What is it about international organisations that makes them so impervious to criticism? If the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were a British ministry or quango, it is inconceivable that its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, would still be in his post.
The IPCC’s reports, which have been accepted by governments around the world as a definitive judgment on the science of global warming and used to influence policies with huge economic and social consequences, have over the past few months been exposed as shoddy pieces of work which would have disgraced an undergraduate thesis. A fantastic claim that Himalayan glaciers will have melted by 2035 turns out to have been derived from a piece of speculation in a climbing magazine, the author of which may himself have mistyped 2035 for 2350. Now an inquiry by the United Nations — itself often guilty of behaving with lofty arrogance — has revealed that many of the IPCC’s other claims derive not from peer-reviewed scientific papers but from so-called ‘grey’ literature: a polite term for bunkum pumped out by pressure groups.
And yet Dr Pachauri not only remains in his job; he is adamant that he will stay until his term expires in 2014. The failure of our own leaders to subject the IPCC’s output to critical scrutiny has been astounding. Neither the former Labour government nor the Conservatives can take much credit from the affair: both have blindly accepted the IPCC’s reports and used them as the basis for a series of policies which could prove hugely damaging to the British economy. No matter what the cost, Britain is now committed to cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent over the next few years.
Why have our politicians, normally so keen to argue and debate with each other, been so reluctant to question the IPCC’s findings? Their attitude can be summed up by the words of David Miliband, who as environment secretary in 2006 declared that ‘the scientific debate on climate change is now closed’. It was rather like a 15th-century pope attempting to close down the scientific debate on the movement of planetary bodies. It has been obvious for many years that there is widespread disagreement among scientists on the scale of climate change and the extent of mankind’s contribution towards it, and that much of their output strays well beyond what the science can withstand — it is openly political.
Government ministers, lamentably few of whom have a scientific training, seem unable to see this. Many have fallen for the conceit that scientists are above vanity, greed and the power struggles which afflict every other area of human activity and are engaged purely in a search for eternal truth. This is, of course, a nonsense. The leaked emails from the University of East Anglia portray a body of individuals who are continually seeking to build their own empires and undermine each other’s work — suppressing dissent in the process.
On top of all this it has to be recognised that oil companies are not the only vested interests entering the debate over climate science. Many contributors to the IPCC’s reports did not originally work in the field of climate science — Dr Pachauri himself is a railway engineer — but have been attracted into aspects of it because huge sums of public money have been made available for research linked to potential negative effects of climate change.
The growing alarm over the work of the IPCC will hopefully inspire greater critical analysis of climate science on the part of government in future. There is nothing shameful about being a climate change sceptic. On the contrary, scepticism is a quality which we should value in our leaders.