Questions to an IPCC co-chair on ensuring the credibility of IPCC leadership and communications

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We asked Christopher Field, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: To counter the effort by the global warming disinformation campaign to discredit and delegitimize the IPCC, how will the IPCC ensure that the public and policymakers see it as being impeccable, not in an advocacy mode, without conflicts of interest, and highly credible going forward?  In his reply, Dr. Field said the IPCC “has been slow – is in the middle of being slow – to come up with a comprehensive strategy for the challenges that are being raised,” and stated his personal commitment to making needed changes.

Post by Rick Piltz

On February 3 the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., hosted a discussion of The Science of Climate Change. The speakers included Christopher Field, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report; Michael MacCracken of the Climate Institute; and moderator Joseph Romm of the Center for American Progress and the indispensable Climate Progress blog. MacCracken’s talk focused on the fundamentals of climate science, while Field’s talk focused primarily on climate change impacts. Climate Progress has posted a 91-minute Webcast of the presentations, including the speakers’ slides, and the question and answer session.

With the recent controversy over inaccurate statements and sourcing on Himalayan glaciers in the climate change impacts volume of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report issued in 2007, the global warming disinformation campaign has been running amok in an attempt to parlay this incident into an all-out attack on the IPCC and the climate science community. Since Dr. Field is now responsible for leading the preparation of the next IPCC climate change impacts assessment report, we were particularly interested in how questions pertaining to the controversy would be addressed.  Starting at about 1:00:43 in the Webcast, there was a discussion about IPCC procedure, in particular about the relationship between IPCC technical chapters and the policymaker summaries, and about procedures relating to the use of so-called gray (i.e., non-peer-reviewed) literature. At about 1:12:00, Eli Kintisch of Science magazine asked a question about whether the IPCC needed to esatblish a procedure for correcting errors after a report is published.

I had the opportunity to ask the final question, at about 1:26:07, and directed it in particular to Dr. Field:

Piltz:
I think the IPCC is really an essential resource. I think we now have the beginning of what will be an ongoing campaign by the global warming disinformation campaign to discredit and delegitimize the IPCC. The business with the Himalayan glaciers is just the start of something that is not going to end. In terms of defending the IPCC, my question is, apart from whatever needs to be done with regard to the authoring and reviewing process to minimize these kinds of problems in the future, it seems there also is a problem with communications.

Who is the IPCC when it comes to communicating, other than through the published assessment? We had a long period of hemorrhaging with this Himalayan glaciers thing, where really the IPCC was essentially [the IPCC chair Dr. Rajendra] Pachauri. And his way of handling it basically sucked. It did more damage, in the cavalier and inaccurate way he spoke on behalf of the IPCC. So, what is the communication strategy for the IPCC leadership going to be, to make sure the public and policymakers see this institution as being impeccable, and not in an advocacy mode, without conflicts of interest, and highly credible going forward?

Field:
All the points you make are really excellent ones. I think what you’ve seen is the fact that the IPCC is run by a bunch of volunteers who do their best, and have a rich legacy of integrity to fall back on, but are not generally sophisticated communicators, and don’t have access to a whole bunch of tools that could be activated in other kinds of environments. You also are 100 percent correct that the IPCC was very slow—has been slow – is in the middle of being slow – to come up with a comprehensive strategy for the challenges that are being raised.

Personally, that’s where I think we need to make our biggest investment now, figuring how to come up with a comprehensive strategy to help people understand what the IPCC is, how it works, how it can be sure internally and externally that it has avoided advocacy on the important issues, and how the integrity of the process can be assured top to bottom. I think it’s a challenge that has many components that are in the communications domain, but it also has many components that are in the IPCC operations domain. Personally, I’m committed to seeing progress on both of them. I wish I had a little more leverage on the organization in order to accelerate that progress. But the discussion are ongoing, and every point you raised I think is a relevant one about the importance of not only doing the right thing, but effectively communicating it.

Dr. Field is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences with more than 200 scientific publications to his credit. I am confident he will do his utmost to ensure that the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability is of the highest possible scientific quality, and that he will represent the IPCC with distinction in communicating with the public and with policymakers.  But as he indicated, his “leverage on the organization” has limits, and bringing about needed change in IPCC leadership, communications, and Working Group II authoring and reviewing procedure will require support and action both by the sponsoring governments and the science community.

As a guide to the Webcast: Romm leads off; MacCracken’s talk begins at about 7:30 (7 minutes, 30 seconds into the Webcast); Field’s talk begins at about 21:15; a 3-way colloquy among the speakers begins at about 41:45; and questions from the audience begin at about 1:11:45.

Earlier posts:
IPCC slips on the ice with statement about Himalayan glaciers

Worldwide glacier melt a real concern; Himalaya controversy leaves questions about IPCC leadership

Sensenbrenner IPCC witch-hunt: Attempt to blacklist climate scientists must be rejected

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