The IPCC's 'Politically Correct' Science

by | Jun 19, 2012

Back in 2010, I had a look at an Oxfam report which claimed that,

According to the IPCC, climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger.

But it was not the IPCC which had said it:

In other [African] countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003). [IPCC WGII, Page 448. 9.4.4]

As I pointed out, Agoummi 2003 was not what it seemed…

There is only limited discussion of “deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture” in that paper, and its focus is not ‘some’ African countries, but just three: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It is not climate research. It is a discussion about the possible effects of climate change. All that it says in relation to the IPCC quote, is that,

Studies on the future of vital agriculture in the region have shown the following risks, which are linked to climate change:

  • greater erosion, leading to widespread soil degradation;
  • deficient yields from rain-based agriculture of up to 50 per cent during the 2000–2020 period;
  • reduced crop growth period;

… and worse still,

the study was not simply produced by some academic working in some academic department. Instead, it was published by The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

[…]That the IPCC is citing non-peer-reviewed, non-scientific research from quasi governmental semi-independent sustainability advocacy organisations must say something about the dearth of scientific or empirical research. The paper in question barely provides any references for its own claims, yet by virtue of merely appearing in the IPCC’s reports, a single study, put together by a single researcher, becomes “consensus science”.

This was in the wake of ‘Glaciergate’, of course — the discovery that ‘grey literature’ had been included in IPCC reports, which are supposed to be produced by ‘science’. I later wrote a guest post for Roger Pielke Jr’s blog.

When I wrote the post, I was pretty harsh with science journalist, Fred Pearce, who had been involved in the Glaciergate story. My chief criticism of environmentalists — especially environmental journalists — is that they are unable to reflect on their mistakes. But Pearce seems more able than most. In the New Scientist today, Pearce writes,

Climate scientists are likely to face charges of putting politics before science, following two controversial decisions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this month.

The IPCC decided for the first time to impose strict geographical quotas on the scientists who author its major assessment reports. There will also be a push to increase the representation of women among its authors.

Controversially, it also voted to increase the role in those assessments of “grey literature”: publications not subject to peer review. Using such material in the last assessment is what led to the “glaciergate” scandal in 2010, when the report was found to have vastly overestimated the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are losing ice.

The issue of grey literature persists, then. But what really caught my eye was this…

Grey literature was responsible for several embarrassing errors in the 2007 report. These included the false claim that the Himalayas could be ice-free within 30 years and the assertion that African farmers could suffer yield losses of up to 50 per cent by 2020 because of climate change. The latter claim was formally corrected at this month’s Geneva meeting.

I wondered what the IPCC had done to remedy the problem I had found. This is the result:

Based on the IPCC Protocol for Addressing Possible Errors in IPCC Assessment Reports (approved at IPCC-XXXIII held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates), substantive changes to past Synthesis Reports must be submitted to the Panel for approval, prior to posting; the Panel may delegate the approval step to the Executive Committee.

IPCC received a request for a change to two passages of the AR4 Synthesis Report dealing with projected impacts on yields of North African rainfed agriculture. The request was submitted by Drs. Pachauri, Parry, Canziani, van Ypersele, Barros, and Field.

Because the change was requested by the individuals responsible for the decision on action (the IPCC Chairman and the Co-chairs of the relevant working group), the request should move to Section 3, Step 5A of the Error Protocol.

The text in question is in the Synthesis Report (Table SPM.2. on page 11 and 3.3.2 on page 50). Both passages read: “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.” The problem with this passage is that it drops all mention of a role for climate variability, creating the impression that IPCC is projecting that climate change alone could cause agricultural yields to drop by 50% by 2020. In the background reference and in the WGII report, it is clear that this projected impact reflects the combined effects of climate change and variability.

Based on extensive discussions involving the WGII Co-chairs from the AR4, these statements provide such an incomplete message that most readers will interpret them incorrectly. This problem does not affect the text in the WGII report or the WGII SPM, where the role of climate variability is prominent.

Based on section three of the error correction protocol, the IPCC Chairman and the WGII Co-chairs from the AR4 and the AR5 propose a straightforward correction to the two statements in the Synthesis Report.

The text of the correction is as follows.

1) AR4 SYR SPM, page 11, Table SPM.2., line 3: After 50%, insert “, as a consequence of climate variability and change”

2) AR4 SYR, p 50, column 1, line 20: After 50%, insert “, as a consequence of climate variability and change” In both places, the changed statements will now read, “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rainfed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%, “, as a consequence of climate variability and change.”

The inserted wording matches, as closely as possible, the wording in the WGII SPM.

Acting on behalf of the IPCC Chairman, as well as the Co-chairs of WGII from the AR4, the Cochairs of WGII request panel approval of these two changes to the AR4 Synthesis Report.

It’s not clear to me from this whether the changes will also be made to mentions of Agoumi 2003 in the other parts of the WGII report, or are limited to the Synthesis Report and Summary for Policymakers. Either way, however, it hardly seems sufficient to merely add a caveat. The issue is that the original literature is grey, doesn’t seem to be supported by other studies, was extremely limited in its scope, was highly speculative, and was produced by a sustainability advocacy organisation. Shouldn’t it just have been removed entirely, rather than embedded in another layer of caveats?

The 50% crop failure ‘meme’, as they do, ‘went viral’ in early 2007. It was brought to the attention of the IPCC in 2010. It’s not until now — mid 2012 — that the IPCC has responded to an error that should not have been in its reports in the first place. It would be impossible to measure the impact of this one problem, which has been reproduced, with many others, in many reports that aim to urge political action on climate change. And to point out the problems with the IPCC that led to the questionable claim achieving such prominence, or to seek to challenge the claim is to identify oneself as a ‘denier‘, and to draw questions asking what qualifications we have to speak about the IPCC’s reports — seemingly the work of ‘thousands of the world’s best scientists’.

The IPCC gets the criticism it deserves. If it can’t cope with the problem of grey literature, and will be including more of it, as Pearce suggests may be the case, maybe it should just admit to being political, not a scientific organisation. After all, as Pearce explains, the new emphasis on ‘grey literature’ is intended to make it more ‘inclusive’:

Krug told New Scientist this would correct an imbalance in the assessments as it is harder for people in developing countries to get research findings into the major peer-reviewed journals. […] Richard Klein, an IPCC stalwart from the Stockholm Resilience Institute in Sweden, told New Scientist this was mostly a formalisation of current practices. “Membership has always been based on expertise, geographical balance and gender.”

So it doesn’t matter if total waffle is produced by unheard of academics, on the instruction of Western NGOs and advocacy organisations… The next IPCC report will produce politically correct science, which must surely be nearly as good as ‘truth’. So will this let Greenpeace smuggle its agenda into AR5, on the basis of ‘positive discrimination’? We’ll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, however, I’m wondering if any critics of environmentalism from universities in developing economies will be allowed to the party. I think the thought experiment is revealing enough… It didn’t happen here. This must be what is meant by ‘grey literature’ — it is to be produced by black people, but according to a distinctly white agenda, dictated by wealthy green NGOs.


  1. Hilary Ostrov

    Ben, I cannot say that I am surprised by any of this.

    On the peer review front, the IPCC “task group” charged with responding to the recommendations of the IAC decided to drop their (albeit rarely practiced) “rule” that non-peer reviewed literature was to be flagged in the references – quite the opposite of what the IAC had recommended, i.e. that the existing procedures be strengthened!

    But this was somewhat “foreshadowed” by the evolution of Pachauri’s pronouncements. Watch his mouth as his feet march right into it:

    Nov. 9, 2009:

    “Let someone publish the data in a decent credible publication. I am sure IPCC would then accept it, otherwise we can just throw it into the dustbin.”

    Apr. 20, 2010:

    AR4 cited approximately 18,000 peer-reviewed publications. It also included a limited amount of gray (or non-peer-reviewed) literature

    May 14, 2010:

    [Pachauri] said the media and other sections of society had misunderstood the role of such information, labelling it grey literature, “as if it was some form of grey muddied water flowing down the drains”. [emphasis added -hro]

    [Sources for above quotes (and more!) on my blog]

    And on the PC gender/geographical front .. I shall have to retrace my steps to find the interview(s), but some months ago Pachauri dropped the use of “expert scientists” and began speaking of “inclusive talent” .

    Again foreshadowing what you have reported above. But Klein was correct: Gender and geographical “balance” have always been a prominent part of their selection criteria.

    His 2009 “vision” for AR5, btw, is that “sustainable development … should pervade that entire report …[and] sustainable development [should be an] overarching framework in the context of both adaptation and mitigation.”

    IPCC reports: the “gold standard” of mediocrity!

  2. Paper Moon

    This is a great way of rigging the emerging institutions of the developing world against their own development.

    Now I think political correctness is a pretty good thing and it’s good to promote the scientists and academics of the developing world. But this is just going to end up giving anyone who opposes the building of a power station a megaphone.

    After all, it’s always been a nightmare scenario that third world countries would industrialise and become like the first world.

  3. Vinny Burgoo

    The IPCC’s ‘correction’, which was made because the original might have given the impression that ‘climate change alone could cause agricultural yields to drop by 50% by 2020’:

    ‘By 2020, in some countries, yields from rainfed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% as a consequence of climate variability and change.’

    I can’t remember if that’s a better reflection of what Agoumi said but it’s not consistent with his source, which said that the ‘up to 50%’ projected reduction *was* for the effects of climate change alone and applied only to drought-year yields (of one crop and, IIRC, in one small part of one country).

    The most obvious reading of the IPCC’s new version is that natural variability and climate change might reduce average annual yields by up to 50%, but changes induced by two effects on yields from bad years are not the same as changes induced by one effect on yields averaged for both good and bad years.

    I have nothing much against the use of ‘grey literature’ (or – I might as well come clean all at once – the precautionary principle, a revenue-neutral carbon tax and opposition to consumerism and overpopulation) but it’s got to be solid ‘grey literature’ – Agoumi wasn’t – and you’ve got it to paraphrase it accurately – the IPCC didn’t and still hasn’t.

    But at least it’s trying.

    (Dr Pachauri has used the ‘Agoumi’ statement in a lot of his speeches, usually alongside an even dodgier statement that was supposedly derived from Arnell 2004 – climate change alone will cause 75 to 250 million Africans to suffer increased water-stress by 2020. I hope he puts his name to an attempt to correct that one pretty soon. It’d be even better if he stopped using it in his speeches. Has he spoken in Rio yet?)

  4. Vinny Burgoo

    Pretty much OT except that it’s another example of blinkers begetting bonkers bogosity:

    “North America has 34 per cent of the world’s biomass mass, despite being home to just six per cent of the world’s population.”

    Old favourites the Climate and Health Council announced that earlier today.

  5. Mooloo

    I had to follow that quote of Vinny’s. This is what I found:

    Consider this: while North America has only 6% of the world’s population, it accounts for 34% of the world’s weight due to obesity. Asia has 61% of the world’s population, but 13% of its weight due to obesity.

    I calculated that initially to mean the average North American weighs 25 times as much as the average Asian!

    Then I realised what they really meant. They meant if we only take into account all the weight of humans above their normal weight that 34% of that weight is in North America. Meaning a third of the world’s fat people are in North America. Like we didn’t know that already.

    The report concluded that the U.S. held six per cent of the world’s population but 34 per cent of the world’s biomass mass.

    No it didn’t. You can’t read.

    In other news, not quoted, lots of Africans are starving to death. I worry about them rather more than a few tubby Americans.

  6. Rich

    In a recent “Time Team Special” we were introduced to a new and controversial method in archaeology, “phenomonology” which appeared to consist of walking around the landscape pretending, for example, to be a neolithic farmer and getting “insights”. Yes it was just Time Team and there may be much more to it yet I doubt it. Are we seeing more and more non-science be included under the heading “science” and given the credence science commands? No need to be careful how you pronounce “non-science”.

  7. Ben Pile

    No need to be careful how you pronounce “non-science”.

    I’ve always liked the idea of non-science being the antonym of, and pronounced like ‘conscience’.

  8. geoffchambers

    What’s wrong with the IPCC goes far deeper than the question of the proportion of grey literature or quotas for non-white contributors. I’m not sure what kind of expertise would best demonstrate how shaky are the intellectual foundations of this kind of committee-run paper-counting exercise. I’d like to think a philosopher could blow it apart, but I suspect a lawyer would do a better job.
    When will the Himalayan glaciers melt? How bad will droughts be in North Africa in fifty years’ time? These are not questions which are normally asked, therefore it’s not surprising that only one answer is available when the sub-sub-committee of the IPCC responsible for these questions in these geographical areas on this timescale goes looking for answers. Nobody ever made a career out of writing peer-reviewed papers saying “no-one knows how much rain will fall in Tunisia in 2060”.
    Battling with this stuff is like arguing with theologians, and getting the reply:”Alright Mr Cleverdick. If you know so much, how many angels do you think can dance on a pinhead?”

  9. Mooloo

    You’ve got to give these guys the benefit of your attention Ben:

    Who knew the Czech Republic was such a hell-hole? I’ve been there and I somehow managed to miss that.

  10. Jack Hughes


    Richard Betts gave us all a similar brush off last week when he said any one of us could apply to be an IPCC chapter editor. He always reminds me of the smug and condescending tone of BBC Radio4’s “feedback” when a beeber smacks down one of the little people that pays for his salary.

  11. Ben Pile

    Mooloo – You’ve got to give these guys the benefit of your attention Ben:

    The irony of doom-sayers and miserablists bearing ‘happiness’ agendas is simply too much to cope with.

  12. Alex Cull

    Chris Snowdon goes to town on NEF and the HPI in this rather trenchant article (h/t Bishop Hill):

    Mind you, it’s difficult not to sense a faint element of self-parody when encountering sentences, like the following, on NEF’s website: “At heart, the HPI is a measure of efficiency. It calculates the number of Happy Life Years achieved per unit of resource use.”

    Perhaps rather unwisely, they’ve enabled comments…

  13. Vinny Burgoo

    Costa Rica, the happiest nation on NEF’s planet (and the only nation ruled by a Chinchilla), does seem to have tried very hard to be eco but its pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2021 looks like empty PR.

    For one thing, the pledge is conditional on other countries footing the bill (something that NEF forgot to mention). For another, it simply can’t be done. Costa Rica’s electricity use is growing rapidly. It is staying ahead mostly by building hydro, and in the tropics that releases a lot of methane (and displaces people and destroys habitats), in some cases so much that it’s ‘dirtier’ than coal, so being renewable isn’t much of a plus if you’re worried about GHG emissions. Besides, it’s going to run out of suitable rivers soon. (And it can’t help that Costa Rica’s state-run electricity monopoly is on the verge of bankruptcy.)

    The demand for petrol and diesel is also growing rapidly. I suppose they could switch to all-electric transport (someone else is paying, remember) but then they’d run out of hydro rivers even quicker.

    Finally, imports. To meet the HPI’s criteria, Costa Rica can only be carbon-neutral if it takes care of the emissions embodied in imported goods and services. Costa Rica relies mostly on reafforestation to reduce its net emissions and there probably isn’t enough room to plant enough trees to offset its domestic emissions, let alone those embodied in imports – and if there were, what would happen when the trees reached maturity? Cut them all down and start again? No, Costa Rica’s only option is to ban all imports and live on bananas – not a recipe for happiness.

    (Activists worship unhittable targets. They are the very acme of progress. Here’s PIK’s Climate Action Tracker: ‘Role model: These countries … are leading the way by showing that it is possible to pledge very ambitious reductions.’ Super! I hereby pledge a 200% emissions reduction by yesterday.)

  14. Robert of Ottawa

    I salute your temperance and patience with “New “”Scientist””” but I gave it up long ago, telling editors and publishers that, although a life-long reader, I refuse to purchase it again until its editorial policy gives up the eco-mania that has infected, gratis political money, the scientific enterprize.

  15. Manicbeancounter

    The problem is not just one of climate variability.The more you read the originals the more the prediction appears to fall apart.
    The original source is a study for Morocco in 2000 (see link below). It was based upon a 0.6 to 1.0 Celsius warming in 2000-2020 and just a 4% drop in rainfall. Forecast was for
    “A decrease in cereal yields by 50% in dry years and 10% in normal years.”
    There is no indication of the area this applies to, nor any attempt to separate the increasing demands (through a growing population), nor the range of projected change in agricultural yields. There may also be a problem of translation into English, as given the range of forecast warming, there must be an even bigger range of output from the climate model on the decrease in cereal yields.
    Agoumi failed to mention that there were no similar extreme claims for the Algeria and Tunisia studies, but manages to drop the dry years bit. He also seems not to have asked pertinent questions of the authors.
    However, he does claim
    with more than 1°C of warming between 2000 and 2020, according to studies conducted for Morocco and Algeria.
    Maybe the Algeria study does claim the higher level of warming – I have yet to translate from the French – but it is then surprising that we get the same consequence as for warming for 0.6 to 1.0 Celsius of the Morocco study.

    Then there is the IPCC review of the evidence. Having worked as a project accountant, and having done at sales forecasts and budgets, I have an issue. Agoumi’s forecast of 1+ Celsius of warming from 2000 to 2020 was already looking extreme by 2006 when the writers of the synthesis report were finalising their work. The preferred HADCRUT data set was showing no warming at all in 2000 to 2006. Furthermore, in the 1975 to 2000 period, the most extreme warming was further North in the Arctic regions. Therefore Agoumi’s extreme forecast made in 2003 was already untenable. Along with that is the faulty generalization from 3 countries in North-West Africa (4.4 million km²) to the African continent (30.2 million km²)

    I hope to make a fuller blog posting in the next week or two on my on site. One analogy I would make is pertinent. I worked for many years in the chemical industry, where safety was paramount. Whenever there was an accident – even a minor one in the offices – there was a full investigation. With strong safety controls, accidents would usually be the result a number of failures, or ill-defined safety guidelines, that would come together to cause the accident. The accidents might be improbable, but they happened. However, the review made sure they never happened again.
    In climate science, the failure to critically review confirming data ends up with unsubstantiated claims being amplified. On the other hand, the dismissal of contrary data means there is no moderating influence. Simply putting in a note “as a consequence of climate variability and change” does not in any way address the issue.


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