Unmasking of IPCC will put brakes on climate policy
The credibility of the IPCC has been thoroughly shaken by recent revelations of biased reporting. The UN’s climate change science body has been shown not to be the impartial institution that it claims to be. This will inevitably have repercussions for climate policy. Hopefully, we will move towards a less ideological, and more economic approach of the climate change issue.
|Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri - the latter on behalf of the IPCC - receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007|
|- The various revelations that have recently been made about mistakes and unsubstantiated claims in the IPCC reports are not isolated incidents|
- A close analysis of these “incidents” shows that the IPCC is not an impartial scientific organisation, but views itself primarily as an organisation whose goal it is to promote the global warming theory
- The loss of credibility of the IPCC will have an effect on climate policy, which will become less ideological and more based on rational cost-benefit analyses
Now, two months later, the mood has changed. Pachauri’s IPCC – the global temple of climate science – has come under fire like never before. After the Sunday Times revealed that a claim by the IPCC that the Himalayan glaciers could largely disappear by 2035 was fraudulent, a host of other, similar “mistakes” were disclosed by journalists and bloggers. Pressure has mounted on Pachauri to step down as IPCC Chairman.
So how serious are these revelations? Was the Himalaya incident an ‘isolated mistake’, as Pachauri has put it, and should we disregard, as UK Climate Secretary Ed Miliband has said, the “siren voices” of sceptics who deny global warming is real? Or is there something seriously wrong with the IPCC – and with its views on the state of the climate? And what does it all mean for the energy industry? Well, the last question can be answered easily: a lot!
Before I give my analysis of the state of affairs, I should set out my own climate change credentials. I have followed this story for over 20 years now – as a journalist, to be sure, not a scientist. Back in 1992, I even wrote a book about apocalyptic environmentalism (published in Dutch), in which I concluded that the threat of the “greenhouse effect” – as it was then properly called – was much exaggerated. As a summing-up of my views, I quoted one scientist who had come to the conclusion that: ‘There is evidence that a doubling of CO2 concentration will lead to a temperature change at the low end of model predictions, probably around 1 degree Celsius’.
In the years since, I have sometimes doubted this optimistic assessment. I have always tried to remain open to alternative views and no one can deny that in these last years we have been inundated with scare stories about the climate from a wide variety of sources. Today, however, after weighing all the evidence again, I am more convinced than ever that the threat of what is nowadays conveniently called ‘climate change’ (a much vaguer term than ‘greenhouse’ effect) is indeed vastly overblown.
And I believe a considerable section of public opinion will come to the same conclusion. For what has become known now about the IPCC reports – which are after all the Bibles of the climate change industry – can by no means called ‘isolated incidents’. The recent revelations have seriously impacted the credibility of the IPCC and thereby inevitably the underlying science of climate change as well.
To assess where the climate debate might be headed, it is first of all necessary to take a closer look at the disclosures that have recently been made. This is important, because many people stand ready to defend the IPCC while they hardly bother to look at the facts that have come to light. I have made an inventory of the most telling incidents.
The Himalaya-story, which started the recent spate of revelations, has been widely reported on, but it bears repeating, as it reveals a typical pattern of how improbable claims come to be included in the IPCC reports.
The Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, of 2007 (the IPCC publishes Assessment Reports every six years), contains a claim that the Himalayan glaciers might virtually disappear by 2035 as a result of human-induced global warming. This is no small matter, as these glaciers provide water to 40% of the global population, including of course India, one of the key countries that still had to be persuaded to get on board for a global climate deal in Copenhagen.
The IPCC contains a claim that the Himalayan glaciers, like the ones on the Mount Everest displayed here, might virtually disappear by 2035.
It has since been revealed by a British group of climate sceptics (the Global Warming Policy Foundation) that several “Expert Reviewers” had warned the “Review Editors” of the IPCC-report that there was no evidence to support the 2035-claim, but the Review Editors ignored these warnings. Georg Kaser, a leading Austrian glaciologist and himself a contributor to IPCC-2007, said Hasnain’s claim was ‘so wrong that it is not even worth dismissing’.
Faced with these facts, the IPCC had no choice but to admit its mistake. WWF has since also admitted that the claim was ‘erroneous’ and ‘should be disregarded’. Interestingly, after the IPCC-2007 report came out, Pachauri’s New Dehli-based consultancy, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), received a £2.5 million grant from the EU to conduct research into the Himalayan glaciers. The research will be carried out for TERI by its staff member, Syed Hasnain.
The IPCC 2007-report contains a further claim that climate change could threaten a large part of the Amazon rainforest. It says that ‘up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation’, such that the whole ‘climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state’. In other words, 40% of the Amazon forests would fairly suddenly change to a whole different system, comparable, the IPCC-authors say, to a ‘tropical savanna’, in case of a small reduction in precipitation.
Christopher Booker reported in The Daily Telegraph on 30 January that this dire prediction again relies on a single WWF report, written, the newspaper says, by a policy analyst and a food safety campaigner with no background in climate science. According to Booker, the report does not provide any evidence for the claim at all.
I looked up the WWF-report and I can confirm what Booker says is absolutely correct. The report is called a “Global Review of Forest Fires” and barely touches on climate change! I don’t know, though, if the authors, Andy Rowell and Peter F. Moore, are to blame. It is the IPCC itself that seems to have quoted their statement out of context.
On 7 February Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times zoomed in on what he called ‘another blunder’ of the IPCC, though this looks more like a deliberate exaggeration than a blunder. In the IPCC’s so-called Synthesis Report of 2007 – this is a crucial report in which the research of the basic reports of the three working groups of the IPCC is summarised, and which is co-authored by Pachauri himself – it says that ‘By 2020, in some countries [in Africa], yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.’
If this were true, it would obviously be a serious matter. What makes this alarming prediction even more relevant, is that both Pachauri and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have used it in speeches of theirs.
The claim in the Synthesis Report is based on a statement in the Report of Working Group 2 of the IPCC (one of the three reports underlying the Synthesis Report) about the effects of climate change on Africa. It says that: ‘In other countries [in Africa], additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period.’ It does not say which countries are meant.
As the Sunday Times point out, the single source of this statement is a non-peer-reviewed paper written in 2003 by Professor Ali Agoumi for a a Canadian environmentalist think tank – the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Professor Chris Field, the new lead author of the IPCC’s climate impacts team, told the Sunday Times ‘that he could find nothing in the report to support this claim.’
As it turns out, Agoumi’s paper refers to only three North African countries (Morocco, Algeria and Tunesia) and contains no specific source other than ‘national communications’ by the governments of these three countries and ‘vulnerability studies performed within the framework of the UNEP-GEF Project’. It certainly seems a very thin source for people like Pachauri and Ban Ki-moon to base their scary warnings on. It also seems very strange that neither the Synthesis Report nor the report of Working Group 2 specifies which countries Agoumi’s paper is referring to.
The doubtful claims about the Himalayas, the Amazon and “African countries” are hardly trivial matters. Issues like the protection of the Amazon rain water forest, drinking water supplies in South East Asia and crops in “Africa” may be expected to mobilize public opinion across the world.
4. Natural disasters
As serious as these claims are, there is probably no more important issue in climate policy today than the overall relation between climate change and natural disasters. In a video message to the UN Climate Conference in Poznan in December 2008, one year before Copenhagen, US President Barack Obama said: ‘Sea levels are rising, coastlines are shrinking, we’ve seen record drought, spreading famine and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.’ Obama is just one in a large choir of voices that have issued similar statements, including Pachauri and UK Environment Secretary Ed Miliband, who has linked floods in Bangladesh and England to human-induced climate change.
How credible are these dire warnings? The IPCC does provide some basis for world leaders to sound the alarm. In its 2007 report it says that the world has suffered ‘rapidly rising costs due to extreme weather-related events since the 1970s’. It also refers to a ‘global catalogue of catastrophe losses’ which shows a ‘small statistically significant trend … for an increase in annual catastrophe loss since 1970 of 2% per year.’
|Floods in Bangladesh: a result of climate change?|
Pielke already noted on his blog last year that when Muir-Wood’s paper was finally published in a peer-reviewed journal in 2008, it had a new caveat, saying: ‘We find insufficient evidence to claim a statistical relationship between global temperature increases and catastrophe losses.’
It may be noted that according to Pielke, the famous Stern Review, another Bible of the climate change community, which claims that the costs of CO2 emission policies are far less than the costs caused by climate change, also relies to a not unimportant extent on the Muir-Wood paper.
5. Urban heat
The British newspaper The Guardian, generally a strong supporter of global warming alarmism, on 1 February reported another potentially serious flaw in the IPCC 2007 report.
The IPCC claims that the effect of urbanisation on global temperature trends has generally been small, but according to the story in the Guardian this claim may well be false.
What is called in the climate debate the ‘urban heat island’ effect is a fairly technical, but not unimportant matter. Climatologists have observed a warming trend over the past century based on measurements from measuring stations that are in large part based on land. The stations are often located in places that have seen a strong degree of urbanisation, as for example near airports. It is well known that average temperatures tend to increase as urbanisation takes place, because of the use of asphalt, heating systems, electricity and so on. Sceptics have often argued that urbanisation may well have distorted the rising temperature trend that has been reported.
The IPCC however claimed in 2007 that the effect of urbanisation was negligible. This claim was based on a paper published in 1990 in Nature, written by Professor Phil Jones and researcher Wei-Chyung Wang, who had investigated the history of weather stations in Eastern China, an area that had seen strong urbanisation. Jones and Wang had concluded that urbanisation had not significantly influenced the temperature trends. But as The Guardian reports, the evidence from the Chinese weather stations now turns out to be ‘seriously flawed’ and ‘documents relating to [it] could not be produced.’
The Guardian story, written by Fred Pearce, is based on an investigation of the notorious leaked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) that were put on the internet by unknown hackers last year, an episode which has come to be known as “Climategate”. ‘The leaked emails from the CRU’, writes The Guardian, ‘reveal that the former director of the [climatic research] unit, Tom Wigley, harboured grave doubts about the cover-up of the shortcomings in the work of Jones and Wang.’
The story does not end there. In 2008, reports the Guardian, ‘Jones prepared a paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research re-examining temperatures in eastern China. It found that, far from being negligible, the urban heat phenomenon was responsible for 40% of the warming seen in eastern China between 1951 and 2004.’ This, says The Guardian, ‘raises serious new questions about one of the most widely referenced papers on global warming, and about the IPCC's reliance on its conclusions’.
These are just some of the more striking examples of unsupported claims in the IPCC 2007 report that have come to light recently. There may be many others. In a statement on its website dated 4 February, the IPCC affirms explicitly that it uses ‘sources that have not been published or peer-reviewed (e.g., industry journals, internal organisational publications, non-peer reviewed reports or working papers of research institutions, proceedings of workshops’ as well as ‘government reports and publications from international organizations’. So the often-heard claim that the IPCC bases itself only or even mainly on peer-reviewed literature is simply not true.
The Daily Telegraph reported recently that the IPCC had used 16 non-peer-reviewed reports from WWF as sources. The newspaper also says that the IPCC made use of a report by the US conservation group Defenders of Wildlife to claim that salmon in US rivers have been affected by rising temperatures. There are apparently also claims in the IPCC 2007 report about disappearing ice in the Andes, the Alps and Africa based on an article in a climbing magazine. In the Netherlands there was some commotion because the IPCC stated that more than half of the country lies below sea level, when in fact it is only about a quarter.
And the IPCC made other controversial claims in the past. The most famous one is the hockey-stick shaped graph which featured prominently in the IPCC-2007 report and which purports to show that average global temperatures had not significantly changed for 1,000 years before they started a sharp rise in the beginning of the 20th century. This graph, which appeared very prominently in the important “Summary for Policymakers” of the IPCC 2007 report and was used by IPCC representatives over and over again to make the case for global warming, has by now been thoroughly discredited.
Since the recent spate of revelations, many people have rushed to the defence of the IPCC. One argument being put forward (e.g. by 50 Dutch scientists who jointly published a letter defending the IPCC) is that science can never be perfect and mistakes are bound to occur. But this misses the point. The point is that many claims in the IPCC report are based on extremely thin “evidence”, and, even more importantly, that all the mistakes serve to strengthen the case for global warming. In other words, they show a consistent bias in the IPCC report. That is the issue at stake, not the fact that the report contains mistakes.
Another ingenious defence I have read is that all or most of the unsubstantiated claims that have been revealed occur in the report of Working Group II of the IPCC, which is concerned with the effects of climate change, rather than in the report of Working Group I, which deals with the underlying science of global warming. One science reporter wrote that ‘everyone knows that the Working Group II report is not scientific anyway, the real hard scientific stuff is in the report of Working Group I.’ Well, this may have been obivous to this particular journalist, but not to the general public, I suspect, nor to the likes of Mr Obama, Mr Ban-ki Moon, Mr Gordon Brown and all the other leaders who base their speeches and policies on the IPCC reports.
Actually, it may not even be true, as there is plenty of disagreement among scientists about the underlying science of global warming as well. But this kind of science is more complex and therefore not so easily proved or disproved in newspaper articles. Indeed, there is a storm brewing that directly concerns the “underlying science”, namely with regard to the three major global surface temperature datasets that form an important foundation of global warming science. The claims by the IPCC in the report of Working Group I that global temperatures have risen in the 20th century are all based on data from these three databases: from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US and the Hadley Centre Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in the UK. Sceptics have been raising questions about the quality of these datasets, especially since the leaked emails in the “Climategate” affair seem to point to attempts to “edit” the data to bring them in line with global warming theory.
The well-known climate sceptic Professor Fred Singer of the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), an activist group, notes that none of these data have ever been released for independent review and verification. Singer sums up the various problems with the datasets:
- In August 2009, the Hadley Centre, after having received repeated requests to release its data, announced that it had destroyed the raw data underlying its calculations of global surface temperatures.
- In October 2009, Dr Don Easterbrook ‘presented graphs demonstrating how tree ring data from Russia showing a cooling after 1961 were truncated and artfully disguised in IPCC publications’.
- In December, the Russian Institute of Economic Analysis (IEA) reported that the Hadley
Centre had probably tampered with Russian climate data and that the Russian meteorological station data do not support human caused global warming.
- In January of this year, Joe D’Aleo and E. Michael Smith reported that the National Climatic Data Center (NOAA-NCDC) and NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (NASA-GISS) ‘dropped many meteorological stations from their databases in recent years. The dropped stations … are generally in colder climates.’
To be sure, the verdict on the climate datasets is not out yet, but there is no question that those are serious questions that need to be addressed.
So what can we conclude from all this? Not that the global warming theory is necessarily wrong (nor necessarily right, for that matter), but it has become clear that the IPCC is not the objective, impartial centre of climate change science that it claims to be. The way the reports are put together shows that the IPCC as an institution is primarily dedicated to promoting the global warming theory. Pachauri actually said as much in an interview in the Hindustan Times of 1 February in which he defended his record. ‘Right from the beginning, when I was vice-chair of IPCC in 1997’, he says, ‘I was telling my colleagues that we really have to go out and spread the message, if the IPCC has to be policy relevant. I have been very active, saying that the developed world has to support those who are impacted by climate change.’ This is hardly an impartial attitude.
Defenders of the IPCC, however, always have one argument to fall back on, which seems to prove that the IPCC’s fundamental view on climate change cannot possibly be wrong. After all, they say, the reports represent “the consensus of thousands of scientists across the world” who have all contributed to them.
But this argument is not nearly as convincing as it seems at first sight. A number of objections can be brought forward against it.
First of all, there are also many thousands of scientists who have expressed doubts and criticism of the IPCC reports. Numbers do not mean much in this respect. Science, after all, does not work by taking polls. The number of scientists who believe in something does not prove its truth.
Secondly, the fact that thousands of scientists contributed to the IPCC reports, does not mean they all agree with everything that is in those reports. In many cases they will not even have sufficient expertise to be able to judge the truth or falsehood of claims outside their specialty. Indeed, a great part of the IPCC reports is no doubt impeccable science. A lot of it is actually not very alarming. The reports also contain a lot of research that simply starts with the assumption of a warmer world and then tries to assess what the effects of this warming would be. This kind of research does not prove anything.
Thirdly, even though many scientists say they have no doubts about the “underlying science”, the question is, what exactly do they mean by this? If this is taken to mean that, all other things being equal, a higher concentration of greenhouse gases leads to higher temperatures, then, yes – there is consensus about this, including from climate sceptics. No one doubts this. It can, in fact, be calculated that, all other things being equal again, a doubling of the greenhouse gas concentration leads to a fairly modest temperature rise of 1.2 degrees Celsius.
But of course ‘all other things’ are not ‘equal’. The increase in greenhouse gases and temperatures produces additional effects, e.g. in cloud cover, that can either enhance the warming effect or detract from it. The predictions of catastrophic global warming are all based on computer models that show “positive” feedback effects. It is precisely the accuracy of those model predictions that is challenged by sceptics. How many scientists that have contributed to the IPCC reports are really convinced these models are right – or are in a position to assess them? In fact, it is well known that the various models come up with very different results. That alone proves there is no “consensus” on the nature and size of the “enhanced greenhouse effect”.
Fourthly, scientists have their personal and financial interests like anyone else. We have already seen that Pachauri has his own consultancy. Many authors of the IPCC reports work for consultancies, environmentalist groups and climate research institutions that make a living from the global warming threat. One lead author of the IPCC 2001 report who contributed to the chapter dealing with damages from natural disasters, worked for the German insurance company Munich Re. Another example, about which I have written before, is the Dutch company Econcern. When the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, Econcern, which was one of the largest eco-consultancies and producers of renewable energy in Europe before it went bankrupt last year, said in a press release that the company ‘provided the largest share of lead authors to Working Group Three of the IPCC’. No fewer than 7 IPCC lead authors were employed by Econcern. These researchers clearly cannot be considered disinterested or impartial.
|The Amazon rainforest|
Of course climate sceptics too can have ideological motivations. Many of them are ideologically against state intervention, against redistribution of wealth, against supranational institutions such as the United Nations. (Personally, I will admit to a classical-liberal ideological bias. Just in case anyone wonders.) And, like the global warming advocates, the critics too can have powerful financial and personal interests. To the fossil fuel industry and countries that depend on fossil fuels for their income, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, climate change policies are obviously a threat. It would be nice if global warming could be viewed as a straightforward scientific issue, as some would like to have it, but that is, unfortunately, an illusion.
So where does all this leave us? I will not go into the scientific issue in any more detail, except to point out that we know that in real life – as opposed to any computer models – a 50% rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the last 100 years or so, has been accompanied by a modest 0.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperature – whatever the causal relationship between these two factors might be. I agree with the conclusion I read in a thoughtful article on the website Gaia-Technology.com, which I happened to come across and which said: ‘The enhanced greenhouse effect remains a plausible but unproven hypothesis, with a significant number of questions marks hanging over it. The most important question is not whether carbon dioxide warms the earth, but by how much.’
Note that this author correctly speaks of the “enhanced greenhouse effect”. Would it not clear things up considerably if the IPCC were to be changed into IPEGE: the Intergovernmental Panel on the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect?
For the energy industry, the question is what the implications of the IPCC affair are for future climate policy. I believe the incidents that have come to light will surely have an effect. Confidence in the IPCC as an impartial institution has been shaken. It was always wrong of course to expect the Truth to emanate from one Great Centre of Scientific Knowledge. Knowledge does not let itself be concentrated like that. It is always fragmented and it grows through dissent, not consensus.
What can we expect to happen? The following consequences seem likely.
- The IPCC will do its best to become more impartial, probably to present a wider range of views. This means its predictions will become less apocalyptic and more realistic.
- As a consequence, climate policy will be based more on rational cost-benefit analyses than on radical measures. The economic crisis also works in this direction. Public opinion will become less tolerant of far-reaching and costly schemes.
- Ideology will have less of an influence on policy. One might say that the ideologues have overplayed their hand. That’s a positive development. The climate change ideology is largely a conservative ideology. Many of its remedies will make life on earth worse, not better. They will lead to lower economic growth. The intended transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries that climate changes advocates plead for will be controlled by governments and bureaucrats and will do nothing for poor people. The cause of poverty in third world countries is not any kind of climate change, but domestic corruption and poor governance. Poor people do not need politicians, bureaucrats and consultants flying around the world concocting “clean development mechanisms”, they need empowerment and property rights.
- The IPCC affair will make politicians more unwilling to enter into overly ambitious climate schemes. Countries like the US, India and China will not adopt too ambitious new climate legislation. They will probably embrace plans and projects that carry clear economic benefits for themselves. Think of investments in domestic production of renewable energy. A worldwide cap-and-trade system or new global Kyoto mechanisms seem further away than ever. The EU’s ambitions will surely have to be tempered in view of developments in the rest of the world.
- Nevertheless, the climate change issue will not go away entirely. There is too much political and ideological capital invested in it. And there is still the 64 billion dollar question hanging over the world, to which no one as yet has a definite answer: are human-induced greenhouse gas emissions leading to a dangerous warming of the planet or not? It will be very interesting to see the next IPCC Assessment Report, due out in 2013 – and to watch the weather reports on the daily news. Two more cold winters in the northern hemisphere would have a lot of impact on public opinion.
- Furthermore, the move towards diversification away from dependence on fossil fuels will continue, if not for reasons of climate change, then to reduce pollution, improve energy efficiency, enhance energy security and stimulate domestic economies in oil- and gas-importing countries. But a radical transformation of society does not seem to be in the cards. The transition to new ways of using and producing energy will continue, but more gradually than many people hope for. For energy companies this means that the economic and legislative world in which they operate will continue to be highly uncertain. But they know that anyway.
Allow me to end on a personal note, I hope you will not be offended by my critical view of the IPCC and of the “climate change industry”. I can assure you that we at European Energy Review will remain open to all reasonable viewpoints when it comes to the climate change issue – and, for that matter, all other energy-related issues. We will give anyone space to air their views, provided those views are interesting, intelligible and based on rational argument. And I assure you - we don’t have a hidden agenda. We don’t work for industry – or against it. No one tells us what we can and cannot publish. We just try to analyze what is going on in the world to the best of our knowledge. If you think we fail, do let us know!
|Karel Beckman is editor-in-chief of European Energy Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.|