Media mauls an IPCC process

IPCC officials are clearly frustrated by a process that leaves doubt merchants free to interpret the forthcoming Assessment Report without correction.

As you may be aware, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is set to release its synthesis of the last five years of scientific research literature on climate change in Stockholm beginning on Friday this week.

Last Saturday I received the following e-mail from someone close to the IPCC process who was concerned about the nature of recent media reportage:

Dear Colleagues,

As you know there is little that the IPCC can say officially about what is going on at next week's meeting in Stockholm, until the report is finalised and we can release it.

Nevertheless, it is possible that reports of crisis meetings, scientists under pressure, governments under pressure, forced to admit, forced to deny, embarrassing u-turns, findings halved, quartered and reversed will surface.

Feel free to call me if you encounter any of these or similar, and I will try and provide a reality check.

For those unfamiliar with the process the IPCC goes through in preparing its assessment reports, there’s nothing particularly secretive or subterranean about it. Several hundred people across just about every nation around the world were provided with draft versions of the assessment report to comment on many, many months back. These draft reports carry a clear statement on them: DRAFT - DO NOT CITE OR QUOTE.

The reason for this is not because it is some kind of PR exercise to manage and control a communications message and make a big splash in the media. If that was the case you wouldn’t be circulating the draft report to so many people. Rather, it’s because the process is supposed to be one where scientists and government stakeholders have had a chance to review and make comment on the report to ensure it represents a fair reflection of the underlying research literature. Until that review process has been completed the draft report is just that, a draft.  

A number of articles have been published in the media, including on Climate Spectator, reporting on draft versions of the IPCC physical science assessment report. Really, if we were to be truly ethical, and honour the integrity of the IPCC process, none of us in the media should be citing sections of the report because it still subject to review and change.

Some media outlets and websites dedicated to sowing doubt about global warming have been claiming this IPCC assessment process is grappling with a "crisis". Some have suggested those involved in the assessment report are faced with a major revision in the evidence surrounding the likely extent of global warming (Climate Spectator is running a story today providing a critique of some of this reportage).

Meanwhile, officials directly involved in the IPCC process are hamstrung from properly and prominently correcting any inaccuracies in the media because they don’t yet have an approved final version of the report to cite. They would be undermining the process of stakeholder review by providing definitive comment about what the report will and won’t say, even though they may be very confident about the likely final findings.

This e-mail I received clearly illustrates how the IPCC has become incredibly frustrated with some of this reportage. However, so far the only thing it's released publicly is this statement on its website:

In response to recent articles about forthcoming meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC would like to note that:

Contrary to the articles the IPCC is not holding any crisis meeting. The IPCC will convene a plenary session to finalise the Working Group I contribution to the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, in line with its normal procedures, in Stockholm on September 23-26, 2013. The session has been scheduled for several years and this timetable has been repeatedly publicised by the IPCC.

In the end it may be best for readers to suspend judgement until the IPCC releases its assessment report on the physical science evidence surrounding climate change. The Summary for Policy Makers will come out on Friday evening, Australian time, and the full assessment report (although still yet to be properly edited) will be released on Monday next week.

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