Blogger's Breach of Trust Doesn't Change the Climate Science Facts

Andrew Burger

The breach of confidentiality by a climate denialist doesn't alter the scientific facts and the conclusions of the IPCC's upcoming Fifth Assessment Report. It does, however, highlight the risks and dangers of trying to make an international science-policy process open and transparent.

The blogosphere and digital news networks are abuzz with news that a climate skeptic blogger leaked an early version of the fifth UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on global climate (AR5).


Couched in the language of climate scientists, the unfinished, draft version report is very much open to interpretation and parsing for either side of the climate change debate. Naturally, the blogger, a climate change “skeptic,” put his own spin on the data, sparking what's bound to become the latest in a string of unauthorized and unethical, if not criminal, attempts to hijack scientific research results and further politicize an already overly politicized and emotionally high-strung debate.

Rawls' breach of confidentiality & trust + faulty reasoning

The final, complete version of the IPCC AR5 report's slated for publication at year-end 2013 or early 2014. The most comprehensive review of global climate science research available, a synthesis of the review of scientific research undertaken by climate scientists selected by the IPCC is peer-reviewed publicly and then reviewed by policy makers—typically representatives of UN member government environment and other ministries and departments.

Besides containing a massive amount of data, the research synthesis, as mentioned, is written in the language of climate science. Hence, it does need “translation,” or rather interpretation into plain English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, etc.

Meant to better connect policy making and policy makers with real scientific research results and the scientific community, the IPCC report review and production process also opens the IPCC and report results up to political spin, which in turn, tends ot heighten the degree of public criticism from both sides of the climate change debate. As is true in journalism on whatever topic, it also leaves the field wide open for information to be parsed and taken completely out of context.

In an admirable effort to make the AR 5 peer review process as transparent to the public as possible, the IPCC allows anyone - anyone - to sign up to peer review the research synthesis as long as they agree not to publicly or privately disclose any information contained in the report. Human nature and the heated, contentious nature of climate change being what it is, that's proven to be an overly optimistic, even incredibly naive decision, a point well made by Ars Technica's John Timmer in a December 17 blog post.

Blogger and climate skeptic Alec Rawls signed up as an IPCC AR5 reviewer. He has no qualifications as a scientist or policy maker. His blog, Stop Green Suicide, is a desultory, highly personal and inordinately biased, skewed and self-reinforcing collection of editorials and essays on the law and politics. Timmer notes that on his blog Rawls was asserting that the IPCC and the global climate report authors—who put together what's undoubtedly the most comprehensive and thorough review of actual scientific research on global climate—were nothing more than a group of fraudulent “propagandists.”

As Timmer writes, “The report is still in the midst of the review process. Although the rough outlines aren't likely to undergo significant changes—we're long past the deadline for new research to be included now—the precise wording is certainly subject to change.

"Which is why it's even more surreal that there's so much fuss being made about a single sentence in one of the drafts, a sentence that is being used to justify leaking the entire document. And it's even more surreal when that sentence is examined in context, which reveals the person doing the leaking has badly misinterpreted it.”

IPCC responds

The IPCC Press Office released a statement in an effort to contain and limit the damage, as well as provide reassurance regarding the AR5 process:

“The IPCC is committed to an open and transparent process that delivers a robust assessment. That is why IPCC reports go through multiple rounds of review and the Working Groups encourage reviews from as broad a range of experts as possible, based on a self-declaration of expertise.

“All comments submitted in the review period are considered by the authors in preparing the next draft and a response is made to every comment. After a report is finalized, all drafts submitted for formal review, the review comments, and the responses by authors to the comments are made available on the IPCC and Working Group websites along with the final report. These procedures were decided by the IPCC’s member governments.

“The unauthorized and premature posting of the drafts of the WGI AR5, which are works in progress, may lead to confusion because the text will necessarily change in some respects once all the review comments have been addressed. It should also be noted that the cut-off date for peer-reviewed published literature to be included and assessed in the final draft lies in the future (15 March 2013). The text that has been posted is thus not the final report.

“This is why the IPCC drafts are not made public before the final document is approved. These drafts were provided in confidence to reviewers and are not for distribution. It is regrettable that one out of many hundreds of reviewers broke the terms of the review and posted the drafts of the WGI AR5. Each page of the draft makes it clear that drafts are not to be cited, quoted or distributed and we would ask for this to continue to be respected.”

What the IPCC report actually says

Taking a step back and taking a look at the big picture conclusions contained in the leaked draft of the AR5 report, as PhysOrg does in this article, provides a much more accurate and enlightening synopsis of the report's contents. As PhysOrg's Sunanda Creagh quotes from the report:

“There is consistent evidence from observations of a net energy uptake of the earth system due to an imbalance in the energy budget. It is virtually certain that this is caused by human activities, primarily by the increase in CO2 concentrations. There is very high confidence that natural forcing contributes only a small fraction to this imbalance."

Climate Progress' Joe Romm drives the message home in a Dec. 16 post, as well.

“The draft 2013 Fifth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change leaked this week makes clear inaction on climate change would be devastating to modern civilization. The report finds that the human fingerprint on climate has grown more obvious, concluding 'it is virtually certain'; the energy imbalance that causes global warming 'is caused by human activities, primarily by the increase in CO2 concentrations."

That's the real takeaway from the leaked IPCC AR5 draft, a damaging breach of trust and confidentiality perpetrated by Alec Rawls, who perverted the IPCC's admirable efforts to make an international policy process transparent for his own purposes and benefit Not that the actual scientific data or Rawls' breach of trust and unethical professional behavior will do much to sway the opinions of hard core climate “skeptics.”


Climate & Earth Sciences