit concerned about another part of the letter:

“Last weekend, a guide entitled “Background & Tips for Responding to the Media” was circulated to several hundred Working Group II authors. This document was produced to help scientists communicate effectively with journalists. However, I was unaware of its distribution.”

At some point, you do have to ask who is driving this bus.  The PR situation at IPCC is clearly uncoordinated and still pretty amateurish.  At least they are trying, though.  That gives me hope for the process . . .