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Leaked IPCC Climate Report Excites Skeptics, Annoys Authors And Raises Questions About Process

12/14/2012 11:02 am ET | Updated Dec 14, 2012

A draft version of a forthcoming international assessment of climate change science, leaked Thursday afternoon by an obscure conservative blogger, is being touted by climate skeptics as evidence that the burning of fossil fuels by human society is not the leading cause of planetary warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body responsible for preparing the report, quickly acknowledged the leak, and prominent climate scientists, including several who have contributed to the intermittent assessments, dismissed the skeptics' assertion as a facile and misguided reading of the voluminous analysis, which was scheduled for release next year.

But the leak has also raised fresh questions about the IPCC's own assessment protocols, and whether the drafting process should be carried out in a more open fashion -- particularly in the age of the Internet.

"It is not an IPCC report until the end, when it is approved. Anything prior to that is a working paper draft," said Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado and a lead author of previous IPCC assessments in 1995, 2001 and 2007. "The IPCC has expanded the number of people involved in each report -- it is hardly a secret. Any reviewer can sign up to get access to it all -- although they sign a pledge not to do what has been done here. So this person is not only dishonorable, he should be thoroughly castigated."

In a statement issued Friday morning, the IPCC acknowledged that material appearing to be the draft of its report has been published online. The "unauthorized and premature" posting of the documents "may lead to confusion because the text will necessarily change in some respects once all the review comments have been addressed," the organization said, adding, "This is why the IPCC drafts are not made public before the final document is approved."

The materials were posted by Alec Rawls, a former economics student at Stanford and an aspiring sheriff of Santa Clara County, Calif. Rawls is also an occasional contributor to climate contrarian blogs and the son of the late liberal philosopher John Rawls.

In an item posted at the web log Watts Up With That? Thursday afternoon, Rawls provided links to the hundreds of pages of the draft IPCC assessment -- the fifth such report prepared by the intergovernmental body since its inception in 1988.

In justifying the leak, Rawls wrote:

The IPCC’s official reason for wanting secrecy … is so that criticisms of the drafts are not spread out across the Internet but get funneled through the UN’s comment process. If there is any merit to that rationale it is now moot. The comment period ended November 30th so the comment process can no longer be affected by publication.

As for my personal confidentiality agreement with the IPCC, I regard that as vitiated by the systematic dishonesty of the report (“omitted variable fraud” as I called it …). This is a general principle of journalistic confidentiality: bad faith on one side breaks the agreement on the other. They can’t ask reviewers to become complicit in their dishonesty by remaining silent about it.

Rawls did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday morning, but his posting also suggested that the draft report included a bombshell revelation that "changes everything" with regard to the public's understanding of global warming.

That revelation, according to Rawls, is that so-called "enhanced solar forcing" -- which loosely refers to the combined influence of solar activity and assorted cosmic rays on the earth's climate -- is playing a key role in global warming.

"The climate alarmists can’t continue to claim that warming was almost entirely due to human activity over a period when solar warming effects, now acknowledged to be important, were at a maximum," Rawls wrote. "The final draft [report] is not scheduled to be released for another year but the public needs to know now how the main premises and conclusions of the IPCC story line have been undercut by the IPCC itself."

Dismissals of Rawls' reading of the material, however, were swift and withering. "Based on the totality of the scientific literature as I know it, the story is bunk," said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University and one of many authors of the draft assessment.

Michael Mann, a climatologist and the director of Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, elaborated in an email message to HuffPost:

There is nothing in the new IPCC report about solar forcing that isn't already well known from the peer-reviewed literature. I myself have published work in the journal Science just a few years ago on the importance of solar forcing for understanding long-term natural variability. Despite what climate change deniers would like people to think, paleoclimate scientists such as myself have thoroughly investigated the role of solar impacts on climate for decades ...

But my work, and indeed all work that I'm familiar with in this area, shows that solar forcing cannot possibly explain the warming of the past half century. In fact, solar forcing has been flat over the past fifty years during which we've seen the greatest amount of warming. There is NOTHING in the new IPCC report that in any way calls that conclusion into question.

So what climate change deniers are doing, assisted by a dishonest leaker, is to once again distort what climate scientists have actually had to say about the role of solar forcing to somehow make it sound as if there is some new development here. There isn't. There are only incremental developments in the science, all of which reinforce the conclusion that natural forcing, including solar forcing, cannot explain the warming we have seen over the past century.

Additional refutations of Rawls' reading of the science -- including some with great detail -- began surfacing on Friday morning.

But even as the scientific questions were quickly sorted out, the larger question of the IPCC process continued to percolate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established 25 years ago under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program. Its nominal mission is to "assess -- on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis -- the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation," according to the body's governing principles.

That charter manifests every six or so years in a voluminous report that synthesizes the broad spectrum of climate science and assigns varying degrees of confidence to the understood causes and expected outcomes of a warming planet. The leaked report, due out next year, will be the body's fifth assessment. Its most fundamental findings remain unchanged: That human activities are almost certainly the primary driver behind increases in global average surface temperatures over the last several decades, and that this has, in turn, caused increases in sea levels, reductions in arctic ice, and other climatic changes.

Virtually anyone can sign up to be a reviewer of IPCC drafts -- although the organization requires reviewers to agree not to distribute the drafts, and all pages are marked with the words "Do not cite, quote or distribute."

That veil of secrecy over the drafting process, while diligently defended by the IPCC, has been criticized by stakeholders and observers on all fronts, with many suggesting that such withholding is an anachronism in the age of the Internet -- and one that lends unnecessary fuel to theories of fraud and conspiracy among climate change skeptics.

Writing at DotEarth, climate blogger Andrew Revkin noted that "even as it has been heaped with accolades, including the 2007 Nobel Peace Price, the panel has been criticized from within and without for inconsistency across its three working groups (on basic science, impacts of climate change, and options for mitigating risk), for inadequate procedures for addressing errors and for glacially slow drafting processes that limit the utility and relevance of the process.

"I’d love to think there’s a way for the countries that created the organization," Revkin added, "to come up with the technical and financial support it would need for a fundamental re-boot."

Oppenheimer, the Princeton scientist, did not disagree -- although he added that until the process is overhauled, leaks like this one only confuse things.

"I think the process of developing IPCC assessments should be more open in a number of ways," Oppenheimer said in an email message. "But as long as it is closed, I don’t approve of anyone leaking drafts because, among other reasons, people like me who are involved in the process and feel obliged to follow the rules can’t adequately respond to the ensuing confusion. But it will all come out in the wash in the end."

Trenberth, too, has criticized the bureaucratic nature of the IPCC process, suggesting that it may have outgrown its usefulness. "I do think we should have declared success and moved on after the last report," he said. "There are too many scientists involved who are not leading researchers -- owing to the demands for new people, and geographic, national, and gender equity. A lot of material should be done routinely -- and some is every year, but perhaps could be done better. For scientific issues there should not be a rigid timetable.

"This IPCC process," he addd, "is not the way to improve and develop models."

In an email message Friday morning, Dr. R K Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, declined to comment, but the prepared statement from the organization asserted that "the IPCC is committed to an open and transparent process that delivers a robust assessment."

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