A senior Canadian climate scientist says the United Nations’ panel on global warming has become tainted by political advocacy, that its chairman should resign, and that its approach to science should be overhauled.
Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria, says the leadership of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has allowed it to advocate for action on global warming, rather than serve simply as a neutral science advisory body.
“There’s been some dangerous crossing of that line,” said Weaver on Tuesday, echoing the published sentiments of other top climate scientists in the U.S. and Europe this week.
“Some might argue we need a change in some of the upper leadership of the IPCC, who are perceived as becoming advocates,” he told Canwest News Service. “I think that is a very legitimate question.”
Weaver also says the IPCC has become too large and unwieldy. He says its periodic reports, such as the 3,000 page, 2007 report that won the Nobel Prize, are eating up valuable academic resources and driving scientists to produce work on tight, artificial deadlines, at the expense of other, longer-term inquiries that are equally important to understanding climate change.
“The problem we have is that the IPCC process has taken on a life of its own,” says Weaver, a climate-modelling physicist who co-authored chapters in the past three IPCC reports. “I think the IPCC needs a fundamental shift.”
Weaver’s comments follow a series of recent revelations about the scientific credibility of the IPCC’s work. The panel admitted last week that its 2007 report wrongly asserted that Himalayan glaciers likely would melt by 2035. That alarming claim created concern across southern and eastern Asia, whose major rivers are fed by the glaciers.
While the content of IPCC reports is supposed to be rigorously checked by a scientific, peer-review system, those rules weren’t followed in this case. The glacier-melting claim was kept in the report even though some glacier experts considered it preposterous.
The claim originated with an Indian glaciologist, Syed Hasnain, who works for a research company in India headed by Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC’s chairman.
British newspaper reports say Pachauri’s company used the false glacier claim to win multi-million-dollar research grants from the U.S. and Europe. The scientist responsible for the Asia chapter in the IPCC report also told a British newspaper that he included Hasnain’s glacier claim for political purposes. “We thought,” said IPCC author Murari Lal, according to The Mail on Sunday, “that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.”
The damage to the IPCC’s credibility caused by the “glaciergate” affair, and by last December’s “climategate” scandal, have provided months of fodder for critics who have long been skeptical of the IPCC’s warnings.
Weaver says Pachauri, the panel’s chairman, should resign, not only for his recent failings but because he was a poor choice to lead the IPCC to begin with.
Ross McKitrick, an economist at the University of Guelph, Ont., and a well-known IPCC critic, says the panel’s scientific failings, and its willingness to cross the line into advocacy, will eventually percolate into the policy arena. “The halo has come off the IPCC,” he says. “At the time of the 2007 report, there were very few politicians willing to question statements from the IPCC. Now, as this plays out, people will start to be embarrassed to cite the IPCC.”
Weaver says the vast majority of the science in the IPCC reports is valid, and that the glacier revelations - “one small thing,” in a 3,000 word document, as he calls it - shouldn’t be used to discredit other parts of the report.
“There is not a global conspiracy to drum up false evidence of global warming,” he says. But Weaver admits the IPCC needs to change, for the sake of climate science, and for its own credibility. He also says the IPCC must stop producing huge, all-encompassing reports on every aspect of climate science and instead re-organize itself into a series of small, highly-focused groups, each tasked with examining a single specific scientific question and none required to publish their conclusions on quick deadlines. And he says IPCC officials must cease being “over enthusiastic” in pushing for policy changes. “Nobody should be using particular pieces of information to advance an agenda,” says Weaver. “The IPCC cannot be an advocate, because it’s not tasked to do that.”
On this point, Weaver and McKitrick agree. “The IPCC is not going to be able to recover from this unless there’s an honest attempt to reform their procedures,” says McKitrick. “They need to start doing what they’ve always claimed to do - to be balanced, and open, and scientifically rigorous.”