Open U.S. Review of IPCC draft report is a good thing—Part 2: Press coverage


Critics suggested that the federal Climate Change Science Program had posted the government review draft of the IPCC assessment report, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, because the Bush administration was seeking to diminish its news value later when the final report is published.  While understandable in light of the distrust the administration has engendered in its treatment of climate science, this interpretation—published in the journal Nature and subsequently picked up in other media outlets—is based on a misunderstanding of the open review procedure and its positive value.  In addition, Nature and other publications violated the review protocol for the draft report by publishing specific references to the report’s findings. 

[This posting is the second part of our discussion of the U.S. Government review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 1 draft assessment report, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis.  The first part of the discussion, which describes and defends the review procedure, was posted on May 9.]

The May 4 issue of the international science journal Nature (by subscription only) carried an article entitled “US posts sensitive climate report for public comment.  Scientists concerned by online publication of IPCC draft.”  The article leads with:  “Climate experts have expressed surprise and concern about a US government decision to release a politically sensitive report when it is still in draft form.”  The article includes the following punditry:

Roger Pielke Jr, a climate-policy expert at the University of Colorado, Boulder, suggests that the move could be seen as a deliberate strategy to defuse the newsworthiness of the final report. “If the report is already out there in circulation, then the ‘news’ value is likely to be much diminished when the official report is finally released,” he says. The current US administration has been critical of the workings of the IPCC and its conclusions.

But Pielke adds that this isn’t the only interpretation: “Less cynically, I do think that scientific assessments should be done much more in a continuous mode than the discrete approach favoured by the IPCC. So if this is a step in that direction, there could be some value.” Other climate experts contacted by Nature also welcomed the open approach, while questioning the motivation.

Predictably, given Nature’s status in the world of science news, Pielke Jr.‘s first point (but not his second) was picked up and retailed by other publications and Web sites, with some added spin.  For example, on May 4 The Times (UK) on-line carried an article titled “3C hotter. Earth’s danger point. Now scientists say it is going to happen,” that included the following:

Its contents came to light yesterday when the journal Nature reported that the United States had published the draft on a website, inviting comments from experts and other interested groups. The unusual manner of its release has alarmed some scientists and environmental groups, who questioned whether the Bush Administration was seeking to defuse its bold conclusions before the final version is published in February.

Roger Pielke Jr, of the University of Colorado, told Nature: If the report is already out there in circulation, then the “news value is likely to be much diminished when the official report is finally released.” Friends of the Earth said that the US Government had repeatedly tried to undermine the IPCC in the past.

Also on May 4, the very useful climate change portal ClimateArk carried this posting on its blog, blaming “the oil oligarchy” for the open review process:

UN Climate Panel to Issue Dire Warnings

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN grouping of the world’s leading climate scientists, states in a partial draft of their much anticipated fourth report that the world can expect to warm by 3C by 2050 – a level that has been termed “dangerous” by other studies. The IPCC is a traditionally conservative, cautious body whose findings are viewed as definitive. The draft report is more confident of human’s role in climate change. The pattern of warming ocean, increased temperatures and melting polar ice make it “highly unlikely (less than 5%)” that these are natural changes. And dire climate change impacts are predicted to include drought and famine for 400 million people. The draft report was made public in an unusual fashion by the Bush administration in an attempt to defuse its impacts. The oil oligarchy obviously knows no shame.

Then, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, in a May 10 editorial titled “White House mischief on new climate report,” was carried away by its understandable political distrust:

Normally when the Bush administration makes news on global warming research, it’s for trying to suppress yet another report showing the folly of its wait-and-see stance. So naturally it was a surprise when the U.S. Climate Change Science Program posted an alarming new report online.

The report, still in draft form and supposedly secret, is by a working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and its influence would be hard to overstate….Such stature has not deterred the Bush administration from trying to dismiss or minimize past IPCC findings as just another set of debatable, unpersuasive conjectures. So why draw attention to this version’s findings, which continue a trend toward the dire?

The leading explanations: The administration wanted to needle the IPCC, which asked that the draft be kept confidential until its official release next February. Or it wanted to take attention away from the report by making sure it would sound like old news when finalized nine months from now….

The official line from Washington is that the climate agency was just helping IPCC to gather the kind of expert review it always solicits, and, anyway, “it’s not for us to say who the experts are.” The inferences of mischief seem fair….

But attempting to undermine the world’s most credible periodic review of climate science is only a cheap little prank, which is typical but at least can’t hope to obscure a consensus this president finds inconvenient.

The hardworking professional staff in the Climate Change Science Program Office, which posted the report, could have set the record straight and headed off this misleading speculation, from the reporting by Nature of Pielke Jr.‘s off-the-cuff comment to the blown-up conclusions in the Minneapolis-St. Paul newspaper, had anyone bothered to do some homework before opining.

Additional, and probably more serious, criticism is called for in the violation by Nature and other media outlets of the proviso, posted on the CCSP Web site in connection with the review: “This document is still in draft and has not been accepted or approved by the Panel and is provided for the sole purpose of review. PLEASE DO NOT CITE, QUOTE, OR DISTRIBUTE THE DRAFT REPORT.” The Times (UK) discussed the draft findings in its May 4 article “3C hotter. Earth’s danger point. Now scientists say it is going to happen.”  Also on May 4 The Independent(UK) discussed the findings in an article titled “Global warming fastest for 20,000 years—and it’s mankind’s fault.” Similar coverage appeared in some of the Australian media. 

We don’t know how the UK press accessed the draft report, but it was probably from a source other than the CCSP Web site. 

Most of the time the media seem to do a fair job of honoring embargo requests on publishing not-released-yet scientific research material.  It would be a good thing if they would try to hold off on discussing the contents of the IPCC reports before they are completed.  And when the IPCC 2007 reports are issued early next year—all three volumes of them—it would be good if the media would THEN give them some serious, in-depth coverage, and use them to inform their climate change reporting thereafter.   





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