Here’s the scenario. An Exxon-Mobil employee – admittedly an energy specialist with an engineering background – serves as a lead author on an important IPCC report looking into the future of fossil fuels. The Exxon guy and his fellow lead authors assess a whole variety of literature, but select for special treatment four particular papers – one produced by Exxon-Mobil. This paper heralds great things for the future of fossil fuels, suggesting they can supply 80% of the world’s energy in 2050, and this headline is the first sentence of the ensuing IPCC press release, which is picked up and repeated uncritically the world’s media. Pleased, the Exxon employee issues a self-congratulatory press release boasting that his paper had been central to the IPCC effort, and urging the world’s governments to get on with opening up new areas to oil drilling for the benefit of us all.
Well. You can imagine the furore this would cause at Greenpeace. The IPCC would be discredited forever as an independent voice. There would be pious banner-drops by Greenpeace activists abseiling down Exxon HQ and harshly criticising the terrible stranglehold that fossil fuel interests had achieved over supposedly independent science. Campaigners everywhere would be up in arms. Greenpeace would feel doubly justified in taking direct action against new oil wells being opened up in the Arctic, and its activists could demonstrate new feats of gallantry and bravery as they took on the might of the world’s oil industry with some ropes and a rubber dinghy somewhere near Greenland.
How is the Exxon scenario different from what has just happened with the IPCC’s renewables report? And why – when confronted with this egregious conflict of interest and abuse of scientific independence – has the response of the world’s green campaigners been to circle the wagons and cry foul against the whistle-blowers themselves? That this was spotted at all is a tribute to the eagle eyes of Steve McIntyre. Yet I am told that he is a ‘denier’, that all his deeds are evil, and that I have been naively led astray by him. Well, if the ‘deniers’ are the only ones standing up for the integrity of the scientific process, and the independence of the IPCC, then I too am a ‘denier’. Indeed, McIntyre and I have formed an unlikely double-act, posing a series of questions – together with the New York Times’s Andy Revkin – to the IPCC report’s lead author Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, to which he has yet to respond.
Here’s some classic closing of ranks by Stefan Singer, of WWF, riding to the rescue of his embattled Greenpeace colleagues in a comment on my original blog post:
Yes, I am biased as well, I am Director for Energy Policy at WWF, we “scandalously” dared to publish a global energy scenario a few months ago showing how the world can go to even 95% renewables by 2050 and even more “shocking” we also showed in that scenario how global energy consumption can indeed be reduced globally with substantive energy conservation and efficiency policies without curtailing growth and economic activities.
Moreover, if we want to combat climate change effectively (which I realise not everyone supports on this exchange), what is wrong with showing that renewables can contribute 80% or even more to global energy supply? Mark Lynas, in case you take that serious [sic], you should thank Greenpeace and NGOs to drive that debate.
I suspect Mr Singer, and all my other green critics, are intentionally missing the point. I’d have loved to have had a fully independent study conducted by the IPCC on the prospects for renewable energy over the coming century. I’d have been even happier had that independent IPCC study concluded that 80% renewables by 2050 is a realistic option. But what I don’t want are recycled campaign reports masquerading as ‘proper’ science leading the assessed scenarios – and the media – because their originator has managed to lever himself into a pole position on the team of lead authors. That stinks. And it stinks doubly because the Greenpeace report was originally co-authored by the European Renewable Energy Council – an industry lobby group whose prospects depend on state subsidies which can be expected to be further increased once its views are given the ‘official’ stamp of approval from the IPCC. So this is in effect worse than my Exxon-Mobil scenario above – because the company employees’ report would have to have been co-authored by the American Petroleum Institute.
The IPCC’s Edenhofer has made only one response so far, in an email to Andy Revkin:
The criticisms by McIntyre and Lynas relate to the headline of the press release that was drafted by the WGIII and the Secretariat and that accompanied the publication of the SRREN SPM on 9th May. It is important to note that the press release put the 80% figure into perspective…
Sven Teske was nominated as an author by the German government and selected by the WGIII as Lead author in the IPCC’s continuous effort to draw on the full range of expertise, and this includes NGOs and business as well as academia. Chapter 10 has been thouroughly reviewed by independent experts and governments. He is one of nine Lead Authors, with two Coordinating Lead Authors overseeing the process of writing the chapter. He has made substantial contributions, but was neither the only nor the leading person in this team effort.
It strikes me that Edenhofer’s reluctance to engage further may be down to the fact that there are really only two alternatives here, neither of which are good for him or the IPCC’s Working Group 3:
1: Teske (Greenpeace) and the other lead authors of the report had no involvement with writing the press release – in which case something is wrong, as a press release should not be released unchecked by the experts whose work it is meant to highlight.
2: Teske and the other lead authors did have an involvement in writing the press release – in which case something is wrong, as this suggests undue influence in selecting the Greenpeace scenario as the one to capture the headlines.
There are some very clear lessons here for the IPCC:
- Campaigners – or industry employees – should not be lead authors on IPCC reports, on any of the working groups
- Whilst ‘grey literature’ may be valuable to assess, it should not be assessed by those who have written it
- This rule applies more broadly: no authors should be tasked with ‘independently’ assessing their own work, across all the IPCC working groups
- Press releases and Summaries for Policymakers should not be released until the full report they are based on is also released
- A clear conflict of interest policy should be agreed by the IPCC and implemented immediately, applying to current as well as future authors
Here, repeated, are the questions I have posed to the IPCC’s Edenhofer:
1: what was the process for writing the press release, and who decided whether it faithfully represented the main conclusions of the SPM/main report?
2: why was the SPM released more than a month before the full report?
3: was Sven Teske in any way involved in the decision to highlight Teske et al, 2010 as one of the four ‘illustrative scenarios’ explored in greater depth as per Section 10.3.1?
4: what is the IPCC conflict of interest policy with regard to lead authors reviewing their own work, and having affiliations to non-academic institutions, whether campaign groups or companies?
Steve McIntyre has additionally, in the same email exchange, requested full access to the transcripts of the comments made during the reviews to which the IPCC reports are all subjected. As far as I understand, these are supposed to be in the public domain. He has also added the following request to mine:
Dear Dr Edenhofer:
Could you please provide the following additional information related to Mark Lynas’ question 1. Was Sven Teske involved in the preparation of the IPCC press release of May 9? Was he given drafts of the proposed press release prior to it being made public? If so, did he comment on the press release drafts and what were his comments?
We (both) await a response.
Latest, 8pm 17 June: The Economist now has a long and detailed ‘Babbage’ blog, penned by Oliver Morton and entitled ‘Renewable Outrage‘, which I urge everyone with an interest in this to read. Impeccable context and detail as always. There is plenty of space for comments there too.
Latest latest, 8.10pm, 17 June: The Economist’s Oliver Morton, having added his name to the list of those seeking answers from the IPCC’s Dr Edenhofer, has managed to elicit a reply – cc’d to myself, Steve McIntyre and others. It does not deal in detail with any of the specifics of the questions we posed, but does hint at cockup rather than conspiracy. Here it is in full:
As I have written to Andrew Revkin, the press release was drafted by the WGIII and the Secretariat. Nick Nutall, spokesperson of the United Nations Environment Programme was acting IPCC spokesperson at the time of the Abu Dhabi meeting, because this position was vacant. He has drafted the first version, which was then reviewed by the Secretariat, the WGIII co-chairs, and the WGIII TSU. Sven Teske was not involved in the process of writing the press release.
It was based on the SPM but supplemented from the underlying chapters, for example with the numbers that describe the upper and the lower one of the four scenarios that have been analyzed in-depth:
“Over 160  existing scientific scenarios on the possible penetration of renewables by 2050, alongside environmental and social implications, have been reviewed with four analyzed in-depth. These four were chosen in order to represent the full range. [...]
The most optimistic of the four, in-depth scenarios projects renewable energy accounting for as much as 77 percent of the world‘s energy demand by 2050, amounting to about 314 of 407 Exajoules per year. [...]
77 percent is up from just under 13 percent of the total primary energy supply of around 490 Exajoules in 2008. Each of the scenarios is underpinned by a range of variables such as changes in energy efficiency, population growth and per capita consumption. These lead to varying levels of total primary energy supply in 2050, with the lowest of the four scenarios seeing renewable energy accounting for a share of 15 percent in 2050, based on a total primary energy supply of 749 Exajoules.”
So, there you have it. Satisfied?