Nature editorial chastises IPCC for conflict of interest policy

The Nature editorial  published today will be unwelcome criticism for the IPCC from a normally very friendly quarter. “Shot with its own gun” is the headline and the editorial chastises Pachauri and the IPCC for failing “to make clear when this new conflict-of-interest policy will come into effect and whom it will cover. It needs to do so — and fast”.

Allowing Greenpeace to ‘dictate’ the IPCC’s renewable-energy report was particularly inept and as one Nature reader puts it “The IPCC has become a Centre of Criticism”. But the fundamental problem with the IPCC is of course that it has become an advocacy group with a pre-determined agenda where scientific evidence has been replaced by dubious results from scenarios. Claiming that model results of a chaotic and imperfectly understood system are “settled science” is the travesty.

But criticism coming from Nature is friendly fire indeed.

Nature 474, 541 (30 June 2011) doi:10.1038/474541a

Shot with its own gun

In the past two years, the IPCC has displayed a talent for manoeuvring itself into embarrassing situations, making itself an easy target for critics and climate sceptics.

The problems began in late 2009, when it was reported that the IPCC’s fourth assessment report, published two years earlier, mistakenly claimed that all Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. The subsequent fallout seriously damaged the IPCC’s credibility, and was exacerbated by the inept attempts of the group’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, to contain the crisis. A subsequent review of the organization’s governance and policies saw it commit to a number of wide-ranging reforms.

This month, the IPCC is in the crosshairs again. The revelation that a Greenpeace energy analyst helped to write a key chapter in the IPCC’s Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, released last month, sparked widespread criticism across the blogosphere. Compared with the glacier faux pas, the latest incident is trivial. But it should remind the IPCC that its recently reworked policies and procedures need to be implemented, visibly and quickly.

In response to the glacier blunder, the IPCC pledged greater caution in the processes it uses to select scientific experts and to evaluate grey literature, and to make sure that (unpaid) work for the panel does not clash with interests arising from the professional affiliations of its staff and contributing authors (see Nature473, 261; 2011). But it has failed to make clear when this new conflict-of-interest policy will come into effect and whom it will cover. It needs to do so — and fast. 

This is the only way that the organization can counter recurring claims that it is less policy-neutral than its mandate from the United Nations obliges it to be. In particular, it needs to make clear the position for the working groups on climate-change impacts and adaptation (the science group adopted a rigid conflict-of-interest policy last year). Pachauri is on record as saying that the new conflict-of-interest policy will not apply retrospectively to the hundreds of authors already selected for the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, due in 2014. This is unacceptable. He should make it a priority to ensure that the rules cover everyone involved — including himself. …

The IPCC’s vulnerability to such attacks should also prompt it to reconsider how it frames its findings. Journalists and critics alike gravitate towards extreme claims. So when the IPCC’s press material for the May report prominently pushed the idea that renewables could provide “close to 80%” of the world’s energy needs by 2050, it was no surprise that it was this figure that made headlines — and made waves. The IPCC would have saved itself a lot of trouble and some unwarranted criticism had it made the origins of this scenario explicit.

Now with the natural death of the Kyoto Protocol and with a few decades of cooling in front of us it is time for the IPCC to be disbanded.

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