The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) performs one of the most important jobs in the world. Its purpose is to survey the scientific literature, to decide what it all means, and to write an ongoing series of reports. These reports are informally known as the Climate Bible.
The Climate Bible is cited by governments around the world. It is the reason carbon taxes are being introduced, heating bills are rising, and costly new regulations are being imposed. It is why everyone thinks carbon dioxide emissions are dangerous.
Put simply: the entire planet is in a tizzy because of a UN report. What most of us don't know is that, rather than being written by a meticulous, upstanding professional in business attire, this report was produced by a slapdash, rule-breaking teenager.
The IPCC has lounged, for more than two decades, in a large comfy chair atop a pedestal. When it is mentioned in broadcasts, newspapers, and books it is portrayed as a paragon of scientific truth and authority. Here are some direct quotes from people describing the IPCC:
- "phenomenally successful"
- "a remarkable history of accomplishments"
- "there is not a parallel on this planet, in any field of endeavour"
- "its place in the history books is clear"
- "if the IPCC says something, you had better believe it"
Journalists are among the IPCC's most ardent admirers. They say the Climate Bible is written by thousands of the world's top experts who all agree with its conclusions. They routinely use words such as "gold standard," "authoritative," and "pre-eminent" to describe it. Indeed, when discussing the IPCC the media sound more like cheerleaders than hard-nosed reporters:
- "the IPCC...has shown us the way" (Time magazine)
- "It is chapter and verse, it is Holy Writ" (Irish Independent)
- "most scientists have been awed by the IPCC's deliberate work" (New York Times)
- "The greatest feat of global scientific cooperation ever seen...utterly unique and authoritative" (UK Guardian)
In early 2010, the InterAcademy Council, a collection of science bodies from around the world, took an historic step. It established a committee whose purpose was to investigate IPCC policies and procedures.
The committee posted a questionnaire on its website and invited interested parties to respond. Answers to those questionnaires were eventually made public after the names of the respondents had been removed.
People with direct experience of this organization were remarkably frank in their feedback. According to them, scientific excellence isn't the only reason individuals are invited to participate in the IPCC.
Remember, this is a UN body. It therefore cares about the same things other UN bodies care about. Things like diversity. Gender balance. Regional representation. The degree to which developing countries are represented compared to developed countries.
The collected answers to the questionnaire total 678 pages. As early as page 16, someone complains that: "some of the lead authors...are clearly not qualified to be lead authors." Here are other direct quotes:
- "There are far too many politically correct appointments, so that developing country scientists are ap-pointed who have insufficient scientific competence to do anything useful. This is reasonable if it is regarded as a learning experience, but in my chapter ...we had half of the [lead authors] who were not competent."
- "The whole process...[is] flawed by an excessive concern for geographical balance. All decisions are political before being scientific."
- "half of the authors are there for simply representing different parts of the world."
Lest anyone think that people from less affluent countries were being unjustly stereotyped, the person whose comments appear on page 330 agrees:
The team members from the developing countries (including myself) were made to feel welcome and accepted as part of the team. In reality we were out of our intellectual depth as meaningful contributors to the process.
The questionnaire did not contain the word gender. Nevertheless, it is uttered dozens of times in the answers people provided. While some feel the IPCC should not aim for gender balance, others applaud the use of this selection criteria.
Among those with firsthand IPCC experience, therefore, it is an open secret that some people are appointed for reasons that have little to do with world-class scientific expertise. Depending on whose opinion you believe, this is true in either a small minority of cases or with regard to as many as half of the authors. In the view of at least one person, every IPCC personnel decision is influenced by concerns unrelated to science.
If the United Nations regards the IPCC as a training ground for scientists from the developing world that's perfectly OK. If it thinks one of the main goals of the IPCC is to raise the profile of female scientists that's OK, too. It is entitled to do whatever it wants with its own organization. But it is dishonest to tell the world you've assembled a group of competitive cyclists when many on your team are actually riding tricycles.
Journalists say we should trust the IPCC's conclusions because its reports have been written by the world's finest scientific minds. But in order for that to be the case the IPCC would need to apply very different criteria when selecting its authors.
It would need an explicit policy that says something along the lines of: Even though we are a UN body, we are not influenced by UN diversity concerns. We select the world's best experts and only the best experts -- regardless of where they come from or what gender they happen to be.
That is the kind of IPCC I could believe in. But that is not the IPCC we have.
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