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January 17th 2013 print

John McLean

The IPCC’s fatal founding flaw

You can't really blame the organisation for blaming climate change solely on anthropogenic influences. Selectively assembling evidence of humanity's alleged influence, to the exclusion of all other factors, has been the cornerstone of its brief since the very start


The media at large and the public that the media influences seem to believe that the IPCC is an international authority on all aspects of climate.  This is a popular but false notion.  The IPCC is, in fact, no more than a craftily assembled government-supported lobby group, doing what lobby groups usually do.


Its charter gives the game away:

"The role of the IPCC 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."

Or, put more simply, the IPCC is to report on the magnitude of man-made climate change and what can be done to reduce its impact, the existence of man-made climate change being assumed from the outset.

The IPCC was established through the urgings of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The former is a shadowy organisation that conducted scientific projects for UNEP and wrote in-house reports. Given the amount of work it undertook, those reports probably aligned closely with UNEP thinking.

The latter is well known for blaming human activity for every change to the environment — a stance seemingly based on the assumption that the environment never changes naturally and/or that we fully understand every natural force which might make it change. By this logic any and every deviation must be man-made.  The UNEP relies heavily on the finger-wagging Calvinism of the "precautionary principle", which in essence says "we might not have any evidence that you did it but we think you did it so we’ll take action".

When the average global temperature appeared to be rising in the late 1980′s the ICSU, the UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) pushed for the creation of the IPCC.  It is not clear whether the WMO was a reluctant partner, dragged in to provide some credibility, or if it was enthusiastic as the other two, spurred along by people like John Houghton, then head of the UK Met Office and leader-to-be of IPCC Working Group I, which focussed on the science.

The IPCC was not established to investigate why temperatures were rising because the ICSU, UNEP and WMO figured they already knew that it was the work of dastardly humans.

And therein lies the problem — the only intergovernmental agency on climate was created to investigate the extent and influence of the one climate force presumed to be significant.

To the lay person, and quite likely to politicians, the IPCC’s main procedure sounds impressive. I wonder, however, whether its mission was defined by intelligent people who fully understood the implications, or by naive people who thought the approach sounded fine but had no idea what it implied.

The IPCC’s task is to create reports that summarise the current level of knowledge on climate matters. To do this it relies heavily on "peer-reviewed and internationally available literature".

There is not a word in the IPCC "Procedures" document about IPCC authors first reviewing the peer-reviewed papers they cite, verifying that the processes they describe produce the claimed results, or checking that the papers’ conclusions are consistent with the rest of the paper. If something is written in a peer-reviewed paper the IPCC peers no closer — this despite many papers being accepted by reviewers but savaged by the wider scientific community.

With a charter directing it to deal only with the pre-supposed human influence on climate, the IPCC tries to find evidence and peer-reviewed papers to confirm that assumption.  The IPCC can hardly be accused of cherry-picking to support the claim of significant man-made warming when its very charter directs it to focus exclusively on that subject.

Incidentally, there is no sign either that the IPCC audits or otherwise verifies the data it cites. In the widely referenced HadCRUT3 dataset used by the IPCC one location in Russia has also no data for the 1990s save for two Januaries, when temperatures can and do vary widely depending on winds. Two warm Januaries thus produce two warm annual averages and a rising temperature trend, compared to the 1980s when more data was supplied.

In typical UN fashion, government representatives are dragged in to give the literature review, which is basically all the IPCC assessment reports are, the formal seal of approval.  Governments of the world thereby implicitly endorse the flawed assumption on which the IPCC was created, after which representatives unelected by you and I sign off on the reports’ findings. Ultimately, the UN’s special brand of peer  pressure — both carrot and stick varieties — pressures governments into action in response to agreements reached by government representatives. Put simply, governments are both co-lobbyists and the targets of that lobbying.

The IPCC is under no obligation to report on all fields of climate research. Indeed, it would be stepping beyond its remit were it to do so. It is not required to report on research that refutes the IPCC’s position nor, like most lobbyist groups, does it seem keen to provide information that undermines its own argument.  The second Draft of the Working Group I contribution to AR5, (due for release in 2014) took until Chapter 8 before mentioning that there has been no statistically significant warming since 1997.

The mistaken belief that the IPCC is an authority on all aspects of climate occurs in part because its charter directs it to present material that supports a highly publicised hypothesis, and because, even 25 years after the establishment of the IPCC, there exists no single global agency that deals with all aspects of climate variability, its consequences and counter strategies.

We can be certain that climate will change in future. But no matter the direction of that change, if science and the public are to be served a global agency dealing with these issues is a necessity. Many years ago the WMO could have been extended to cover climate as well as weather, but now it’s been hopelessly compromised by its co-sponsorship of the IPCC, a much-hyped mono-focused lobby group.

In the absence of a global agency we can only watch the IPCC’s acolytes, the media, the CSIRO, the Australian Climate Commission and others faithfully reproduce, without challenge, the latest utterances from the lobbyist organization as if it is that global authority.

John McLean was co-author with Chris de Freitas and Bob Carter of a paper that became the centre of controversy when submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research. Their experience with the censors of science can be read here.