IPCC Pondering New Steps in Wake of Hacked E-mails Episode

Scientists at the helm of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have spent weeks on the defensive after e-mails uncovered by hackers revealed private messages in which they criticized papers relevant to their 2007 report. That behavior has led to accusations of bias, or worse, and undermined the credibility of the climate research community. Now the IPCC leadership is preparing its response, with steps that may include additional training for the authors of the next report, due out in 2013, and a review of the incident by an outside organization. At least one key scientist is unhappy with those options.

In December, the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, said that the discussions in the e-mails raised "a serious issue and we will look into it in detail." Atmospheric chemist Pauline Midgley, a support scientist on staff for the 2013 IPCC report, says that officials asked themselves three questions: Were there problems with the IPCC's procedures for 2007? Were those procedures sufficient? Are changes needed in preparing the 2013 version?

IPCC never conducted a formal investigation of the issue, but the scientists who run the organization and their support staff members have looked over the messages, and found no evidence that the authors were lax in their review of the papers. Still, says Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science, a co-chair of one of the 2013 IPCC reports’ three working groups, it hasn't been "a particularly good period."

Still, he says: “So far in our exploration of this, and it is far from complete, this has been a stress test of IPCC procedures, but the IPCC procedures have held up extremely well." In December, 28 Republican members of Congress wrote to the United Nations, questioning whether IPCC could conduct a truly "independent investigation" of its authors’ behavior.

The panel’s 10-member executive team, led by Pachauri, is now considering a series of steps to further address the issue. One concept is new training for chapter authors. Field says that training would help them deal with what he expects will be "intense pressure" by outside critics. Midgley says that training could also help authors "to deal with papers contrary to the consensus view" on particular issues.

Changes in the review process for each chapter are also in the works, aimed at having an outside senior reviewer make sure that expert comments are properly considered. (Field said he was not aware of this option.) Finally, Midgley said that there is talk of asking an outside expert body to review issues raised by the e-mails.

Field emphasized that there were "no plans to change IPCC procedures," which include multi-author teams assembling each chapter, layers of review by experts and governments, and an international meeting to create a summary for the reports.

Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, was among the scientists whose e-mails were exposed. One 2004 note that has drawn heavy flak comes from Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Speaking of two papers whose conclusions he found wanting, Jones wrote:

I can't see either … being in the next [IPCC] report. Kevin [Trenberth] and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!

Both papers ended up being cited in the report, however.

Trenberth says that the steps the IPCC leadership is considering are "completely unnecessary." He said he was frustrated that the IPCC has "failed to defend its processes and explain them. The process worked, and I think the IPCC should be more active in supporting its authors who followed that process.”

"We're trying to find a right balance between supporting our authors and offering blanket support on every statement that is made,” says Field. Midgley says that offering guidance to authors for the next report is particularly important because the organization will soon put out a call for volunteers. "If the IPCC isn't going to support its authors, why should anyone want to be a lead author?” asks Trenberth.