(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 14, 2010
IPCC Controversy: Shooting the Messenger
seems even a day cannot go by without some newspaper, magazine or TV
carrying an expose about yet another blunder by the Intergovernmental
Climate Change (IPCC). On the eve of the Copenhagen Conference, there
was the so-called
“climategate” scandal when hackers breaking into computers of the
Research Unit at
Going by the media frenzy, one would think the IPCC had got it all wrong, on glaciers, extreme weather events, dwindling numbers of polar bears, what have you. IPCC’s assessment reports were seen as the gold standard of climate science and now uddenly, IPCC stands accused even of fudging the facts. Climate skeptics never had it so good. Two decade-old arguments have been reinvigorated: scientists are needlessly spreading panic, climate change may not actually be happening, and even if some of it is, how do we know it is not natural?
There are clearly many levels of debate involved here. First, regarding the facts. Second, as regards procedures in reviewing research and arriving at conclusions. Third, as regards individual and institutional ethics in the IPCC, in TERI and in government. And fourth, perhaps as important as all the others especially in a broader context, the credibility of science itself.
First prize for blunders must go to the statement about Himalayan glaciers in IPCC/AR4 that “the likelihood of them disappearing by 2035 or sooner is very high” (Working Group II or WG-II, Section 10.6.2). As admitted by IPCC after the controversy made headlines, this statement was based on “poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers”. That is putting it mildly! The assessment is simply wrong and should never have been made, certainly given the evidence cited.
Murari Lal from
2035 prediction is not carried anywhere else in the report. In the
to the whole AR4, a more careful statement on trends is made:
losses from glaciers… are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st
century, reducing… meltwater from major mountain ranges eg. Hindu-Kush,
THE SCIENCE IS
the case of other errors pointed out, the IPCC Report is even less at
So let us be clear. Several issues have indeed been raised by the controversies over different statements in IPCC/AR4, but none of them contradict the core assessments that climate change is real and man-made, that global average temperatures are rising, that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are increasing and that these will have serious consequences for humanity. On these there is wide scientific consensus. More than 17,000 published and peer-reviewed papers have been taken into account and more than 3000 scientists have been involved in writing AR4. No other scientific exercise hitherto has involved such extensive and inclusive work. The message of the IPCC is incontrovertible, the attempt here is to shoot the messenger.
must be noted that from the very beginning of the climate debate, there
been a concerted effort to discredit the science and scientists backing
of anthropogenic climate change. Fossil-fuel based energy and
industry lobbies, the
However, none of this excuses the mistakes made in IPCC/AR4 which have resulted not so much from poor research but from inadequate review cross-checking procedures vital in so complex and multi-disciplinary a subject.
peer review system, that is appraisal of research by other experts in
or related fields, has long been the established best practice in
science to assess
the quality of research and its findings. Yet it also carries some
especially when not practiced scrupulously. The peer review system is
abused by hand-picking of reviewers with favourable views on the
subject or friendly relations with the scientist in question. Old boys’
networks, cronyism and mutual back-scratching have long plagued
research, as academics
and researchers in
For his part, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh went hammer and tongs against the IPCC blunder and lamented that Indian scientists had not done enough climate research and were too dependent on western information. True enough, even though the glaciologist cited here happened to be Indian! Then his ministry went on to officially publish a clearly agenda-driven “counter” study on Himalayan glaciers which was also not peer-reviewed and contained numerous unverified statements and internal contradictions, including an executive summary that differed with findings in the text! The minister also conveniently forgot that, as per UN procedures, the IPCC report had been reviewed and approved by the Indian government who too had overlooked the mistake! Everyone has an axe to grind, it seems. And now the minister has decided to send a government minder to all IPCC board meetings, ostensibly to exercise oversight on the IPCC and chairman Pachauri! Does science benefit from being sarkari?
A more troublesome problem is the use, certainly in the glacier case, of what is known as “grey literature”, that is articles or other publications that have not been peer-reviewed. The report’s statement on Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035 is referenced to an article in a journal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), wherein a further reference had been made to an earlier magazine interview given by the single glaciologist referred to above! Not a peer-reviewed publication, not a research-based conclusion, just an off-hand speculative comment highlighted in the publication of an NGO committed to pushing for climate action! WWF too has had to clarify that the statement on glaciers was speculative. Other prominent international environmental NGOs too have had to make similar admissions in the wake of the recent controversies.
In the modern era, rapid advances in science and technology are impacting a wide swathe of society in many ways. Increasing specialisation as well as cloistering of research behind corporate or institutional walls has further heightened the distance between science and the people it affects, prompting suspicion and fear about both science and scientists. Indeed, issues relating to large dams, GM foods, environmental pollution and climate change are intrinsically societal issues and cannot be left only to experts to decide upon. People’s science or public interest science has come up as a response to shutting out people’s voices from decision-making relating to S&T which is sought to be confined only to those with expertise in the subject. Numerous NGOs, popular movements and “civil society organisations” now rightly conduct independent studies on many S&T issues, publish material, pronounce opinions and campaign on them.
Surely the same caution, cross-check, peer reviews and verification that are demanded of the mainstream scientific community should also apply to such NGO studies, publications and campaigns based on them. This has most definitely not happened till now, and many sweeping statements and unverified pronouncements are made by various organizations on complex issues.
The recent controversies will have served a good purpose if the IPCC, as assured by them, build more robust systems and procedures for the Fifth assessment report to ensure that the well-enunciated principles governing IPCC Work, namely to thoroughly review the “quality and validity of each source” of information and conclusions, are adhered to. It is clear that most climate skeptics and critics of the IPCC have not, and do not, bother to do this. But will at least NGOs and popular movements do the same?