19.3.2019

Problematic statements by secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization

The Finnish climate scientist Petteri Taalas works as the secretary general of the UN affiliated World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that also hosts the secretariat of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). WMO and IPCC have a central role in climate change research. Statements by these organizations and their personnel rightfully carry a lot of weight. For instance, statements by secretary general Taalas are often relied on by Finnish commentators and politicians. However, it has not always been clear on which research sources Taalas’ statements are based on, or if he presents them as the secretary general or as a private citizen. If the grounds for the statements are unknown or the point of view from which they are presented is unclear, public discussion may suffer.

Several different areas of public interest, such as politics and science, are crucial for grappling with climate change. The phenomena connected to climate change are varied and dispersed both temporally and spatially. A huge network of measuring instruments, long periods of observation and collaboration of thousands of scientists is needed for collecting the whole picture. As climate change also poses an existential challenge to societies, the scientific views have to be thoroughly vetted. The work done by IPCC is a prime example of high priority and top quality international scientific collaboration.

Consequently, part of the gravitas of science is transferred to scientists in the public sphere. Scientists have every right to present views on matters pertaining to the future of all humanity. To think that scientists have to stick to presenting only facts within their specific area of expertise is based on a too restricted understanding on both the concept of facts and the public role of science.

This means that a delicate balance needs to be struck. A scientist can and should speak up, and it is good and right that the weight of their views benefits from the overall prestige of science. At the same time the message should be presented in a manner that makes it possible to distinguish between statements presented as parts of well-established knowledge within the scientist’s field of expertise and statements presented as opinions whether as a scientist, as a citizen or as a participant of political discussion.

As a representative of their field, a scientist speaks with the authority of science. The personal integrity of the scientist is evaluated both within the relevant scientific discipline and more publicly. The scientific integrity and the public integrity are, however, two different things. Consequently, the public needs to be able to distinguish between views that are to be evaluated as peer-reviewed facts of the relevant field, and views that are to be evaluated on the basis of the personal integrity of the presenter.

Due to his scientific merits and his position in the WMO, the views of Petteri Taalas have rightfully received a lot of attention and have been very influential in the Finnish discussion. They are repeatedly referred to as grounds for particular policy positions. Unfortunately, the views presented by Taalas have also created some unclarities, as it has not always been clear whether they have been presented from the position of the secretary general of the WMO or from the position of a citizen or scientist taking part in public debate. More particularly, it has not been clear on what kind of scientific evidence Taalas’ views are based on.

In August 2018, shortly before the publication of the IPCC report “Global Warming of 1,5°C”, Taalas gave an interview in which he said that “warming over 3°C is realism” (ref).

The first problem in interpreting this statement is that it is unclear what kind of realism is meant here. Realism from the perspective of climate science or from the perspective of politics? And is the statement presented from the position of a climate scientist or from the position of a citizen? Like the senior adviser of Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra Oras Tynkkynen wrote in a reply to Taalas’ interview, scientifically, technically and economically it is possible to stop global warming to 1,5°C. Furthermore, as Tynkkynen put it, the scope of political realism is decided by politicians. It seems natural to interpret Taalas’ statement as saying that three degrees of warming is the outcome one can expect from the perspective of political realism, since one of the main tenets of the IPCC report was that there are pathways to considerably lower degrees of warming. This interpretation, however would mean that the view presented by the secretary general of the WMO, overseeing the secretary of the IPCC, is quite different from the views presented, for instance, by Debra Roberts, one of the authors of the report, who in connection to the publishing of the report said: “I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.”

Taalas has also given his support to the current Finnish forest policies that emphasise fellings for bioeconomy over the development of carbon sinks. He has said, for instance, that from the perspective of climate science and the atmosphere it is not a problem if forest carbon sinks temporarily shrink, if the emitted carbon is eventually captured (by the re-grown forests) (ref). The problem with this claim is that it directly contradicts the IPCC report. The report points out, first, that climate related risks, including potentially long-lasting or irreversible changes, depend on the peak of warming and carbon dioxide rates (A3.2.). It emphasises also that “Carbon cycle and climate system understanding is still limited about the effectiveness of net negative emissions to reduce temperatures after they peak”, which means that letting warming and GHG concentrations overshoot safe limits means taking unknown risks (C3.3.). All in all, the report emphasises the importance of the timescale with regard to emission reductions.

In addition, Taalas has stated that increasing carbon storage in old forests is not possible, as old forests are a source of carbon (ref). However, research suggests that old forests act as carbon sinks for a very long time, also in the boreal areas (1, 2, 3).(*) Old forests also have a major impact for biodiversity. Therefore a view according to which, from the climate perspective, old forests are a good target for logging (maybe even more preferable than younger forests) is doubly harmful.

Together the statements on forests contain the idea that a relatively rapid circulation of felling and regrowth is neutral from the carbon perspective. However, each felling causes a carbon debt that needs to be repaid by (re)growing biomass before neutrality is achieved. The carbon debt is greatest compared to a situation where no felling is done, when both the carbon sink and storage would have been preserved. The payback time is at least several decades (1, 2, 3). On top of this comes the problem mentioned above: even if the carbon is captured in the decades to come, it has already performed radiative forcing in the atmosphere, possibly contributing to warming and irreversible changes.

In connection to presenting these statements Taalas has said that the Finnish Climate Change Panel (an independent, interdisciplinary think tank serving as an advisor to the Finnish ministerial working group on energy and climate policy) has emphasised too much the opinions of researchers instead of doing forest research: “It is good that there is in Finland an entity that can present the views of the scientific community. But care should be taken, so that opinions do not get too much weight, but rather the task is to produce scientific knowledge for decision makers.” The irony is that it seems that in the statements mentioned above, Taalas has not been clear whether he is presenting opinions or established scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, his views seem to be in direct conflict with the views presented by the IPCC and by forest science.  

We asked directly both from Taalas and his colleagues in the WMO secretariat if they see a contradiction between the statements by Taalas and the research sources referred to above. Taalas replied to the message, but did not address the question. WMO personnel has not replied at all.


(*)
The report Biodiversity, carbon storage and dynamics of old northern forests contains from page 76 on a survey of research on carbon sinks and storage in old forests.

It is good to note that less than 5 percent of Finnish forests are untouched and more than two thirds less than 80 years old. The carbon balance of Finnish forests will be decided in the woods used for forestry and aging is not a threat to continued carbon capture in the near-to-mid term.