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Climate change

Scientists under attack

Isolated problems in the work of the IPCC fuel campaign against the panel

PAULA GABBAIThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN advisory body for climate issues, is going through the most turbulent phase of its 22-year existence. In the wake of a complaint about the alleged manipulation of data in favor of the idea that warming will have a dramatic effect and the discovery of isolated errors in their reports released in 2007, the collegiate, consisting of some 600 scientists from over 40 countries, has been the target of a strong campaign, waged by different interest groups, such as conservative politicians and representatives of sectors linked to fossil energy exploration. They had been silent since reports in 2007 indicated that global warming was unequivocal and that, with a probability over 90%, the causes of the gradual increase in the average temperature of the planet were linked to the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from human activities, in addition to having identified their harmful effects (models point to a rise in sea levels, an increase in temperatures, and extreme rainfall, which might lead to the appearance of huge numbers of climate refugees and the extinction of species). The so-called “climate skeptics” retreated even further when the panel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 for “building and disseminating greater knowledge about climate change caused by man and for establishing the basis of the measures necessary for withstanding this crisis.” With the recent episodes, however, the critics have re-energized their discourse and are seeking to discredit the whole of the panel’s work.

The attack began in November, when e-mails from scientists linked to the panel were leaked at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. Internet pirates disclosed messages from the servers of the University of East Anglia, in the United Kingdom, which insinuated that there was data manipulation. The author of the most embarrassing message, dated 1999, was researcher Phil Jones. He talked about a strategy to “mask temperature drops.” The scandal led to Jones being temporarily suspended from the university’s Climate Research Unit (CRU). At the end of March, Jones was exonerated in an investigation carried out by the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. The CRU was also accused of not making available to the scientific community temperature data from its archives. The crisis got worse in January when the panel admitted that it had made a mistake in announcing that ice in the Himalayas would melt entirely by 2035. The source of the information was not a scientific study but a document from an environmental entity, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). The president of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, had to deny rumors that he had resigned. “The essential thing is that the robust conclusions of the reports are still valid and were not scarred by the attacks of groups linked to economic interests,” says one of the Brazilian scientists who is a member of the IPCC, climatologist Carlos Nobre, coordinator of the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change and from the Science Center of the Terrestrial System (CCST) at the National Space Research Institute (Inpe).

PAULA GABBAIThe panel reacted and defended itself, following parameters that are to be expected from a scientific entity. Its directors launched an investigation into the case of the e-mails, which, although difficult to justify, did not result in the actual manipulation of data and involved few researchers, according to up to date assessments. For José Antônio Marengo, a meteorologist from the a Science Center of the Terrestrial System (CCST) at the National Space Research Institute (Ccst/Inpe), the complaints of those who say they have no access to temperature data filed in the CRU has a simple answer: the center is not authorized by the suppliers of climate data to release these data to third parties. The CRU makes available rainfall and temperature data that have been processed and not original season data. “This is not discrimination or information control; it’s simply the CRU accepting a policy from the meteorological services of many countries around the world,” explains Marengo.

Concerning the errors, the members of the panel argue that they are isolated and do not jeopardize the conclusions of the 2,800 page report. However, they are willing to bring about methodological changes to improve quality and transparency. A committee formed by the representatives of science academies from various countries will carry out an independent review of the work. “It’s important to emphasize that the crisis is not scientific. The scientists are not divided with regard to the prospects for climate change,” says Roberto Schaeffer, a member of the panel and a professor on the Energy Planning Program at the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute of Engineering Graduate Studies and Research (Coppe), at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Nevertheless, the scientists are still on the defensive, above all in the United States. Researchers are finding it difficult to fend off the attacks from newspapers, radio and bloggers of a conservative and nationalist nature, which treat them, at best, as enemies of the fatherland at a time of economic crisis. As an editorial from the journal Nature defined it, the difficulty stems from the fact that the artillery only involves science on the surface. It is seeking, in fact, to erode the confidence of the public, which is comprised of laypeople when it comes to climate science. According to the journal, scientists need to be prepared to face up to the media war and the uncivilized blows of the critics, by becoming more transparent and active with regard to the means of communication. “As natural science field researchers we don’t have much experience in dealing with very controversial subjects,” says Carlos Nobre. “In the case of the work of the IPCC, we need to bear in mind that any subject can become a political hot potato. We need to have press professionals who know how to respond to attacks,” he said. A report published in March by Greenpeace accused Koch industries, from the oil sector, of giving US$50 million over a ten-year period to academics and entities that oppose climate science, many of whom helped echo the scandal of the supposed data manipulation.

On February 23, the Republican senator James Inhofe, a well-known spokesperson for climate skeptics in the United States Congress, published a list of 17 scientists whom he wants to prosecute as criminals, accusing them of violating laws and trying to confuse the government. “I’m very worried,” Raymond Bradley, director of the climate science research center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, one of the 17 on the list, told The Guardian, a British newspaper. “This is a powerful person, who is using his power to persecute people.” Another scientist quoted, Michael Oppenheimer, from Princeton University, said that Inhofe’s tactic is the same one used by senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) in his hunt for real and imaginary communists in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. “Inhofe created the figure of a person that was guilty by association. He wants to prosecute all scientists whose names appear in the leaked e-mails, without investigating whether the accusation makes sense,” he stated.

PAULA GABBAIThe IPCC produces no original science. It compiles scientific studies recently published and, after assessing the available literature, produces reports about state of the art science in key subjects, such as the scientific basis for climate change, vulnerability, impact, adaptation and mitigation. Participating scientists, all volunteers, meet on scheduled dates in large plenary sessions to discuss versions of reports that are circulating in the scientific community and are the target of criticism and comment. It is up to the panel members to accept or refute every criticism made, based on evidence and research. The episodes that jeopardized the credibility of the panel vis-à-vis the lay public show that there were failings in this review process – no one noticed, for example, that the data about the ice in the Himalayas was not based on any scientific research. The Dutch government added to the embarrassment when it complained that other information presented by the panel – according to which 55% of the territory of the Netherlands is below sea-level – is wrong. “This allegation is, at the very least, strange, because the Dutch government had representatives on the IPCC and could have corrected this before the reports were published,” says Ulisses Confalonieri, a researcher from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, who took part in the IPCC group that analyzed the impact of, and adaptations and vulnerability to global warming. Another criticism was the use of data from the WWF to underscore the possible effects of severe drought in the Amazon region, but the information, though it came from a report that had not undergone scientific peer-review, was correct. “It would be unbelievable if, in the almost 3,000 pages of the report, there was not one single error. None of these mistakes were mentioned in the executive summaries of the reports. The mistake about the Himalayas does not change the conclusion that the planet’s glaciers are getting smaller,” says Carlos Nobre.

The main practical change in the panel’s methods concerns the use of scientific information. The order is always to avoid, as often as is practical, references to the so-called gray literature, that which, like the reports of NGOs and governments, is not submitted to the strict scientific peer review that is typical of indexed international journals. “If it’s necessary, for example, to quote a government report as a source of information, it will be necessary to make it clear that this is not data submitted to screening by researchers and that a copy of this report should be sent to the IPCC, so that it can be checked by someone,” says Roberto Schaeffer. Other changes seek merely to reinforce the guarantees that no criticism made about the reports is ignored, with the creation of an independent review process.

Monitoring will give new backing for future reports, but the other limitations of the panel will persist. According to Schaeffer, it will always be possible for someone to criticize the omission of some fact or doubt the representativeness of the scientists. “As the indication of the scientists follows regional representation criteria, it is impossible to state, for example, that all members of the panel are among the best scientists in their areas in the world, but certainly a sound sample of the best is there and others participate indirectly, by criticizing preliminary versions of the reports,” he says. For José Marengo, it is also necessary to take into account that the work of panel members is voluntary. “The proposal to have some fixed and paid researchers to take care of the reports is welcome and may ensure greater dedication. Today, their IPCC work competes with the researchers’ various other duties,” says Marengo, a member of the IPCC group that evaluated the physical bases of the climate system in the 2007 reports.

The damage caused by the scandal and by the political attack is still difficult to measure. For Ulisses Confalonieri, the IPCC will escape unscathed from the crisis. “The panel will continue working normally. It’s essential is to have control mechanisms,” he says. Paulo Artaxo, a professor from the Institute of Physics at USP, who also represents Brazil on the IPCC, agrees that the crisis is not going to interfere with the work of the climate scientists. “Our work will carry on, but maybe authorities have been influenced by these episodes and will postpone the necessary measures,” he says. Citing a recent article on the IPCC crisis signed by the economist Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Harvard University, Artaxo envisages some damage. Sachs showed, for example, that the reaction of the tobacco industry lobby in the 1960s postponed the measures taken against cigarettes for 10 years. “A lot of people died because of this,” says Artaxo. “The risk is that this will happen with climate change, the difference being that inaction will not affect just one group of people, but a significant part of humankind,” says the professor from USP.

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