Earlier this month, it has emerged, the chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, sent a letter to every one of the 831 experts taking part in the preparations for the fifth assessment report on climate change, warning them to ‘keep a distance from the media’, amidst fears that heightened scrutiny could obstruct their work. The letter was released only a few days after a review was published over the ‘climategate’ affair in which British scientists were criticised for a lack of transparency in their work. In his letter, Pachauri wrote that increased scrutiny of the IPCC ‘imposes on us a heavy responsibility to see that errors of any kind are completely eliminated from the AR5’ and that as a result the panel would have to ‘work diligently and with a level of rigour perhaps not seen in previous reports’.
The processes and procedures used by the IPCC to compile their assessment reports is highly complicated, but as their results often become highly politicised a great tension exists between providing accessible, informative information to the media and ensuring the process is as accurate and objective as possible. A previous IPCC assessment report was heavily criticised when it was erroneously asserted that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. The advice given by Pachauri has been met by recipients with mixed emotions. Whilst the procedures described for dealing with press enquiries are fairly routine, some scientists have expressed concern that the wording of the letter is not good enough and that the letter itself was ‘poorly timed’. Given that one of the few criticisms levelled at climate scientists in the ‘climategate’ review was that they did not display the proper degree of openness, these concerns are understandable.
Hugh Chalmers, London
Source: ‘IPCC warns its scientists to avoid the media’, Guardian, 19 July 2010