Book Review: The Delinquent Teenager, reviewed in London Book Review (10/28/2011)
Review by Pan Pantziarka, 2011
It is impossible not to feel angry when reading this book. It is not just the sheer scale of bad practice, the bad faith and the outright lies. It’s the painful lack of objectivity from the worlds media.
Much discussion of climate change revolves around appeals to authority. This is inevitable, as most people don’t have the time, energy or knowledge to look into the science in any great detail. And, for many, there can be no greater authority than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Taken at face value, the IPCC ought to be the final authority, after all, its work is performed by thousands of the world’s top scientists, reviewing the peer reviewed literature in detail and producing a synthesis of what we know about the climate and how it’s changing. The IPCC is quoted reverently by the media, politicians and activists alike. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s a child of the United Nations, and therefore of the world as a whole.
Really, what kind of person can dispute these facts? Well, Donna Laframboise for one. She is a journalist, feminist and civil libertarian. Not exactly the ‘white male conservative’ who is assumed by the media to be the typical ‘climate change denier’. First online, and now in this book, she has subjected the IPCC to the critical scrutiny that is should always have received. And what she, and a small group of volunteers who gathered around her, discovered shows that the IPCC is a body that is fatally flawed and is probably beyond redemption.
The starting point is a key claim made both by the IPCC and faithfully parroted by a compliant media – that it only relies on peer reviewed literature when drawing up its reports. Laframboise and her group of unpaid volunteers took on the job of following up all of the thousands of references in the 3000+ pages of the IPCC assessment reports. What they discovered was there were thousands of references to non-peer reviewed literature – to newspaper and magazine articles, reports from bodies such as the WWF and more. And not just a few, in some places over 40% of the references were to so-called ‘grey literature’.
If this were not bad enough, further digging revealed other irregularities that undermined the legitimacy of the IPCC. For example, deadlines were repeatedly stretched so that references that supported IPCC positions could be included. In some cases these additional references were added months after the chapters of the report were supposed to have finished, and after the review process had completed. In other cases she reports that journal papers were specifically authored and published by friendly journals so that holes could be plugged. In still more cases relevant literature was ignored, and IPCC chapter authors were able to favourably high-light their own work at the expense of other work. As she points out, the IPCC must be the only large corporate body in the world without conflict of interest policies in place.
In chapter after chapter she cites examples of bad practice – for example when Steve McIntyre, a Canadian statistics expert who was acting as a reviewer for the IPCC, asked to see some of the data from one of the peer reviewed papers that was mentioned, he was simply told that he could not have the data. In other words, when taking his job as a reviewer seriously, his request for data was refused outright. When he complained he was firmly put in his place by the leadership of the IPCC, who threatened him with expulsion if he persisted in wanting to take the review process seriously.
In other words, all of the claims of the IPCC about working only from peer reviewed literature are fatally undermined. But still, the IPCC involves thousands of the world’s top scientists. Or does it? Again, Laframboise shows how even this claim is false. The most shocking thing to discover, and I write this as someone well-versed in the subject of the climate change, is how much the IPCC depended on its own cadre of ‘scientists’. Many of them were young, inexperienced and in some cases not even qualified. It is a shock to find out that some of the lead authors were in their mid-20s, and some had not even started on their PhDs. What many of these young people had, though, was a commitment to the cause. And it is this, more than scientific expertise, that seems to count. And, as Laframboise makes plain, in some cases these young scientists simply ignored established knowledge or what was commonly accepted (for example in the chapter that deals with malaria and climate change), and substituted new analyses that conformed to the IPCC story. No wonder they had to resort to magazine articles.
Still another stream of cadres have come from bodies like Greenpeace, WWF and other environmental campaign groups. For a body that seeks to be impartial and objective, the IPCC does a scandalous job of packing its personnel with people who have an ideological axe to grind. When there are trillions of dollars at stake – and let’s be clear, that’s what it’s going to cost if we really do want to ‘decarbonise’ – then surely we need to be convinced that the people helping to drive those decisions do not have vested interests. Imagine the outcry if it was discovered that the IPCC was packed full of employees of Exxon Mobil or other energy companies.
It is impossible not to feel angry when reading this book. It is not just the sheer scale of bad practice, the bad faith and the outright lies. It’s the painful lack of objectivity from the worlds media. The IPCC is, as the title of the book makes plain ‘a delinquent teenager’ who has never been subjected to serious criticism. It has gotten away with things because the media have looked the other way again and again. No matter how egregious the errors, no matter how appalling the behaviour, the IPCC is still treated as though it is the impartial scientific body it pretends to be. In the same way, the scientific journals and academies are also guilty.
Will things change? As the final chapters of the book make clear, the answer is no. The IPCC bureaucracy has already changed policy so that references to ‘grey literature’ need not be clearly identified. Conflict of interest policies have been drafted, but do not apply to current generation of personnel working on the next report. And Rajendra Pachauri, the ignoble and dishonourable head of the IPCC, is still at the helm, still travelling the world in some style lecturing us on our life-styles, recommending policies (the IPCC is supposed to be policy neutral), and generally carrying on safe in the knowledge that the bulk of the world’s media still loves him.
In many respects, the arguments about the science are immaterial. And Laframboise’s focus is on the IPCC as a body, not on the validity (or otherwise) of the science. But like her, there are many who will dig into the detail and come away unconvinced. As she says herself, if the science were so clear, why would the IPCC need to behave as it does? It is, she makes clear, a political body first and foremost. The science is almost incidental.
This book really is required reading – particularly for those who still harbour illusions about the IPCC.
The Delinquent Teenager, reviewed in London Book Review (10/28/2011)