Commentary Magazine


The IPCC and Climate-Change Spin

It appears that the Climategate scandal has had little effect on the insular attitude of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York Times blogger Andrew C. Revkin writes a rundown of the IPCC’s neurotic approach to the media.

Apparently, the IPCC chair, Rajendra K. Pachauri, sent a letter to researchers who are helping prepare the next climate-change report. It read, in part:

I would also like to emphasize that enhanced media interest in the work of the IPCC would probably subject you to queries about your work and the IPCC. My sincere advice would be that you keep a distance from the media and should any questions be asked about the Working Group with which you are associated, please direct such media questions to the Co-chairs of your Working Group and for any questions regarding the IPCC to the secretariat of the IPCC.

Edward R. Carr, an associate professor of geography at the University of South Carolina, is one such researcher. As Revkin notes, Carr accurately blogs that this is a “’bunker mentality’ [that] will do nothing for the public image of the IPCC.”

However, Pachauri’s clarification of the letter is less reassuring. In a nutshell, Pachauri said that the letter was intended to advise IPCC report participants not to speak out on behalf of the IPCC itself:

My advice to the authors on responding to the media is only in respect of queries regarding the I.P.C.C. Some of them are new to the I.P.C.C., and we would not want them to provide uninformed responses or opinions. We now have in place a structure and a system in the I.P.C.C. for outreach and communications with the outside world. The I.P.C.C. authors are not employed by the I.P.C.C., and hence they are free to deal with the media on their own avocations and the organizations they are employed by. But they should desist at this stage on speaking on behalf of the I.P.C.C. …

[Researchers] can certainly speak… but it would be inappropriate and premature for them to offer an opinion on what would go into a working group report or what the I.P.C.C. plans to do. In such cases they must direct the query to the appropriate authority as I have advised them to do.

We are only trying to bring some order into the system precisely because we would like to be more transparent and systematic in responding to the media’s growing interest in climate change — which we welcome greatly.

So the question is: were Pachauri and the IPCC further attempting to control the flow of information to the media and, in turn, the public? Or was the letter merely poor word choice from PR “experts”? Either way, there’s cause for concern.

According to its own website, “The IPCC embodies a unique opportunity to provide rigorous and balanced scientific information to decision makers.” It doesn’t take a climate-change skeptic to suggest that if the IPCC really does want to micromanage media coverage of its reports, then this mission may suffer.

Such compulsive message control suggests that the IPCC’s focus is not to provide balanced, factual, diverse scientific research regarding climate change. Instead of aggregating research and facts, the IPCC is adopting PR tactics characteristic of organizations with a predetermined line to sell to the media and the public — the tactics of opinion and advocacy groups, not unbiased panels. People around the world deserve frank, unguarded answers to their questions — especially because the reports are “policy-relevant.” If the intent of Pachauri’s letter was really censorious, then it could harm the public by instilling a bias among policymakers.

But if Pachauri’s letter is just badly phrased PR advice, it harms the credibility of the IPCC — an organization whose credibility has already suffered serious blows throughout the past year. The instinct to approach the media with further caution is understandable after all the bad publicity wrought by Climategate, but the IPCC can only repair its reputation by establishing itself as a truthful agent of public scientific discussion.

In both instances, the international climate-science debate suffers.