Death of the IPCC

A turning point has been reached when in the space of a few days the chief scientist at the UK environment ministry complains about the IPCC's ever-lengthening list of blunders; the head of Greenpeace UK calls for the IPCC's head to step down; and, following a series of commendably forthright Guardian pieces on the scandal, The Observer, no less, attacks the Climategate cover-up.

[I]t is bad science and bad politics to counter scepticism with righteous indignation. In the long run, public confidence will be inspired more by frankness about what science cannot explain.

Exactly. My only gloss on that point would be to say that the main damage to the credibility of climate science was done not by the Climategate emails, nor by the principals' efforts to justify themselves. The main damage was done by the many climate scientists who affected to see nothing troublesome in what was disclosed, and the far larger number who decided it was best to say nothing. That was the really shocking thing. If climate scientists had united in criticising the methods and practices revealed by Climategate, the scandal might very well have fizzled. In saying they saw nothing wrong, they impugned their own work and that of all their colleagues, and brought the whole enterprise under suspicion.

And indeed, as a result, the scandal has widened. Despite the IPCC's endlessly repeated insistence that it was dutifully reporting nothing but first-rate peer-reviewed science, we now find that it was also scouring a so-called grey literature of mountaineering magazines, activist position papers, and masters dissertations for nuggets of material to support its purpose--which, patently, was not to present policymakers with a disinterested scientific appraisal, but to propagandize for a particular, colossally expensive, course of action. The agency and its work needs root-and-branch reform, not just a new leader.

Matt Ridley's piece on the role blogs played in all this is very good. Everything he says is right.

When Climategate broke, the mainstream media... mostly ran dismissive pieces reflecting the official position of the Consensus. For example, they dutifully repeated the line that the University of East Anglia's global temperature record was vindicated by two other 'entirely independent' records (from Nasa and NOAA), which was bunk: all three records draw from the same network of weather stations. Editors then found -- by reading and counting the responses on their blog pages -- that there was huge and educated interest in Climategate among their readers. One by one they took notice and unleashed their sniffing newshounds at last: the Daily Express went first, then the Mail and the Sunday Times, last week the Times and this week even the Guardian.

For those few mainstream journalists who had always been sceptical -- like Christopher Booker -- it must be a strange experience, like being relieved after living behind enemy lines. Who knows, one day even BBC News may ask tough questions. But it was the bloggers who did the hard work.

By all means, credit where it's due--but it is not enough to praise the bloggers, salute the carcase of the IPCC, and move on. Policymakers need a repaired IPCC, not a discredited IPCC nobody believes. This is something governments need to attend to urgently. And in attending to it, they should acknowledge how deeply implicated they are in the IPCC's failure. The panel gave them what they wanted. Give us the useful science, governments said. Give us a clear message; let's not dwell on stuff that's unhelpful. If governments had wanted disinterested science, without the cosmetic surgery, they could have insisted on it. They are very much to blame for the whole mess.