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« Select committee backs shale | Main | Oreskes and Dr Karl Part 3 »

The IPCC goes closed and opaque

This is a joint post between myself and David Holland.

Without a fanfare the IPCC has made a significant decision about the way it conducts its business. Tucked away in an eight-page page document that it has just put on its website is this:

At its 33rd Session, the Panel decided that the drafts of IPCC Reports and Technical Papers which have been submitted for formal expert and/or government review, the expert and government review comments, and the author responses to those comments will be made available on the IPCC website as soon as possible after the acceptance by the Panel and the finalization of the report. IPCC considers its draft reports, prior to acceptance, to be pre-decisional, provided in confidence to reviewers, and not for public distribution, quotation or citation.

In other words, nobody outside the IPCC process will see anything until the report is issued, at which point it will be too late to change anything. This is a remarkable decision, given the IPCC's need to restore its tarnished reputation and given also the claim, set out in its guiding principles that its assessments are to be transparent. This principle dates right back to 1993 - a simple and obvious rule for a process that could affect everyone on the planet. As Sir John Houghton explained in a paper published by the Royal Society of Chemistry:

.. all parts of the assessment process need to be completely open and transparent. IPCC documents including early drafts and review comments have been freely and widely available - adding much to the credibility of the process and its conclusions.

This was a remarkable claim since, as far as is known,  drafts or comments for the Third Assessment, over which Sir John presided, were never published by the IPCC and the Met Office has since refused a FOIA request for their release.

The IPCC was still maintaining this claim to transparency shortly before Glaciergate, when IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri told Australian TV viewers:

Every stage of the drafting of our report is peer reviewed, and whatever comments we get from the peer review process are posted on the website of the IPCC, and the reasons why we accept or reject those comments are clearly specified. Where we accept a comment we say, "Yes. Accepted." Where we don't, we have to adduce very clear reasons why the authors don't agree with the comment. So it's a very transparent process.

Yet despite Dr Pachauri's assurances, the behind-the scenes manoeuvrings of the Fourth Assessment Report were only revealed in the Climategate emails - the IPCC's own version of transparency kept these murky details well hidden. We now know from the US Department of Commerce Inspector General's enquiries that Susan Solomon tried very hard to ensure that drafts and comments were never published, and it has also been revealed that efforts arrange the deletion of IPCC-related emails were at least partially successful.

So despite the claims of Houghton and Pachauri, and despite actually having transparency enshrined as one of its governing principles, the IPCC seems to be determined on thumbing its nose at its critics and at the governments who set out its guiding principles. The assessments will be produced in private and a fait accompli will be presented to the public.

This is unlikely help restore the tarnished image of the IPCC.

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Reader Comments (53)


Sorry. Now I understand your point!

Of course the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report does not exist and will not until it is accepted by the IPCC. However, I think most people understand that "AR5" is also used to refer to the Fifth Assessment process. On the IPCC home page it states:

The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is now underway.

As to the reason why the WGI Co-Chairs want to keep everything confidential, I agree with the point you make . It was also made clear in one response to the IAC questionnaire.

1. What role(s), if any, have you played in any of the IPCC assessment processes?

IPCC Bureau Member, Review Editor

8. What is your view of how IPCC communicates with the media and general public, and suggestions for improving it?

Should be greater media blitz with lead authors, co-chairs, etc. when reports are released and a quick response mechanism through the Secretariat.

May 26, 2011 at 7:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Holland

The desire for a media blitz (which is clearly there among senior IPCC officials, for some as a means to an end and for others as an end in itself) also implies that ARN+1 has to have something new and dramatic compared to ARN.

An accurate summary of AR4 was "not much news since AR3" but that sentence was omitted from the press release.

Another implication is that the different factions in the IPCC are competing for the new and dramatic bottom line -- the one sentence that sums up the entire assessment report -- instead of working on a sober and comprehensive assessment of the literature.

Being a media whore does not only get in the way of transparency, it also distorts the quality of the process and the result.

May 26, 2011 at 8:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Tol

Let me see if I've got this right. Drafts or comments for the Third Assessment were not published. The IPCC has decided to change that policy and to publish earlier drafts and comments to the fourth assessment. In other words the new policy is more open than the old, but you headline the story with the opposite. Bishop Hill is long on presentation and short on hard facts - again.

Jun 25, 2011 at 1:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterHengist McStone

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