Almost from the beginning, critics have attacked the Bush administration for the way it has dealt with science. In many areas – and emblematically in the case of climate change – well-qualified accusers have complained that the White House and its political appointees across the federal government have interfered with the work of scientists, misrepresented their findings and censored their public statements. Many of these cases are shocking – or at least they were, until people became inured to them. The administration’s record on managing the government’s own scientific efforts, and on respect for science more broadly, is awful.
So when the White House disagrees with most other governments in the world and expresses doubts about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that view is contemptuously dismissed as one more instance. To be sure, the administration has destroyed its own credibility on scientific integrity and has nobody to blame but itself.
For the rest of us, however, this is a pity – because to put it bluntly the IPCC deserves the administration’s disdain. It is a seriously flawed enterprise and unworthy of the slavish respect accorded to it by most governments and the media. In the decisions which have already been made on climate-change mitigation, to say nothing of future decisions, the stakes are enormous. In guiding these momentous judgments, the flawed IPCC process has been granted, in effect, a monopoly of official wisdom. That needs to change and the IPCC itself must be reformed.
For a fully documented indictment, read the article by David Henderson in the current issue of World Economics. Mr Henderson, a distinguished academic economist and former head of economics at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, has been tangling with the IPCC for some time. Five years ago, he and Ian Castles (a former chief of the Australian Bureau of Statistics) first drew attention to a straightforward error in the way emissions scenarios were being calculated. The projections had used long-range cross-country projections of gross domestic product that were based on exchange rates unadjusted for purchasing power. This mistake yielded projections for individual countries that were in some cases patently absurd. Far from acknowledging the point and correcting the projections, the IPCC treated these eminent former civil servants as uncredentialed troublemakers. Its head, Rajendra Pachauri, issued a prickly statement complaining about the spread of disinformation.
As Mr Henderson’s new article makes clear, the episode was symptomatic of a wider pattern of error (often, in the case of economics, elementary error) and failure to correct it. How can this be possible? The IPCC prides itself on the extent of its network of scientific contributors and on its rigorous peer review. The problem is, although the contributors and peers are impressively numerous, they are drawn from a narrow professional circle. Expertise in economics and statistics is not to the fore; sympathetic clusters of co-authorship and pre-commitment to the urgency of the climate cause, on the other hand, are.
Add to this a sustained reluctance – and sometimes a refusal – to disclose data and methods that would allow results to be replicated. (Disclosure of that sort is common practice these days in leading scholarly journals). As a result, arresting but subsequently discredited findings – such as the notorious "hockey stick" chart showing the 1990s as the northern hemisphere’s hottest decade of the millennium – are left to be challenged by troublesome outsiders.
Underlying it all is a pervasive bias. From the outset the IPCC network was fully invested in the idea that climate change is the most pressing challenge confronting mankind and that urgent action far beyond what is already in prospect will be needed to confront it. In the minds of the panel’s leaders and spokesmen, this conviction justifies public pronouncements that often go beyond the analysis which the IPCC’s own scientists have presented.
Speaking of the panel’s Fourth Assessment Report, Mr Pachauri said: "I hope this will shock people and governments into taking more serious action." The rules under which the IPCC operates tell it to be "neutral with respect to policy" – and the reports themselves strive to comply. But statements such as that, and many more besides, align the institution and its network of scientists with a programme that goes much further than science alone dictates.
The IPCC may be right: climate change may indeed be mankind’s biggest and most urgent challenge. It would be wrong to demand certainty before doing more. The scientific consensus, though not quite as strong as usually claimed, is surely strong enough to warrant a carbon tax or equivalent.
But if governments are to get the best advice, they need information and analysis from an open and disinterested source – or else from multiple dissenting sources. With the environmental risks calmly laid out, framing the right policies demands proper political accountability and a much wider range of opinion and expertise than the IPCC currently provides. One incompetent institution, committed to its own agenda, should never have been granted this degree of actual and moral authority over the science, over public presentation of the science and over calls for "more serious action" that go well beyond the science.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007