The IPCC exposed: political to its core

A new book demolishes the neutral, scientific façade of the UN’s climate change body and reveals its real, debate-ending purpose.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

‘We meet here at a time when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have never been higher, when the number of livelihoods that have been dissolved by climate change impacts has never been greater and when the need for action has never been more compelling or more achievable.’

So said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as she opened the organisation’s latest extravaganza in Durban, South Africa this week. Her words are a neat demonstration of how UN bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), far from being neutral and independent organisations, are highly political. The task before the gathered governmental delegations is urgent, we are told, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases have ‘never been higher’, the impacts have never been ‘greater’ but action is ‘achievable’. (Figueres was also being disingenuous – there’s pretty much zero chance of any meaningful agreement coming out of the Durban talks.)

These statements are all built upon the wisdom provided by what Donna Laframboise rightly refers to regularly as the ‘Climate Bible’: the periodic assessment reports produced by the IPCC. But while the UNFCCC is clearly a political body, hammering out just who is going to pay to sort out the planet-threatening problem of global warming, the IPCC is widely seen as a body simply offering the very best expert advice from the finest scientific minds in the world.

In The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert (a fabulous title that surely deserves to be a winner with charades players everywhere), Laframboise provides chapter and verse on the Climate Bible and the body that produces it. The IPCC is presented as being made up of thousands of top scientists who work tirelessly and self-critically to bring together the best peer-reviewed research and reach an unbiased, cautious and independent assessment of where global temperatures are heading and what the consequences will be. Sadly, as Laframboise shows, the reality is very different.

Sitting in a coffee shop around the corner from the spiked office, Laframboise explains to me how she came to write the book. Formerly a feature writer and editorial board member at Canada’s National Post, she left the paper in the early Noughties and turned her back on journalism, feeling it was ‘time for a change’. She continues: ‘I didn’t write anything for seven or eight years but in early 2009 I became so annoyed at the way climate change was being covered in the media, it was just so shallow… so I started doing my own research and I started blogging.’

What Laframboise found was that there is a lot more uncertainty about climate change and its effects than the general public has been led to believe. Indeed, her original book project was simply going to spell out 10 reasons why we should stay calm about the whole issue. What really drew her to focus on the IPCC, she tells me, is that ‘this organisation is regarded as a prototype. It’s the golden child, it’s won the Nobel Peace Prize. So the UN has now set up an IPCC-like body for biodiversity and another one for agriculture, and another for soil degradation. And in each case, they appear to be trying to recruit the science and the scientists to help them pursue a global agenda on these issues.’

Before digging deeper into the issue, Laframboise tells me that she assumed – like most people – that the IPCC was ‘dependable, trustworthy and professional’. She adds: ‘The more I investigated the IPCC, the more I thought it was like a child that had been praised and flattered, that had been given rules to follow but, when it doesn’t follow the rules, faces no consequences. And now it’s grown up into a problem, collectively, for all of us.’

In her book, Laframboise takes us through the major claims made about the IPCC and demolishes them one by one.

For example, there’s the idea that the IPCC report is the product of the world’s top experts. But in reality, knowing a subject well is not nearly as important, it seems, as having a face that fits. So, leading IPCC contributors sometimes do not even have PhDs in their subjects, never mind being world-class experts, while other researchers in charge of chapters had expertise in a completely different area to the one they were working on. Meanwhile, the nature of the review process means that when leading experts are critical, they can safely be ignored by chapter authors.

Another piece of IPCC spin is that its reports are built upon the best available research. In fact, there is heavy reliance on the so-called ‘grey’ literature – material that is not from peer-reviewed journals at all. This material can even just be magazine articles or propaganda from environmentalist groups. The most famous example of this is the ‘Himalayagate’ affair, which centred on the important claim made in the 2007 report that glaciers, apparently crucial to the water supply for billions of people, would disappear entirely by 2035.

Nothing could demand urgent action more than this. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The glaciers are likely to last for hundreds of years, as was pointed out by expert reviewers – who were ignored. However, in early 2010, it was pointed out that the erroneous idea came from a document produced by environmental group WWF, which in turn had quoted an earlier interview in New Scientist magazine.

In March 2010, Laframboise decided to take on the task of working out just how many references in the 2007 report were to non-peer-reviewed sources. With the help of volunteers from her blog readership, her audit found that 30 per cent of the references were from newspaper and magazine articles, unpublished masters theses, reports produced by green groups and even press releases. That hardly inspires confidence, particularly when she also reveals how IPCC movers and shakers have exploited links with peer-reviewed journals to get the ‘right’ kind of research into print just in time to bolster their views in the assessment reports – and to block the ‘wrong’ kind of research from getting the kudos of peer-reviewed publication.

Time and again, the IPCC claims to do one thing while in reality doing something quite different. For example, it declares that there is a cut-off point for each report for research to be considered because, of course, expert reviewers need to have time to consider and comment upon chapters in which that research is mentioned. However, such deadlines are routinely ignored so that chapters refer to work published after the deadline. The result is that those sections of the assessment reports don’t even receive the easy-to-ignore comments of reviewers.

This was particularly blatant in relation to the Stern Review, a report commissioned by the UK government that reported in late 2006 that immediate action to tackle climate change would be much cheaper and more effective than adapting to rising temperatures. Many references to the Stern Review were included in the 2007 report – even though the cut-off for material to be included was officially January 2006. It’s no surprise that such a politically helpful publication should find its way into the IPCC report, despite its inclusion being in breach of IPCC rules.

There is more – much more – detailed in Laframboise’s book, but in truth, none of it should come as a surprise. Because the purpose of the IPCC is not to assess science in a disinterested manner. Its job is to be a debate-ender, a shut-the-fuck-up to anyone who disagrees with the underlying political agenda. Indeed, far from the political process arising out of the gloomy prognostications of the scientists, it is the demand for scientific legitimation that comes out of a pre-existing political process.

Once the whole process is politicised, there’s no going back. If the conclusions of your supposedly disinterested work will have a major influence on political decisions, it is surely impossible to expect anyone to remain completely disinterested. One example of this is the way in which green lobby groups have recruited IPCC-connected authors. For example, Laframboise lists 78 people involved with the IPCC who are also members of WWF’s parallel climate panel. Of these, 23 are IPCC co-ordinating lead authors – the people in charge of individual chapters of the reports. ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, she writes, ‘the IPCC has been infiltrated.’

This surely undermines the IPCC’s claim to impartiality. ‘The IPCC is, in many ways, analogous to a trial judge’, she tells me in that noisy coffee shop. ‘In a murder trial, for example, there are supposed to be two sides – prosecution and defence – with the conduct of the trial and the outcome decided by a neutral referee. But if you found out that the judge went out partying with the prosecution every night, I think we could all agree that was a problem because there is another avenue of communication between them that we weren’t all party to.’ If those scientists had the slightest sense of their role as neutral arbiters, they should surely be keeping their distance from such lobbyists, not getting into bed with them.

When it comes to global warming, what we have at present is considerable uncertainty about what the future holds, combined with a variety of possible policies we could pursue to deal with climate-related problems. The real job of the IPCC is to remove that uncertainty, replacing it with an armageddon scenario that can short-circuit the political debate. The Science has spoken became a mantra at the time of the release of the last assessment report in 2007. Anyone who dared to deny The Science was abused as a ‘denier’, a ‘flat-earther’.

Laframboise has done the world a favour by pointing out, in detail, why the so-called Climate Bible is nothing of the sort. That doesn’t mean we won’t face environmental problems in the future – though the experience of the IPCC farce should reinforce our scepticism about any such claims – but it does remind us that those problems have to be balanced up with all the other demands made upon society’s time and resources.

That balancing act is called politics. It’s a messy, frustrating but utterly vital process that should never be shut down by anyone waving a holy book and a hidden agenda.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

Topics Politics