Three top climate scientists make claims of bias at major scientific institutions 

Three eminent climate scientists have given evidence to the Committee for Academic Freedom of what they claim is a bias in top scientific institutions against any research that does not support mitigation of climate change in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is a major international treaty, whose goal is to limit the increase in global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees, and preferably to 1.5 degrees.  

In 2018, the world’s leading science journal, Nature, published a paper by Professor Marshall Burke and colleagues, arguing that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees rather than 2 degrees by 2100 would save approximately $US40 trillion in economic damages. The paper assessed only the scale of the economic damage that would be avoided at 1.5 degrees. It did not assess the economic costs of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. It was thus a “benefit analysis” of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, and not a “cost-benefit analysis”.  

Dr Patrick Brown is co-director of the Climate and Energy Team at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research centre in California. CAF has previously written about Dr Brown here. Following the publication of Burke’s paper, Brown wrote a paper which used Burke’s methods to calculate the costs of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, and then compared these with the costs avoided.   

Brown found that, using Burke’s methodology, the net value of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees would be a loss of $40 trillion by 2100. Brown noted, however, that by the year 2300 this loss would be reversed, with net benefits running to potentially thousands of trillions of US$. In other words, Brown’s findings suggest that the economic benefits of mitigation to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees will not be felt until far into the next century. Thus, Brown’s work could be used to argue against the desirability of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, in line with the Paris Agreement.  

Brown submitted his paper to Nature. The paper was “desk rejected” by the editor, meaning that it did not even reach the peer-review stage. The reason given is that it was of insufficient interest to the journal’s readership. This is bizarre, as the paper merely extended Burke’s work, which Nature had already published.  Brown thinks that the blunt refusal of Nature, on a flimsy pretext, to allow his research to progress to peer-review and possible publication is evidence of a bias at Nature against research that does not support mitigation in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.   

Brown subsequently submitted his paper to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). Again it was rejected summarily. It was eventually published in the less prestigious PLOS ONE journal.   

Separately, Professor Michael Kelly FRS and Mr Clive Hambler have claimed that the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have a strong bias against research that does not support mitigation of climate change in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.  

Professor Kelly was Prince Philip Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge  and has been awarded the Royal Society’s  Hughes Medal. Mr Hambler is a lecturer in ecology and conservation at the University of Oxford. He was the first to demonstrate the significant similarities between the extinction rates of terrestrial and freshwater organisms, and helped to create the first conservation courses at the University of Oxford.  

Kelly and Hambler have authored a paper, “Improving Science Advice to Governments”. The paper is to be published shortly; a version for open peer-review is available online here. In this paper, Kelly and Hambler claim that both the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering deliberately “avoid speaking of the scale of the real challenge of CO2 emission reductions”. They claim further, that within the climate science disciplines, when it comes to  “the actual engineering projects needed to achieve net-zero… all debate is suppressed”.  Kelly and Hambler suggest that open debate would reveal serious difficulties in achieving net zero by 2050, which is thought to be required in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. They claim that the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering are unwilling to take action which might undermine support for mitigation in line with the Paris Agreement, and for this reason censor debate.  

Kelly and Hambler point out that their accusations, if true, are sufficient to put both learned societies in breach of their codes of conduct, which require them to be entirely honest, particularly when advising governments.   

As evidence, Kelly and Hambler cite the case of a discussion that Kelly and others pitched to the Royal Society in 2014, on ‘The Downsides of Decarbonising an Economy’. It was delayed in the Royal Society’s approval system for three years and then given to others, who changed it into a discussion on “Effective technology and policy options” required to decarbonise an economy. It was finally held in 2017. Unusually, the Royal Society did not publish the proceedings. Instead, a workshop report was made by the new organisers, who omitted any reference to the content of two papers prepared by Kelly and another of the original applicants. Material from all other presented papers was discussed. CAF has contacted the Royal Society for information about this unusual behaviour in the handling of a discussion. The Royal Society has responded, stating that “Peer review approval for meeting proposals is competitive and can take time” and that “Proposals for [this] meeting were developed over a number of years in close consultation with the proposers”.