Entries tagged with “Climategate”.


Well, it’s about a year ago that the “climategate” email hack broke on the world, with a lot of sound and fury that, in the end, signified nothing.  I’ve dealt with this plenty of times, and I am too tired to do it again.  But there are great posts all over the place – like Peter Gleick here and Gavin Schmidt here.  Folks, its all a pack of little distractions from the big problems in front of us – and arguing that the future is uncertain is not reassuring.  Uncertainty is what worries me – predictable change can be managed, but nonlinear, unpredictable change can disrupt society significantly . . .

Yep, the InterAcademy Council more or less stated that the overall findings of the IPCC are not in question.  However, they did raise some interesting issues with regard to structure and leadership that should be taken seriously.  Admittedly, I have selfish reasons for this – as the review editor for one of the chapters of AR5, how the IPCC chooses to deal with comments and suggestions during the review process will have a very large impact on my life and workload starting in the summer of 2012 . . .

While I have written on this blog about the IPCC’s need to be more transparent in its workings, there comes a point where the constant barrage of reports and studies of previous IPCC findings becomes a serious problem.  Yes, another report, this time about the issue of glaciers in the Himalayas in the previous IPCC assessment report (AR4).  Despite fairly intense efforts to discredit AR4 – coming under the heading of “climategate” (people saying dumb things, and sometimes not so dumb things that were willfully misconstrued, on e-mails that were stolen from a server at a major climate research center) and Himalayagate (where the working group I recently joined relied on a bit of non-peer reviewed literature from an otherwise reputable source – called grey literature in scientific jargon – that turned out to be wrong), the reports on AR4 (yep, reports on the report) have yet to question the overall findings of the IPCC to this point.  Some see this as evidence of a conspiracy, where the inquiries into the IPCC and its findings are already corrupt and unable to come to independent conclusions.  Personally, I have a bit of difficulty believing in such a wide-ranging, well-coordinated conspiracy.  Maybe, just maybe, the findings are as close to valid as we can verify under current knowledge.  Maybe?

Anyway, my complaint here is not really with yet another inquiry into the IPCC – I’d bet my house that the inquiry will not challenge the larger findings of AR4.  However, when all that ever reaches the news is a constant barrage of reports on the findings of inquiries into supposed misdeeds on the part of the IPCC, it is hard to blame the general public for doubting the validity of its findings.

All of this goes back to a much earlier post that got a lot of attention, especially considering how remarkably simple its central point was: we need to be very transparent in what we do going forward.  That, and as Bob Watson, former head of the IPCC and a colleague from the Millennium Assessment and GEO-4, noted about the “Himalayagate issue”:

“To me the fundamental problem was that when the error was found it was handled in a totally and utterly atrocious manner.”

Yep.  The IPCC, and indeed most major environmental assessments, really need to get comfortable with the idea that sometimes we will be wrong – that is the nature of knowledge, let alone science – and we need to start engaging the professionals when it comes to PR.  I have it firsthand from Pachauri that the IPCC is fully engaged in such an effort (PR, that is), and has been for some time.  Good.  We recruit scientific experts for their special abilities, but somehow we resist recruiting PR people?  To quote the physics Nobelist Erwin Schroedinger, “If you cannot – in the long run - tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless”.  To take it another step, if we cannot honestly and clearly communicate what we do and don’t know, and when we get things wrong, than whatever we have done right will be lost in the maelstrom.

Oh, and can we get a new tag for scandals?  Himalayagate?  Really?  Could we find a more odd combination of geography to cram into a single word?

Well, it has been an eventful day – the blog has been in existence for something like three days, and I’ve already been blown up by traffic over a post.  Which, of course, is better than complete silence from the blogosphere.  However, I am not one to subscribe to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity, so I wanted to clarify a few things.

First, from my perspective the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is very, very clear.  This is NOT to say that all debate about the subject is over – after all, the climate is a tremendously complex system that we cannot know fully under existing methods (unless someone here has the means to locate every molecule in the atmosphere, and record their state, vectors and velocities simultaneously . . . oh, and then do the same for the oceans, land, and all life on earth, as the atmosphere interacts with all of that) – so we work in ever more refined approximations (the models of which, by the way, continue to converge with observed reality as we refine them, a strong sign that our approximations are at least on the right track).  That leaves room for error, and surely we are making some errors now that will have to be corrected over time.  Then again, there is room for error in our understanding of gravity, but I have yet to hear a convincing argument for trying to fly from my roof.  Remember, the scientific method never proves anything – all you can ever do is fail to disprove something so often that it becomes very, very likely that you accurately understand whatever it is you are testing.

That said, I am not a climate scientist.  I do understand the physics of climate change reasonably well, as I have had to pick up quite a bit in the course of my research and teaching.  I also understand modeling reasonably well – I even sat in on a colleague’s graduate seminar on biogeographic modeling to refine my knowledge base.  But again, I am not a climate scientist.  So I am not going to dedicate a lot of blog space to the nuances of climate science, not when far more qualified people run outstanding blogs on the subject (check some of the sites in my sidebar).  Those are the correct fora for such discussions.  This, I hope, will be a forum for the discussion of the intersection of development and global change thought broadly – both economic and environmental change.

Second, the question of why I wrote the post in the first place.  Contrary to Steve Bloom’s comment (whose comments were generally quite good), there was no unintended irony in my posting a complaint about IPCC communication that would become fodder for the climategate crowd.  When I received that letter, I read the first two paragraphs congratulating me on my appointment to the IPCC and though “how nice”, and then my stomach dropped when I read the third paragraph (the focus of my post).  If there is one truism about e-mail, once you hit “send”, it is out there for everyone to see.  I knew immediately that it was only a matter of time until this letter, and its poorly-worded paragraph, was in the hands of people who already mistrusted the IPCC, to be used as yet another attack on the process.  In my mind, it came down to this – should the complaint come from someone with credibility in the global change community, who clearly wants the IPCC to succeed, and who can frame the complaint around the idea of failed communication strategies (which is really what is at issue here), or should I wait until someone with the opposite agenda unloaded on the entire process?  I believe I made the right choice.

Third, I think it is important to note that by the time Mickey Glantz posted my comments on his blog (which is great reading) and forwarded my post to Andy Revkin at Dot Earth, Revkin already had a copy of the letter.  In other words, Mickey and I were not the only ones concerned with this paragraph – we’re just the ones who allowed ourselves to be named.  I believe that by jumping in, Mickey and I helped shape the discussion of this paragraph, and moved it down a productive path toward a discussion of how we interact with the media and the general public.  It is of some interest to note that by mid-day Saturday, all of the IPCC WG II members had been e-mailed a guide to interacting with media (Revkin posted a copy on his site).  The guide is pretty polished – in other words, they had this ready, but had not yet circulated it.  I cannot say that this little firestorm caused the secretariat to send this out, but its existence actually supports my complaint – the organization actually has very reasonable public outreach guidelines in place that do nothing to curtail our freedom to interact with the media or the public.  But the letter made it seem like things were quite the contrary.

Hopefully this is clarifying.  Or entertaining.  Or something in between.  Please resume your regularly scheduled websurfing.

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 . . .