20 December 2009

Does the IPCC Chairman Have Conflicts of Interest?

The Telegraph has an article today on the many business-related associations of Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Here is an excerpt:

In 2007, for instance, he was appointed to the advisory board of Siderian, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm specialising in ‘sustainable technologies’, where he was expected to provide the Fund with ‘access, standing and industrial exposure at the highest level’,

In 2008 he was made an adviser on renewable and sustainable energy to the Credit Suisse bank and the Rockefeller Foundation. He joined the board of the Nordic Glitnir Bank, as it launched its Sustainable Future Fund, looking to raise funding of £4 billion. He became chairman of the Indochina Sustainable Infrastructure Fund, whose CEO was confident it could soon raise £100 billion.

In the same year he became a director of the International Risk Governance Council in Geneva, set up by EDF and E.On, two of Europe’s largest electricity firms, to promote ‘bio-energy’. This year Dr Pachauri joined the New York investment fund Pegasus as a ‘strategic adviser’, and was made chairman of the advisory board to the Asian Development Bank, strongly supportive of CDM trading, whose CEO warned that failure to agree a treaty at Copenhagen would lead to a collapse of the carbon market.

The list of posts now held by Dr Pachauri as a result of his new-found world status goes on and on. He has become head of Yale University’s Climate and Energy Institute, which enjoys millions of dollars of US state and corporate funding. He is on the climate change advisory board of Deutsche Bank. He is Director of the Japanese Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and was until recently an adviser to Toyota Motors. Recalling his origins as a railway engineer, he is even a policy adviser to SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company. . .
Do these associations result in a conflict of interest? The Telegraph appears to think so:
One subject the talkative Dr Pachauri remains silent on, however, is how much money he is paid for all these important posts, which must run into millions of dollars. Not one of the bodies for which he works publishes his salary or fees, and this notably includes the UN, which refuses to reveal how much we all pay him as one of its most senior officials. . . But the real question mark over TERI’s director-general remains over the relationship between his highly lucrative commercial jobs and his role as chairman of the IPCC.
Dr. Pachauri responded to the article in very strong terms alleging that the Telegraph article was somehow associated with those who released the CRU emails:
Reacting to the report, Pachauri told TOI: ‘‘These are a pack of lies from people who are getting desperate. They want to go after the guy whose voice is being heard. I haven’t pocketed a single penny from my association with companies and institutes. All honoraria that I get goes to TERI and to its Light a Billion Lives campaign for reaching solar power to people without electricity. All my dealings are totally above board.’’

Pachauri pointed out that the previous IPCC chairman was in the World Bank and the one before that was a professor. ‘‘Can you then say the university benefsited from his association with IPCC? The people who have flung these charges are part of the same vested interest group which hacked the server of UK’s East Anglia University. They are getting desperate because the world is now serious about moving away from fossil fuels. I want to ask them how much money they spent in the operation? Hacking a server is a costly exercise,’’ he said.

On TERI’s links with the Tata group, Pachauri said, ‘‘Our ties ended when Darbari Seth, who was on our board, died in 1999. We haven’t received a single penny from Tatas for years and have no ties with them.’’ He added that TERI submits its yearly accounts to the government under Section 12 of the income tax law. ‘‘We fully comply with all government laws,’’ he said.

Pachauri, who recently took up the post of the head of the Climate and Energy Institute at Yale University, said the appointment was held up for a while because he had insisted that his salary be credited to TERI. ‘‘My conscience is clear and that is why I am cool towards these allegations.’’

On whether he intends to take legal action against the report, Pachauri said he hadn’t made up his mind. ‘‘Action against these people only gives dignity to these guys,’’ he added.
What are the guidelines for the IPCC for conflicts of interest and disclosure? I can find nothing on their web site. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), one of the parent bodies of the IPCC has a Code of Ethics (PDF) that says the following:
21. Staff members avoid any conflict of interest, or appearance of conflict of interest, in the performance of their duties. They:

a) Disclose in advance possible conflicts of interest that arise in the course of carrying out their duties;

b) Refrain from acting in the course of their duties with respect to a matter in which they or someone with whom they have a close relationship, or from whom they are seeking employment or other benefit or favour, has a special interest; and

c) Refrain from any active association with the management of and hold no financial interest in any profit seeking or other concern which might benefit by reason of their position in the WMO.

22. Officials holding senior positions and all officials with responsibility for preparing or taking procurement decisions or investing or managing financial assets make financial disclosures annually and more often as required.
The United Nations, the other parent body of the IPCC, has this to say about conflict of interest in its Standards of conduct for the international civil service (PDF):
21. It can happen that international civil servants are confronted with a question entailing a conflict of interest; such questions can be very sensitive and need to be treated with care. Conflict of interest includes circumstances in which international civil servants, directly or indirectly, would appear to benefit improperly, or allow a third party to benefit improperly, from their association in the management or the holding of a financial interest in an enterprise that engages in any business or transaction with the organization.

22. There can be no question but that international civil servants should avoid assisting private bodies or persons in their dealings with their organization where this might lead to actual or perceived preferential treatment. This is particularly important in procurement matters or when negotiating prospective employment. At times, international civil servants may be required to disclose certain personal assets if this is necessary to enable their organizations to make sure that there is no conflict. They should also voluntarily disclose in advance possible conflicts of interest that arise in the course of carrying out their duties. They should perform their official duties and conduct their private affairs in a manner that preserves and enhances public confidence in their own integrity and that of their organization.
Based on the WMO and UN discussions of conflicts of interest, it seems clear that Dr. Pachauri has, at the very least, several associations that raise the appearance of a conflict of interest in such a way that does not preserve and enhance "public confidence in their own integrity and that of their organization." Since we do not have details on Dr. Pachauri's activities or compensation from these various organizations and businesses, it is impossible to tell what, if any, conflicts actually may exist.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect high-ranking IPCC officials to follow the WMO and UN guidelines for conflict of interest and disclosure. Apparently, they presently do not follow these or any other such practices. If the IPCC does not have any policies governing these issues, it certainly needs to develop them, lest they give the impression that climate scientists play by different rules than everyone else.

The issue of conflict of interest is complicated. Earlier this year, I helped prepare a report of the Bipartisan Policy Center on the role of science in regulatory decision making (here in PDF) as part of a project seeking to help the Obama Administration improve federal science policies. Here is an excerpt from our report:
The general principles that the National Academy of Sciences uses to define conflict of interest apply equally well to the government: “The term ‘conflict of interest’ means any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual because it (1) could significantly impair the individual’s objectivity or (2) could create an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization….[Conflict] means something more than individual bias. There must be an interest, ordinarily financial, that could be directly affected by the work of the committee. Conflict of interest requirements are objective and prophylactic. They are not an assessment of one’s actual behavior or character….[For regulatory issues], the focus of the regulatory inquiry is on the identification...of any interests that may be directly affected by the use of such reports in the regulatory process.”12 (Italics in the original.)

Our panel did not reach agreement on a complete set of circumstances that should be considered to constitute a conflict of interest. This again underscores the need for clear definitions and illustrative cases in federal policy as the definition is not obvious. (See the Appendices of this chapter for a list of the circumstances our panel considered, and for a comparison of conflict policies used by a variety of institutions.)

Our panel did agree that certain relationships should be considered a conflict. For example, an employee of a company that has a product under review, or a scientist funded by that company to research or defend that particular product should be considered to have a conflict of interest vis-à-vis an advisory committee reviewing the environmental or health impacts of that product. The same would be true of someone with the same links to a competing product.

The panel also agreed that the question to be asked in defining a conflict of interest is whether a particular financial relationship would tend to constrain a generic individual’s point of view. Such relationships need to be defined as conflicts regardless of the source of the funding.
As part of getting its house in order, the climate science community needs to take seriously issues of conflict of interest and develop formal processes to help foster public confidence and trust in leading institutions. "Trust us, we're scientists" probably isn't going to work any longer.