Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind

Guest commentary from Ben Santer

Part 2 of a series discussing the recent Guardian articles

A recent story by Fred Pearce in the February 9th online edition of the Guardian (“Victory for openness as IPCC climate scientist opens up lab doors”) covers some of the more publicized aspects of the last 14 years of my scientific career. I am glad that Mr. Pearce’s account illuminates some of the non-scientific difficulties I have faced. However, his account also repeats unfounded allegations that I engaged in dubious professional conduct. In a number of instances, Mr Pearce provides links to these allegations, but does not provide a balanced account of the rebuttals to them. Nor does he give links to locations where these rebuttals can be found. I am taking this opportunity to correct Mr. Pearce’s omissions, to reply to the key allegations, and to supply links to more detailed responses.

Another concern relates to Mr. Pearce’s discussion of the “openness” issue mentioned in the title and sub-title of his story. A naïve reader of Mr. Pearce’s article might infer from the sub-title (“Ben Santer had a change of heart about data transparency…”) that my scientific research was not conducted in an open and transparent manner until I experienced “a change of heart”.

This inference would be completely incorrect. As I discuss below, my research into the nature and causes of climate change has always been performed in an open, transparent, and collegial manner. Virtually all of the scientific papers I have published over the course of my career involve multi-institutional teams of scientists with expertise in climate modeling, the development of observational datasets, and climate model evaluation. The model and observational data used in my research is not proprietary – it is freely available to researchers anywhere in the world.

The 1995 IPCC Report: The “scientific cleansing” allegation

Mr. Pearce begins by repeating some of the allegations of misconduct that arose after publication (in 1996) of the Second Assessment Report (SAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These allegations targeted Chapter 8 of the SAR, which dealt with the “Detection of Climate Change, and Attribution of Causes”. The IPCC SAR reached the historic finding that “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”. Information presented in Chapter 8 provided substantial support for this finding.

I served as the Convening Lead Author (CLA) of Chapter 8. There were three principal criticisms of my conduct as CLA. All three allegations are baseless. They have been refuted on many occasions, and in many different fora. All three allegations make an appearance in Mr. Pearce’s story, but there are no links to the detailed responses to these claims.

The first allegation was that I had engaged in “scientific cleansing”. This allegation originated with the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – a group of businesses “opposing immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

In May 1996, a document entitled “The IPCC: Institutionalized ‘Scientific Cleansing’?” was widely circulated to the press and politicians. In this document, the Global Climate Coalition claimed that after a key Plenary Meeting of the IPCC in Madrid in November 1995, all scientific uncertainties had been purged from Chapter 8. The GCC’s “scientific cleansing” allegation was soon repeated in an article in Energy Daily (May 22, 1996) and in an editorial in the Washington Times (May 24, 1996). It was also prominently featured in the World Climate Report, a publication edited by Professor Patrick J. Michaels (June 10, 1996).

This “scientific cleansing” claim is categorically untrue. There was no “scientific cleansing”. Roughly 20% of the published version of Chapter 8 specifically addressed uncertainties in scientific studies of the causes of climate change. In discussing the “scientific cleansing” issue, Mr. Pearce claims that many of the caveats in Chapter 8 “did not make it to the summary for policy-makers”. This is incorrect.

The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the IPCC SAR is four-and-a-half pages long. Roughly one page of the SPM discusses results from Chapter 8. The final paragraph of that page deals specifically with uncertainties, and notes that:

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