The political fight over the science of global warming took another turn when the United Nations announced Wednesday that it was initiating an investigation into the practices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The probe will be run by an international consortium of national academies of science, the InterAcademy Council. The yet-to-be-staffed panel is charged with developing recommendations on procedural improvements that the global climate-science advisory body should adopt as it prepares a new set of reports on climate science, due out in 2014.
The actions are a response to more than three months of embarrassing revelations, beginning with the widespread publication of e-mails either leaked or hacked from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in England.
The e-mails opened a window on the personal attacks, short tempers, and internal politics that often come with research – all the more so in fields on which the political process has placed so much emphasis.
Through it all, most researchers agree that these basic conclusions contained in the IPCC reports remain solidly intact: Warming since the Industrial Revolution is "unequivocal"; most of the warming the climate has undergone during the past half century is "very likely" due to human influence; that warming's effects are appearing in virtually every region around the globe, and in many cases faster than models have projected; and that countries will need to adopt what Stanford University's Christopher Field refers to as "a portfolio of measures" for adaptation to change, as well as to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and land-use practices that have compounded the change.
"None of these scientific conclusions have been fundamentally challenged by any of the recent issues associated with the IPCC," said Dr. Field, who co-chairs one of the IPCC's three working groups and heads the Carnegie Institution's department of global ecology.
The constant tugging over climate science and the behaviors revealed in the hacked e-mails are traceable to politicians demanding of science something it was never designed to deliver, according to Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.
"Science has been called on to do something beyond its purview: not just improve people's understanding of the world, but compel people to act in a particular way," he writes in a recent issue of the journal Nature. "Rehabilitation of climate policy is a matter not of getting the science right, but of getting the politics right."