I recently had an e-mail exchange with Rick Piltz over at Climate Science Watch (I link to them regularly, and if you are not familiar with the site, you should check it out – it is an activist site that does very good work) about the whole Cucinelli circus.  At the end of that exchange, Rick mentioned that with the upcoming IPCC plenary the question of Patchauri’s leadership was once again on the table.  This got me thinking . . . and I shorthanded an answer to him that I think I can expand on here.

For those not neck-deep in the world of climate change, Rajendra Pachauri is the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The IPCC is the authoritative scientific body working on the issue of climate change – it is empowered to review the existing literature and evidence (it does not do its own research) and present what amounts to a summary of our best understanding of what is happening to the global climate and why it is happening.  (full disclosure: I have been appointed to the IPCC for this round as a review editor – basically, I will manage the peer-review process for one of the chapters).

The IPCC has come under fire quite a bit – in my opinion, mostly because the scientific story of climate change is getting clearer and clearer, and it is not a happy story.  However, there have also been screwups – for example, some of you may have heard how a completely unrealistic assessment of glacier melt in the Himalayas somehow got through review into the last IPCC report (this melt is important, as it tells us how much flooding to expect downstream (i.e. northern India and Bangladesh, among other areas) in the near term, and how much the river flows of the region will decrease once the glaciers have largely melted (potentially creating significant food crises in the same areas).  I wasn’t completely freaked out by this error – it is large document that is hard to manage, but the review process is very comprehensive.  It’s just not realistic to expect a review, compiled by hundreds of scientists and reviewed by hundreds more as well as representatives from the participating governments (including the US), to come together flawlessly in a reasonable timeframe.  However, when this popped up, the handling of it was botched – it was more or less the classic error: instead of identifying, acknowledging and fixing the error, at first the IPCC was seen to be stonewalling and trying to defend an undefendable statement. At one point, Pachauri issued a remarkably tone-deaf statement in which he effectively called India’s Environment Minister “arrogant” and dismissed the Indian Government’s report which seemed to contract the IPCC findings.  Even if the IPCC report had been correct in its claims, this could have been handled better.  However, the IPCC claims were wrong, and the Indian report was closer to the truth . . . which makes this a disaster.  The whole event badly damaged the legitimacy of the IPCC in some people’s eyes, and was fodder for those who would deny the role of human beings in climate change.  It was a PR disaster, really – the overall science of the report is, in my opinion (and it is an informed opinion) quite solid.  If nothing else, note that as the models of climate get more sophisticated, their results are mapping ever closer to observed reality . . . and the models are predicated on widely accepted understandings of the causes of climate change brought forth through exercises like the IPCC assessments.  Still, it was bad.

Add this to the fiasco from this summer (in which I’m afraid I was a visible participant), where the IPCC secretariat, in Pachauri’s name, issued guidance to members of the IPCC on how to interact with the press. The letter was astonishingly poorly worded to sound like those of us on the IPCC were not to speak to the press at all, when what was meant was that we were not to represent the entire IPCC report by ourselves to the press (in other words, we can speak to the press and say “in my opinion . . .” and be fine, but we cannot say “The IPCC says/believes/thinks . . .” because we do not speak for everyone on the IPCC).  The meaning of the message was completely innocuous, but the initial wording was very unclear, and set off something of a firestorm.

So, does tone-deafness qualify as a reason to throw the chairman under the bus?  Well, if you think that the chairman’s job is to be a media spokesperson, maybe it is.  But if the chair is to run the larger IPCC process, I don’t think replacing Pachauri changes anything – it’s just finding a scapegoat to make it look like the panel has been reformed or something – which I strongly object to, as I don’t think the IPCC needs reform.  The process is sound, the author selection is sound, the data is sound (yes, I know some people have issues with the data, but the vast majority of the scientific community does not – so I am going with them until such time as I see new evidence – though I remain open to new evidence, as our understanding of the climate as a complex system is incomplete, at best).  So replacing Pachauri might actually be read as an admission of guilt or problems with previous IPCC reports that I do not think exist – there is no systematic rot here.

Besides, this round of the IPCC has already started – the authors are selected, and the first plenary will meet soon.  So changing the chair now will do nothing but create administrative confusion.  And the importance of replacing Pachauri rests on the assumption that the chair has a lot of power – and the post does not, in the grand scheme of things.  In the end, the IPCC is an intergovernmental process, which means that the diplomatic process in large, key countries like the US greatly constrain and shape what the IPCC can do – probably more than the chair can.  You’ll notice an absence of calls for replacement from the diplomatic community, which tells you what they think.  More to the point, Pachauri still has his job – if any major country had an issue, he would be out.  For an illustration, take a look at what the Bush administration did to Bob Watson, the previous chair of the IPCC.  The Administration withdrew support for him (and there is documentary evidence to suggest that they did so because ExxonMobil really wanted him gone) and that was that.

So, in the end I vote to keep Pachauri in place.  I think he is sincere in his efforts to get outreach right, both in terms of his own statements and in terms of the dissemination of the IPCC reports.  He knows the process.  And the governments are, for now, backing him, so all of the demands for removal are going nowhere right now.  That said, I fear he may be one more public gaffe away from someone in the diplomatic world getting fed up and demanding a replacement . . . and that would not be good for the IPCC process during this assessment report.