Nature published an editorial yesterday purporting to address IPCC’s promotion of the Greenpeace scenario for renewables. The subheading read:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must implement changes now to regain lost credibility or it will remain an easy target for critics seeking to score cheap points.
As hapens far too often, Nature has posed the issue in the wrong way. The problem that Nature should be concerned about is whether IPCC is discharging its duties and responsibilities of providing the public and policy-makers with effective and balanced scientific advice. That’s what Nature should be worried about. If it does so, then critics will have less to criticize.
The editorial demonstrates Nature’s failure to grasp the totality of WG3’s problems. Let me try an analogy. I realize that analogies are often unhelpful as the differences all too often obscure the points. I hope that I can avoid this below.
Let’s suppose that there was an Intergovernmental Panel on Cancer, also divided into three Working Groups. WG1 is supposed to be about the “hard science” (I’ll avoid the temptation to digress into the Working Group 1 proxy reconstructions of paleo-cancer), while WG3 is about therapy.
Let’s also suppose that NGOs are actively supporting “natural” remedies for cancer with one of the NGOs, Green Therapy, claiming that, by 2050, up to 77% of all cancers could be treated by “natural” therapy. (Green Therapy isn’t even the most extreme NGO, another advocate of natural therapies said that 100% of all cancers could be treated “naturally” by 2050.) Let’s also suppose that “natural” therapies for cancer have become popular in university departments of sustainability and that there are a number of
vanity “peer-reviewed” journals on the topic and that Green Therapy commissioned a publication of their scenario in this specialist literature, co-authored by several members of a university sustainability department.
Let’s now suppose that the IPCancer commissioned a special report on Natural Therapies, the authors of which are mostly drawn from university departments of sustainability.
Chapter 10 of the resulting report (one of the authors being from Green Therapy) stated that they had located 164 scenarios describing the future outlook for natural therapies and provided summary statistics on the future outlook for natural therapies according to these scenarios. Four of the scenarios, included the 77% Green Therapy scenario, were singled out for special prominence. The authors of chapter 10 made no attempt to independently assess the validity of the Green Therapy scenario (or any other scenario).
The Special Report was then received by the chairs of IPCancer, who were meeting in UAE (not UEA). Without simultaneously releasing the Special Report itself (it would not be available for another month), IPCancer issued a press release leading with the statement:
Close to 80 percent of the world‘s cancers could be treated by natural therapies by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows.
Later in the press release, IPCancer stated:
Over 160 existing scientific scenarios on the possible penetration of natural therapies by 2050, alongside environmental and social implications, have been reviewed with four analyzed in-depth. These four were chosen in order to represent the full range. Scenarios are used to explore possible future worlds, analyzing alternative pathways of socio-economic development and technological change. The researchers have also studied the challenges linked to how natural therapies can be integrated into existing and future health care systems and likely cost benefits from these developments.
The most optimistic of the four, in-depth scenarios projects natural therapies could treat as much as 77 percent of the world‘s cancer by 2050, with the lowest of the four scenarios seeing natural therapies accounting for a share of 15 percent in 2050.
The claim that “close to 80 percent of the world‘s cancers could be treated by natural therapies by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies” was widely disseminated by the world press.
A month later, when the report was published, it was discovered that that IPCancer WG3 had made the above press release without any independent assessment of the validity of Green Therapy’s claim that that 77% of the world’s cancers could be treated by natural therapies and that nothing had in fact been “shown” in this respect by the WG3 report beyond what was already known (i.e. that Green Therapy had already made this claim.)
In addition to the WG3 report not actually proving what IPCancer had claimed, it was quickly determined that a Green Therapy employee had been one of the Lead Authors of the chapter responsible for assessing the outlook for natural therapies (but which had failed to do so.) One commenter claimed that the Green Therapy employee had “dictated” the conclusion of the report – an over-statement that was quickly pounced upon by IPC defenders to distract from other equally serious problems.
The prominent science journal Naturo argued that there was nothing wrong with the assessment process itself:
In fact, the Green Therapy writer was one of six authors of a peer-reviewed paper that examined an extreme scenario of favourable economic conditions that allowed the maximum possible take-up of natural therapies by 2050. Although the scenario is optimistic — and no doubt in line with the agenda at Green Therapy HQ — its inclusion is entirely justified. How else could the report answer the question of how much natural therapy would be possible under different economic assumptions?
Naturo thought that the problem was mainly cosmetic:
The IPC’s vulnerability to such attacks should also prompt it to reconsider how it frames its findings. Journalists and critics alike gravitate towards extreme claims. So when the IPC’s press material for the May report prominently pushed the idea that natural therapies could treat “close to 80%” of the world’s cancers by 2050, it was no surprise that it was this figure that made headlines — and made waves. The IPC would have saved itself a lot of trouble and some unwarranted criticism had it made the origins of this scenario explicit.
The problem isn’t just cosmetic; it’s that IPCC WG3 didn’t deliver an authoritative report on Renewables that answered questions that people were actually and legitimately interested in.
As I said previously, I would like to know how much weight we can place on optimistic scenarios for deployment of wind and solar. I’m hardly alone in this – people are starving for reliable and independent information. I knew that Greenpeace and WWF had published scenarios claiming that renewables could supply 77% or more of world energy by 2050. But I wondered whether this was little more than fantasy on their parts. IPCC fails if it doesn’t deliver a report that, after much parsing, does not address the question of whether this is fantasy or not.
I haven’t parsed the literature on renewables, but there are many questions on which I’d have appreciated authoritative opinions.
For example, I hear the usual concerns that the median output of wind farms is a fraction of nameplate capacity and that their output can be zero at times of peak demand. (This is very much the case in Ontario.) In order for the IPCC report to be useful, it has to provide something more authoritative than a repetition of a Greenpeace scenario.
I’m also aware of great optimism on the part of technology promoters that the cost of photovoltaic can be halved repeatedly until it reaches not only grid parity, but becomes the energy supply of choice. It would be great if this scenario bears out. If photovoltaic reaches grid parity or below – then it seems to me that we have a future of great prosperity ahead of us and that many of our present worries will dissipate.
But before relying on such a favorable scenario, I, for one, would like really hard and really independent cross-examination of the evidence that such an optimistic scenario is realistic. It’s one thing to hear such a scenario from Greenpeace or WWF. It’s another thing if their evidence for the feasibility of such a scenario has been examined and verified by independent assessors. IPCC didn’t do this.
The problem isn’t just IPCC’s deceptive press release, though that is a more serious problem than IPCC is acknowledging. In other fields, a press release that was as misleading as the IPCC’s, would bring in the securities commission. If the underlying report had answered questions of actual interest, perhaps people might not have objected so much to the deceptive press release.
But the report itself didn’t answer questions of actual interest. The combination of a report that failed to assess the feasibility of the optimistic scenarios and a deceptive press release should have concerned Nature on the substance rather than the cosmetics. At the end of the day, people want to know how much weight can be placed on optimistic scenarios for renewables. WG3 didn’t deliver. This is what Nature should have objected to.
As one final editorial comment: if climate change is as serious a problem as we are told, we need to know right away whether the Greenpeace/WWF scenarios of plentiful large-footprint renewables are a fantasy. Nor should serious people acquiesce in delays incurred because IPCC WG3 didn’t carry out its responsibilities to provide a searching assessment.
If the scenarios are a fantasy (which is what I suspect but do not “know”), then more climate activists are going to have to follow the lead of Mark Lynas and George Monbiot in grasping the nettle of re-appraising opposition to nuclear. And if the scenarios prove a fantasy, Nature has abetted the perpetuation of the fantasy by its acquiescence in IPCC WG3 abdicating its responsibilities.