Questions Swirl Around U.N.'s Climate Auditors

A little-known group called the InterAcademy Council has been made the voice of authority on the credibility of climate change, leaving critics scratching their heads -- and some key questions unanswered.

Acknowledging the rising tide of public skepticism toward global warming, the United Nations announced on March 10 that the IAC would act as an independent reviewer for its climate-science arm, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But a week later, the IAC remains a mystery, and it still hasn't explained who will be on the review panel or how the panel will operate.

And if it knows, it isn't saying. "The IAC expects to begin its IPCC review shortly and issue a report by August 31. There is no other statement," Anne Muller, program coordinator at the IAC, told

The IAC was founded in 2000 as an advisory body for the U.N. and the World Bank. Hosted by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in the Netherlands, the organization's Web site indicates that it  focuses on a range of issues, from examining "climate change and genetically modified organisms to the crucial challenge of achieving sustainability."

But in the decade it has existed, the IAC has accomplished little relevant to climate change -- the four major reports it has produced have focused on topics ranging from African agriculture to the role of women in science -- leading some experts to voice concerns that its review ultimately will be a whitewash, designed to silence them and provide cover for politicians.

"I've never heard of the group," Howard Hayden, editor and publisher of the Energy Advocate newsletter, told

He cited the first sentence from the IAC's 2007 report, "Toward a Sustainable Energy Future," which states that "achieving a sustainable energy future presents an urgent challenge for the 21st century. Current patterns of energy resources and energy usage are proving detrimental to the long-term welfare of humanity."

"From that much, I doubt we can expect objectivity," Hayden said.

"Like so many things, the devil is in the details," said Dr. Don J. Easterbrook, a professor of geology at Western Washington University and a noted commentator on global warming. "The only way to evaluate whether or not this is just another whitewashing job or a real bona fide review will be a look at the final makeup of the evaluating panel."

If the IAC's panel of scientists is composed of people who already believe that global warming is manmade, "then the review is a foregone conclusion and worthless," Easterbrook said.

Scandals have erupted during the last four months, seriously tainting the credibility of climate change data. First, scientists in the United Kingdom were caught covering up data that showed global warming has not occurred for the last 15 years. Then, the Copenhagen climate conference resulted in a standoff between the U.S., China, and the third world. More recently, U.N. researchers admitted that their forecasts of melting Himalayan glaciers, disappearing polar ice caps, and dwindling Amazon rainforests were based on shoddy evidence.

On March 10 -- the same day the IPCC announced the IAC panel -- a group of scientists acknowledged the errors in the Fourth Assessment report -- yet they still supported the IPCC's decision to bring in an outside reviewer.

In "An Open Letter from U.S. Scientists on the IPCC," Wesleyan University's Gary W. Yohe, Stanford's Stephen H. Schneider, NASA's Cynthia Rosenzweig and others wrote that "we are pleased that an independent critical evaluation of IPCC procedures will be conducted; we hope that the process will solicit participation by the National Academies of the member nations."

Yet the group also demanded further accountability, pointing out that compliance with quality control procedures requires extra attention for IPCC's planned Fifth Report. The group urged the IPCC to "put an erratum on its Web site that rectifies all errors that have been discovered in the text after publication."

The IAC has not yet appointed the committee members for the review, but it has stated that it will serve pro-bono, and will be vetted to "assure a balance of perspectives." Expenses for traveling to meetings will be paid for by the United Nations. Findings are expected to be reported by the end of August.

"Our goal will be to assure nations around the world that they will receive sound, definitive, scientific advice on which governments and citizens alike can make informed decisions," Robbert Dijkgraaf, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and co-chairman of the IAC,  said in a statement.

Leading European scientist and former Harvard University physicist Lubos Motl sees the IAC as something of an "umbrella group" for various national academies of science across the globe.

Motl has authored a paper on string theory with one of the leaders of the IAC, and believes that he is "personally independent" of the U.N.'s control. But he too worries that other group members chosen for the panel may not be so independent.