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Reforming a Flawed Process: The IPCC and Its Clients (submission to the InterAcademy Council Review)

By David Henderson -- June 16, 2010

[Editor note: David (P. D.) Henderson, formerly head of the Economics and Statistics Department of the OECD, is currently Chairman of the Academic Advisory Council of the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation, which is headed by Nigel (Lord) Lawson). This is his first post at MasterResource.]

Over the past 22 years, governments everywhere and a great many outside observers have put their trust in the official expert advisory process as a whole and the IPCC process in particular.

I have come to believe that this widespread trust is unwarranted. But it is not just the IPCC process that is in question here. The basic problem of unwarranted trust goes further: it extends to the chronically biased treatment of climate change issues by responsible departments and agencies which the Panel reports to, and in nationally-based organizations which they finance.

Here is what I recently submitted to the InterAcademy Council.


I am Chairman of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. On 26 May the InterAcademy Council invited the Foundation to submit written comments to the independent Review Committee. At the suggestion of the Director of the Foundation, Dr Benny Peiser, I am submitting herewith my own comments. While this submission is personal, it has been endorsed by the GWPF.

I am an economist, not a climate scientist. I became involved with climate change issues, by accident not design, towards the end of 2002. Up to that time, I had formed no considered views on the subject, and had seen no reason to question the work and role of the IPCC. I was an uninvolved spectator.

To begin with, my main involvement was limited to some economic and statistical aspects of this huge and complex array of topics. Over time, however, my interests and concerns have broadened in ways that I had neither planned nor anticipated. Increasingly, and unexpectedly, I have become critical of the way in which issues of climate change have been viewed and treated by governments across the world.

In particular, I have become a critic of the official expert advisory process which governments have created and continue to rely on, within which the main single element is the work of the IPCC as reflected in its successive Assessment Reports. Over the past 22 years governments everywhere, and a great many outside observers too, have put their trust in the expert advisory process as a whole and the IPCC process in particular. I have come to believe that this widespread trust is unwarranted

In the remainder of this note I first summarize my reasons for holding this view (‘diagnosis’) and then sketch out some broad suggestions for improvement (‘prescription’). In the interests of brevity, I have not directly responded to the list of ten questions that the Inter-Academy Council has drawn up. In answer to the first question, however, I have played no part in any of the IPCC assessments.


In the ‘principles governing IPCC work’, laid down by the Panel’s member governments, the IPCC is required to conduct its assessments on ‘a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis’. This requirement has not been met. The process of preparation of the Assessment Reports is far from being a model of rigor, inclusiveness and impartiality. It has shown itself to be professionally flawed.

The main headings of unprofessional conduct, none of which I would have noticed or suspected had I not become seriously involved, have been as follows:

  • Over-reliance on in-group peer review procedures which do not serve as a guarantee of quality and do not ensure due disclosure;
  • Serious and continuing failures of archiving and disclosure in relation to peer-reviewed studies which the IPCC and member governments have drawn on;
  • Continuing resistance to disclosure of basic information which reputable journals increasingly insist on as a precondition for acceptance of papers;
  • Basic errors in the handling of data, through failure to consult or involve trained statisticians;
  • Failure to take due account of relevant published work which documented the above lapses, while disregarding IPCC criteria for inclusion in the assessment process;
  • Failure to take due note of comments from dissenting critics who took part in the preparation of the Panel’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4);
  • Resisting the disclosure of professional exchanges within the AR4 drafting process, despite the instruction of member governments that IPCC proceedings should be ‘open and transparent’; and last but far from least
  • Failure on the part of the IPCC and its directing circle to acknowledge the above deficiencies, still less to remedy them.

Comprehensive exposure of these flaws has come from a number of independent commentators: in particular, in relation to key chapters of the highly influential AR4 report from the IPCC’s Working Group I, the work of Stephen McIntyre, Ross McKitrick and David Holland has been outstanding, while the (2006) report of the Wegman inquiry is a key document.

In this context, I would particularly commend to the Review Committee two papers: David Holland’s ‘Bias and Concealment in the IPCC Process’ (Energy and Environment, Vol. 18, No. 7+8, 2007), and Ross McKitrick’s chapter in The Global Warming Debate, a book published in 2008 by the American Institute for Economic Research.

Both papers, with full supporting evidence, put in question, first, the claims to authority of arguments which have been at the core of the IPCC’s treatment of the scientific evidence, and second, the objectivity and neutrality of leading IPCC authors and reviewers.

These two documents predate

(1) the mass release of emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia (’Climategate’), and

(2) the evidence that has emerged concerning sources and treatment of evidence in the AR4 report from the IPCC’s Working Group II (‘Glaciergate’).

Under both headings, and especially the former, what has now come to light powerfully reinforces the case made by critics of the IPCC process. Both developments are taken into account in the important paper which David Holland has just submitted as evidence to the Review Committee.

As noted, the defects in the IPCC process, and the official expert advisory process more broadly, have gone unacknowledged and unremedied by what I call the environmental policy milieu, and the critics have been largely disregarded. This high-level official failure, as also the defects themselves, are easily accounted for: both have resulted from chronic and pervasive bias.

Right from the start, members of the milieu, as of the IPCC’s directing circle, have been characterized by what has been well termed ‘pre-commitment to the urgency of the climate cause’. Today as in the past, the senior officials involved, in national governments and international agencies, are committed persons; and were this not the case, and known to be the case, they would not be where they are.

They and their predecessors would not have sought their respective posts, nor would they have been seen by UN agencies and member governments as eligible to hold them, had they not been identified as holding that human activities are putting the planet at risk. The official advisory process is run today, as it has been from the start, by true believers.

To repeat: it is not just the IPCC process that is in question here. The basic problem of unwarranted trust goes further: it extends to the chronically biased treatment of climate change issues by responsible departments and agencies which the Panel reports to, and in nationally-based organisations which they finance.

It is not only the environmental policy milieu that is to blame for the mishandling by governments of climate change issues. As a former Treasury official and international civil servant, I have been surprised by the failure of economic departments in OECD member countries to audit the evidence bearing on climate change issues, their uncritical acceptance of the results of a process of inquiry which is so obviously biased and flawed, and their lack of attention to the criticisms of that process which have been voiced by independent outsiders – criticisms which they ought to have been making themselves.

A similar lack of resource has characterized the Research Department of the IMF and the Economics Department of the OECD. In all these departments and agencies, there has been a conspicuous failure of due diligence.


The chief moral to be drawn is straightforward. In an area of policy where so much is at stake, and so much remains uncertain and unsettled, policies should be evolutionary and adaptive, rather than presumptive as they are now; and their evolution should be linked to a process of inquiry and review which is more thorough, balanced, open and objective than has so far been the case.

Under the latter heading, two broad lines of official action could be followed. One is to focus on the IPCC process, by making it more professionally representative and watertight, while the other is to go beyond it. The more that can be done under the first heading, the less the need for action under the second. I believe that both can contribute, the more so since action under the second heading can be taken by national governments on their own account.

In his submission to the Review Committee, referred to above, David Holland has made 15 specific recommendations for improving the IPCC process. All of these are good suggestions. Here I would emphasize, in more general terms, three related aspects of reform, including but not confined to the IPCC. These are disclosure, inclusiveness and audit.

As to disclosure, two basic changes to IPCC practice should be made, with wider implications.

First, it should be clearly laid down, in the instructions to the Panel from its member governments, that no published work would qualify for consideration in the IPCC assessment process without evidence of proper archiving and full disclosure of data and code. Journal editors should be informed accordingly.

Second, governments should ensure that the IPCC assessment and review process actually conforms to the official requirement that it should be objective, open, and transparent. Specific proposals to that effect are made in David Holland’s submission.

Due disclosure would in itself promote greater inclusiveness, and both are required for more effective audit. With disclosure, non-subscribers to received opinion would be more fully informed and could no longer be easily disregarded or set aside; hence they would have better reason to take part in an assessment process which has become increasingly conformist with time.

Nor is it just critics of prevailing scientific opinion who should become more involved, with official knowledge and consent. There is an important role to be defined and made effective for neutral expertise, in the context of what has been rightly described as ‘the need for comprehensive audit of the quality of the science-based information on climate risk that is currently being used by governments to set public policy’.

More broadly, and going beyond the IPCC process, a new start is needed in the official handling of climate change issues. Neither the current official policy consensus nor the advice on which it rests should be treated as authoritative or final. Both should be seen, not as established doctrine, but rather as a body of working assumptions.

As such, they should be made subject to rigorous testing and review; and it should be a leading concern of policy to ensure that such testing and review takes place. The whole notion of a now-settled consensus should be discarded.

Governments should promote open exchanges of view and contrasting informed assessments. It should no longer be presumed either that the scientific debate is over or that the present official expert advisory process is professionally up to the mark, which it is not.

Appendix: David Henderson Profile

Britain’s David Henderson was formerly (1984–92) head of the Economics and Statistics Department of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD) in Paris.

Before this, he had worked as an academic economist in Britain, first in Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later (1975–83) in University College London (Professor of Economics); as a national civil servant – in the 1950s, as an Economic Adviser in Her Majesty’s Treasury, and the 1960s, as Chief Economist in the UK Ministry of Aviation; and as an international civil servant (with the World Bank (1969–75), where he was at one stage Director of the Economics Department.

In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in book form under the title of Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

Since leaving the OECD, Henderson has been an independent author and consultant, and has acted as Visiting Fellow or Professor at the OECD Development Centre (Paris), the Centre for European Policy Studies (Brussels), Monash University (Melbourne), the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques (Paris), the University of Melbourne, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (London), the New Zealand Business Roundtable, the Melbourne Business School, and the Institute of Economic Affairs (London).

From 2001–09 he was a Visiting Professor at the Westminster Business School, London. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Chairman of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. He is an Honorary Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and in 1992 he was made Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George.


  1. Richard W. Fulmer  

    Professor Henderson,
    Before any of the problems you so ably diagnose can be addressed, either the IPCC or the governments that fund it must recognize that those problems exist. Given their incentives, such recognition seems very unlikely. If global warming is not a crisis, the IPCC’s money dries up. And politicians never want to see a good crisis go away lest it “go to waste.”


  2. Paul Penrose  

    While as a practical matter I tend to subscribe to Mr. Fulmer’s view, I also understand that it was the Professor’s remit to advise the panel regardless. It may have been a fools errand, however I still think it was necessary to at least attempt to set things right. Thank you for your effort Professor Henderson.


  3. Chip Knappenberger  

    This is an excellent set of comments by Dr. Henderson.

    Dr. Roger Pielke Sr. has also made his comments to the InterAcademy Council Review available, and his underlying theme is similar to Dr. Henderson’s—that is, the IPCC is directed by a relatively small group of people who want to control how the science of climate change is presented to policymakers and the general public.

    Ths should hardly come as a big surprise to anybody at this point in time!

    As I have pointed out in a recent MasterResource post, “assessments” by their very nature simply reflect the prevailing attitudes of the people doing the assessing. Compare and contrast the most-recent IPCC Assessment Report on climate change with the NIPCC Assessment Report.

    Selecting “neutral” scientists to produce the assessments may help provide a less biased presentation of the science, but good luck in finding any. And those that are identified as such a priori, I am sure will not continued to be considered so a posteriori.

    I don’t think any amount of reformation is going to turn the IPCC into a disinterested group of “honest brokers” despite their claims to the contrary.



  4. Richard W. Fulmer  

    Mr. Penrose,
    You’re absolutely right. The only chance of opening the “settled science” of climate change to real discussion is to keep airing the facts.


  5. See You in Mid-August « NoFrakkingConsensus  

    […] David Henderson (economist, UK) submission, intro here […]


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