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December 08, 2006

Inside the IPCC's Dead Zone

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Science Policy: General | Scientific Assessments

Climate scientist James Annan has related a tale of angst and suffering as a result of peer reviews that will, in broad terms, sound familiar to most academics. His experience raises a question that I’d like to ask of the folks familiar with the IPCC.

I have no idea what James’ paper is about, except that it argues that very high values of climate sensitivity can be ruled out, which I take it is contrary to the views of some others in the field. This situation leads me to consider several general questions about the IPCC:

How does the IPCC handle information that appears after its deadline for citation of peer-reviewed papers that may contradict literature which appears before that deadline?

Doesn’t this create a potential conflict of interest for contributors to the IPCC who are reviewing papers that appear during the drafting process?

Take hurricanes and climate change for example. Whatever the IPCC reports next March, it certainly won’t be as current as the recent WMO consensus report because the IPCC cannot cite literature that appeared after some point early in 2006, and the WMO can. And I'd bet there will be more studies released between now and march. On hurricanes the IPCC may wind up creating confusion by taking the scientific discussion back to early 2006 when in reality much has happened since. Similarly, its discussion of climate sensitivity and other areas could, in principle, suffer from the same lag effects. Now James’ paper was rejected, and for all I know, correctly. But on highly sensitive topics, I find myself agreeing with the AAAS – trust alone is no longer enough.

Posted on December 8, 2006 09:18 AM


Regarding the Annan non-event, it seems more a case of "reporting man-bites-dog" than anything else. I mean, who hasn't had a paper rejected for anything ranging from good through stupid reasons? But it takes an Annan to blog about it for years, ripping Nature/GRL/Science reviewers, editors, authors etc.

This latest non-event (as I call it) is in regard to a ho-hum critique on expert vs uniform priors, and "fat-tail" probability distributions getting cut off or not (leading some authors to show higher sensitivities on future climate model runs, and some not to). It's not really a big deal, in fact some authors nowadays show both just to please both "crowds."

But Annan has a fixation on a single paper or person (Frame '05); even though the reviewers & editor seem to think it's much ado about nothing (because it is --- aren't there bigger fish to fry than if someone's PDF is a little bit fat on the right for low-probability high-sensitivity runs?). So since Annan always carps on the same person & paper, it seems more a personal vendetta than anything else. Or is he really that challenged for original ideas?

Although William Connelly (of Wikipedia inflatin'/RealClimate fame) is calling this tedious topic of yet-another-Annan-rejection "a sad day for scientific publishing." I mean, c'mon, at best these guys make umpteen excuses for the hockey stick over the years, and they're calling this non-event "a sad day for scientific publishing?"

All of this supposed hoopla makes me wonder if the next big thing is supposed to be everyone getting in line to say that climate sensitivity is highly-constrained or "tight" around 3C and perish anyone who dares to allow higher sensitivities in.

(standard disclaimer -- I work with Dave Frame on the project --- but I make and am responsible for my own comments/opinion).

Posted by: Carl Christensen at December 9, 2006 10:57 AM

Carl- Thanks for participating. I'm interested in the general questions about the IPCC's deadlines and how that might influence the assessment process. I _really_ do not want this site used to engage a flame war over the specifics of Dr. Annan's paper and whatever else the two groups might have between them -- there are other places where that might be more appropriate.

Comments on the focus of the post are however appreciated!


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 9, 2006 11:41 AM

Err, well you mentioned the Annan faux-outrage, so I figured a response was merited in a more neutral camp than his blog. I really don't have much to say on the IPCC since I am a "computer geek" and not a scientist. I know that in the past RealClimate has touted themselves as "updates to the IPCC" -- which I think is a bit presumptuous on their part. There's also quite a bit more in an IPCC report than the WMO, so is it proper to compare unless someone has found a "smoking gun" in either camp?

Posted by: Carl Christensen at December 9, 2006 12:51 PM

While I can not claim any inside knowledge on how the IPCC does handle it, I can say that I think there is only one Right Way, which is to ignore anything after the deadline. This is of course sub-optimal, the real unabridged story is in the journals, but how else can one hope to present a summary of the state of affairs?

Even in the event of something startling and new there is an arguable merit in ingoring it til the next report. Those kinds of startling results still need to stand at least a bare minimum test of time, even if it is a matter of allowing a few weeks to pass so the scientific community can react.

The only dissapointment I personally have is that it is six years between these snapshots.

Posted by: coby [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 9, 2006 04:13 PM


Thanks. You write "There's also quite a bit more in an IPCC report than the WMO." There is a lot more about climate change generally, but there will undoubtedly be far less on the subject of tropical cyclones.

Consider that the WMO statement contains 68 references to the literature. The IPCC will probably have an order of magnitude less on tropical cyclones. Further, of the 68 references 20 (!) are published in 2006, many of which will be after the IPCC deadline, and there are more as well (e.g., Nov. 28 AGU EOS).

In a fast-moving field of research a one year "dead zone" is highly problematic for a report designed to inform decision making. Imagine if intelligence analysts worked this way . . .

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 9, 2006 10:29 PM

well, just on a basic level is seems that a worldwide effort by climate scientists (IPCC) is more relevant for climate change study & policy than a worldwide effort by meteorologists (WMO)? Or do you think localized, short-term meteorological processes have more relevance in long-term climate change and therefore the WMO should have more "clout"?

Posted by: Carl Christensen at December 10, 2006 05:09 AM


Thanks for participating, but it seems that you are just making stuff up.

The WMO report was prepared by a writing team that included Kerry Emanuel, Johnny Chan, Greg Holland, Chris Landsea, Tom Knutson, among others from around the world. These are (among) the leading scholars of climate-TCs and from different perspectives in the scientific debate. Your attempt here to discredit these folks and the WMO fails completely.

If it is credentials, publication record, and expertise that you are focused on, on the subject of TCs and climate change, then the answer is yes absolutely I'll take this group over the writing team for the IPCC, as would most anyone who knows this field.


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 08:09 AM


If by its process the IPCC is unable to keep up to date with research the different fields of climate change, shouldn't they rely on statement by worl wide organisation like the WMO?

Wouldn't it be simpler and cheaper if the IPCC only worked with statement/conclusion of smaller organization?

It seems to me that when the next report will be published, it risks to be obsolete or at least old.

Posted by: Sylvain at December 10, 2006 09:46 AM

What gets me about the IPCC is that they can ignore or downplay unknowns - particularly convection/clouds and flora response, and say "we have identified the magnitude of the problem". It's just irrational.

Posted by: Steve Hemphill [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 10:42 AM

Have you actually seen the author list for the IPCC? It's a huge group of well published scientists worldwide, seems far more than the WMO. And yes, I'll take a report full of climate scientists over one with a handful.

Posted by: Carl Christensen at December 11, 2006 03:05 AM

Carl- Thanks. Here is the IPCC AR4 author list:

Care to point out to us the TC-climate experts on that list?


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2006 06:43 AM

Other than Kevin Trenberth (who I believe published a paper related to tropical cyclones)and Judith (lean who publised a paper on solar forcing), I'm personnaly unable to say who could be considered an expert in any field related to climate science.

It would help if the list included the credential of the people writing the AR4.

Posted by: Sylvain at December 11, 2006 09:24 AM

So tropical cyclones are the be-all/end-all of long-term climate change? Hell, I'd take James Annan & the IPCC any day over short-range WMO experts, sorry!

On another note, you seem to always prop up this bizarre contention that it's horrible for scientists to use their personal ethics or beliefs as they do their job. I would have thought history has shown quite clearly that it's far more prevalent that scientists have acted WITHOUT using their heart than ever acting with a conscience. I suppose you'd complain to Dr. Mengele's lab assistant for letting personal feelings get in the way!

OK, that's a bit harsh, but let's consider the legions of jar-headed, crew-cut US scientists post-WW2 that happily used Nazi technology (look it up), gladly helped make nuke bombs, bio-bombs, chem-bombs etc. And the world is supposed to be afraid of "perverted" scientists who may be holding on to a belief of a 2 degree higher climate sensitivity over someone else? HAHA

Talk about putting bitter coatings on sugar pills...

Posted by: Carl Christensen at December 11, 2006 11:43 AM

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