IPCC SRREN: Conflict of interest or just a bad press release?

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The blog discussion of the week seems to be about IPCC’s Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Question is, has a study headed by a Greenpeace employee been overly hyped? I think the short answer is that it has in the press release but it hasn’t in the underlying report.

One would think that that would be the end of it. It’s become the norm that press releases highlight an eye catching finding rather than trying to paint a full picture of the underlying report. The former draws media attention; the latter does not. Media need a news hook after all, as we’re frequently told by journalists. That’s not necessarily a good thing for science journalism and science literacy, but it’s the case nevertheless.

Then why does the bulk of the criticism go to the whole of the IPCC process? That’s a bit of a rhetorical question of course, as the answer is fairly obvious: There are legions of people looking for excuses to throw the IPCC under the bus. And sometimes even people who have a decent understanding of the issues are enclined to support such efforts, if they become convinced of serious wrongdoing. Think Monbiot with regards to “climategate” and now Mark Lynas with the SRREN. Mind you, I think the questions that Lynas posed to the IPCC are fair and deserve to be answered:

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?

The Carbon Brief has a good rundown of issues. One paragraph though struck me:

the use of word “could” in the IPCC’s press release (“Close to 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century”) is likely to refer to future uncertainties, but may well have been perceived by journalists and the public as a straightforward statement about the technical potential of renewable energy.

I think it’s the opposite: I think the word “could” refers to “technical potential” rather than to future uncertainties. As in, if we really wanted to and put the effort (and money) in, this is what we could achieve. Whereas most reading this understand it in the other way and then interpret is as hopelessly optimistic and biased.

I agree that it’s not wise to put a rather unrealistic scenario forward as an example in the spotlights. My point is not so much to argue how silly vs wise, or how realistic vs unrealistic is it, but rather to distinguish that which is technically possible from what is societally and politically realistic. David Keith (in a different context) made some pertinent comments to this:

However when people and the political community hear technical people say “can’t be done” they assume we mean that technically can’t be done and that is untrue and destructive.
It’s destructive because it hides the central moral choice: we could cut emissions if we want to, we could have started decades ago when the scientific warnings about climate change were first raised, but we decided not to. It was a choice, implicit or not. A choice that, in effect, we cared more about current consumption than we did about preserving our grandchildren’s chances to enjoy a climate like the one in which our civilization developed.

McIntyre, in a comment at DotEarth, seems to agree that the central issue is the press release:

Andy, I don’t think that you adequately highlighted that the Greenpeace scenario was the one that was featured in the IPCC press release and covered by the world media. Had the problem been limited to the Chapter 10 discussion, it would be less of an issue.

Which leads Michael Tobis to remark:

It does appear that whoever wrote the press release did a disservice. This seems so common in press reports of science that I am starting to think of it as typical. If Mr. McIntyre had limited himself to such a claim, as he does here, I would have no quarrel with his behavior in this case. But he proceeds, on his blog, to use this incident to call for “Everyone in IPCC WG3 [to] be terminated and, if the institution is to continue, it should be re-structured from scratch.”

Thus he continues to play to the “climate science as fraud” crowd that frequents his blog while adopting a more reasonable pose here.  

(…)

The persistent substitution of fake problems for real ones is a key to derailing serious conversations these days.

The important conversation that we should be having, connected with the issues in the SRREN, is about what kind of future we want.

“Those who want search for a way. Those who don’t want search for a reason.”

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29 Responses to “IPCC SRREN: Conflict of interest or just a bad press release?”

  1. Dana Says:

    I’m writing a post on this subject for SkS due out in the near future as well. To be honest, I didn’t read the press release, because it’s a press release. Who cares if it’s not perfectly accurate? I care if the report itself is accurate. And in fact if we really wanted to, we could meet 100% of our energy demands in 2050 with renewable energy, as numerous studies have found. 77% is nothing radical at all. This whole manufactured controversy is little more than an excuse to attack the IPCC and Greenpeace. It’s a political attack, not a scientific one.

  2. Alex Harvey Says:

    Bart, isn’t there more to this than you’re conceding here?

    1) there was the press release, as you say. If that was it, then you might be right to ask why blame the IPCC for this.
    2) but then we have the fact that an IPCC lead author is affiliated with Greenpeace in the first place. Given Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear stance, how can anyone say this author does not have a conflict of interest?
    3) and then it gets worse as was revealed subsequently: “Of the nine lead authors there are representatives of two of the world’s largest hydropower developers, a hydropower consultancy, and three agencies promoting hydropower at the national level.” (from http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2011/06/17/climategate-part-2-a-worrying-conflict-of-interest/).

  3. Marco Says:

    Bart, I don’t think the questions of Lynas are very good. Take question 1, somehow other people have had no problem finding out what the process was, and I would expect a journalist like Mark Lynas to understand how press releases just about by definition highlight an extreme first (the other highlighted scenarios are also mentioned).

    Or question 2: this is the standard political part of the IPCC reports. The report itself must match the SPM…

    Question 3, well, that’s a loaded question. Of course Teske was involved, he was a co-author on the chapter. But Edenhoffer has a rather simple and important explanation why that scenario was highlighted: it was the most optimistic one. One of the other four highlighted was the least optimistic one.

    Question 4 is decidedly naive. As been mentioned elsewhere, you use experts to write the report to make sure you use experts. They will thus by definition have to evaluate their own work. If you do not want anyone to evaluate their own work, they will have to evaluate something outside of their area of expertise. How is that going to help?

  4. Marco Says:

    Alex Harvey, I don’t see anyone complain that someone from the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica was on that chapter…
    And how would the organisation he works for being anti-nuclear make someone have a Conflict of Interest in a chapter discussing scenarios?

    Regarding chapter 5 I like to reiterate my comment on expertise above. You use experts to write, not people who are ignorant in the field. Of course some people would actually like the latter, as this is more likely to generate errors.

  5. Marco Says:

    Dana, note the conspicuous absence of McIntyre himself excusing himself due to his own conflict of interest. Hypocrisy.

  6. Dana Says:

    I don’t understand why Teske should be excluded because he works for Greenpeace. Should the contributors who work for Chevron (three of them contributed to the report) automatically be excluded as well? Teske has been lead author on peer-reviewed energy research, so it seems clear to me that he’s qualified to be a lead author on this IPCC report as well.

    I mean really Alex Harvey, if we’re going to exclude renewable energy experts from being lead authors on a renewable energy report, who’s going to write it?

  7. MikeN Says:

    I guess under the scenario where China chooses to impoverish her people with more expensive energy and forgo further development, 80% might be achievable with renewable energy.

  8. Herman Vruggink Says:

  9. Heraclitus Says:

    I’m somewhat perplexed at the position many people are taking on the prominance of the ‘almost 80%’ scenario. It would seem that this is technically perfectly feasible but politically unrealistic, so are those criticising its inclusion suggesting that the IPCC should be deciding the contents of their reports on political grounds?

  10. Roddy Campbell Says:

    Bart I think you’re being a bit gentle on the IPCC.

    ‘I agree that it’s not wise to put a rather unrealistic scenario forward as an example in the spotlights.’

    – ‘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.’ – Edenhofer

    That’s set against 490 Exajoules in 2008, with population growth etc, and China and India. “rather unrealistic?” Coo.

    Your point about having a ‘hook’, that would be normal for commercial organisations, why does the IPCC have to sex-up its Press Releases? I don’t see that at all.

    And why is the most sexed-up thing the most green?

  11. Marco Says:

    Roddy, the “most sexed-up” is the most optimistic. The most “sexed-down” would be the least optimistic. Or perhaps you think an angry looking woman is much more sexy than a smiling one?

  12. Bart Says:

    Heraclitus,

    That’s indeed the point I was trying to make (though didn’t manage to do as succinct as you just did).

  13. willard Says:

    Roddy,

    When you say:

    > And why is the most sexed-up thing the most green?

    we must presume you believe they’re all sexed-up.

    Green might not need any sexing-up to be naturally more sexy.

  14. Heraclitus Says:

    Thank you Bart, I’m pleased to have been able to add anything to your excellent blog. Too be honest though I’m not really in the slightest bit perplexed by most people’s reactions to this, they were entirely predictable. What I do struggle to understand are Mark Lynas’ motivations, particularly for the hyperbole in his original headline. No matter how many people express broad agreement with the thrust of Lynas’ four questions quoted above, or at least the valiity of asking these questions in some form or another, the picture of wagon-circling was always going to be painted if people questioned any part of his post. He must have known this, and indeed he seems to be actively complicit in it himself.

  15. dana1981 Says:

    I don’t think those criticizing the 77% scenario as “unrealistic” have really looked into the matter. For example, simply transitioning from fossil fuel to renewable energy increases efficiency and allows for significantly decreased production, because a lot of fossil fuel (and nuclear) energy is wasted during off-peak hours when they continue running at high capacity. As I recall, Jacobsen and Delucchi (2010) said that just transitioning to 100% wind, water, and solar production would decrease production needs by 30%, even without enacting any other efficiency measures.

    So frankly I think what little criticism there is of the actual contents of the report (as opposed to pure ad hominems regarding Teske working at Greenpeace) are simply based on people applying their “common sense” when their “common sense” is based on ignorance.

  16. dhogaza Says:

    It would seem that this is technically perfectly feasible but politically unrealistic, so are those criticising its inclusion suggesting that the IPCC should be deciding the contents of their reports on political grounds?

    Andy Revkin appears to …

    Of course, my issue with the report from the get-go was the yawn factor. It was yet another study implying that renewable energy choices — in theory, and in the face of high costs* and other daunting constraints — could be the dominant source of reductions in emissions by mid-century.

    Yes, and we could all stop driving tomorrow, but we won’t.

    Of course, Revkin didn’t bother to *read* the report in question, as became clear in a later update where he says:

    *In my haste today – much going on – I incorrectly initially wrote that the report did not consider the costs of a big renewable-energy deployment. Thanks to Zeke below for alerting me.

    Knee jerk much, Andy? (and Lynas and the rest)

  17. Eli Rabett Says:

    Whether 77% is realistic politically or not kinda depends on the weather.

  18. Tom Says:

    At some point does anybody here understand that WG3 of the IPCC told the world that the IPCC report has determined that 77% of all energy needed in 2050 can be produced by renewable energies?

    And that in fact the report does not so determine? And that the paper that claims this can be the case does not make the case? And that a co-author of that report reviewed it for WG3?

    I’m a big fan of renewable energies, especially solar. I think that all of our energy will eventually be renewable. But big a fan as I am, 2050 is just too early. Environmentalists will continue to block hydroelectric power and nuclear and find rare creatures threatened by CSP. It will slow us down and it will be 2075 at the earliest before renewables are making a real dent. Do the math.

    In the meantime, you can all just sit here reassuring yourselves that everything that happened last week was either perfectly okay or all McIntyre’s fault. But you’re just talking to yourselves.

  19. Dana Says:

    Tom, your comment is riddled with errors.

    1) The IPCC report does “determine” the 77% renewable penetration is feasible, in the same way that it “determines” any other conclusion in the report (i.e. summary of peer-reviewed literature).

    2) The Teske et al. paper does make the case that 77% is plausible, and in fact makes the case that 100% is even feasible, if I recall correctly. A number of other studies have also found 100% renewables by 2050 to be feasible (technologically and economically, at least).

    3) The IPCC report was extremely bullish on hydroelectric, so to criticize “environmentalists” for being anti-hydroelectric while you’re criticizing the IPCC report is a total self-contradiction.

    4) “Everything that happened last week”? Sounds like somebody has been spending way too much time on CA and WUWT.

  20. dhogaza Says:

    At some point does anybody here understand that WG3 of the IPCC told the world that the IPCC report has determined that 77% of all energy needed in 2050 can be produced by renewable energies?

    They’ve also told the world that it’s possible that only something like 18% might be the number.

    So do you understand that, by your logic, the IPCC report has determined that only 18% or so of all energy needed in 2060 can be produced by renewable energies?

    Do you?

    Four studies highlight, ranging from the most optimistic to the most pessimistic yet you insist on pretending that WG3 cast the most optimistic as being cast in iron.

    Tch, tch.

    You’d know better if you were honest…

  21. NewYorkJ Says:

    77% renewables by 2050 bullish? MOST optimistic?

    “Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels.”

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-path-to-sustainable-energy-by-2030

    I look forward to your post, Dana. Lots of frenzied nonsense to cut through. I’d be sure to cover various rhetorical techniques used on the issue, such as the notion that criticizing absurdities like “dictated by Greenpeace”, lead author reviewed own work, “grey literature”, or other nonsense is somehow “circling the wagons”, a rhetorical technique used by Judith Curry and others to deter dissent, along with the “persecution” or “muzzling” cards. Compare allegations to substance. Note also CM’s comment at Open Mind.

    http://tamino.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/open-thread-4/#comment-51582

  22. willard Says:

    > [T]he IPCC report has determined [...]

    I thought it was “show” time:

    http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com/post/6673352904

    This week, “show” might have been terminated and replaced by “endorse”:

    http://climateaudit.org/2011/06/20/the-carbon-brief-a-first-coat-of-whitewash/

    The word “determine” does seem to go in the direction as this week’s developments.

    In any case, we still get the same argument by assertion:

    > At the end of the day, the lead of the press release was untrue [...].

    of last week, with the bonus “misleading” and (in the lead of the editorial) “deceptive”.

    ***

    We can also notice that the conclusion of last week’s editorial:

    > Everyone in IPCC WG3 should be terminated and, if the institution is to continue, it should be re-structured from scratch.

    http://climateaudit.org/2011/06/14/ipcc-wg3-and-the-greenpeace-karaoke/

    has been . That said, it did reappear two days later:

    > Better to re-constitute WG3 with people who can do the job.

    http://climateaudit.org/2011/06/14/ipcc-wg3-and-the-greenpeace-karaoke/#comment-289190

    PS: The allusions to “vague references to critics” and to “Stokesian wordsmithing” deserve due diligence.

  23. willard Says:

    The missing word:

    > has been [terminated].

  24. willard Says:

    The missing word is

    > as been [terminated].

    of course.

  25. dana1981 Says:

    The posts are now up on the subject at SkS as well. We decided to split up the science portion and the manufactured controversy portion into two seperate posts. Honestly I didn’t spend a lot of time on the latter, other than to point out the obvious absurdities of the whole thing.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/ipcc-report-renewable-energy.html

  26. Sou Says:

    I don’t understand the huff and puff about this either. It’s obviously feasible to meet even the most optimistic scenario.

    The world went from most people having no access to the telephone or internet to almost universal access to mobile phone and internet, with nearly every child living in range of a cell tower owning a phone, in about the last ten years.

    Think what the world was like 40 years ago. WWW didn’t exist. ARPANET was brand new and only for time sharing. Most people had never even seen a fax machine. I recall seeing my first xeroxed frog just over 40 years ago. We used to use those inky rolling gestetner machines back then. And the typiists used three coloured carbon copies in their typewriters. Double entry book-keeping was done in big green handwritten cash books.

    The world can change an awful lot in 40 years. Already people in many places are moving straight to renewable energy where they had no electricity before – like in Bangladesh and many parts of Africa.

    Does the world really lack that much vision? At the very least we could give it a shot.

  27. dana1981 Says:

    Frankly I think the huff is coming from people who are anti-renewable energy (i.e. McIntyre is pro-fossil fuel and Lynas is pro-nuclear). Or more likely, McIntyre is anti-IPCC, and saw this as an opportunity to attack the organization. Lynas was angry that the 77% scenario phased-out nuclear power, so he jumped on the attack bandwagon.

    We certainly could meet this goal if we had the political will, no question about it. If we really put our resources and efforts into it, we could meet 100% of energy demand with renewables by 2030 or 2040, let alone 77% by 2050.

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