“What the science community needs is a few huge donors to throw millions of dollars behind PR campaigns to counter the propaganda out there,” one author of the disputed three part UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report told the UK Guardian in defense of the panel’s chair, Rajendra Pachauri. “This is a transient and manufactured crisis and will likely go away with time,” the author said.
Other IPPC scientists disagree, calling the introduction of a mistake about melting glaciers into the landmark 2007 report “sloppy,” according to the Guardian. The group of experts, who worked on the section of the report that considered the physical science of global warming, say the error by “social and biological scientists” has unfairly maligned their work and feel the panel’s chair should resign.
In February, Dutch Environment Minister, Jacqueline Cramer, demanded a thorough investigation into the 2007 report after a Dutch magazine uncovered it incorrectly states 55 percent of the country lies below sea level. The Dutch national bureau for environmental analysis has taken responsibility for the incorrect figure cited by the IPCC. Only 26 percent of the Netherlands is really below sea level.
Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate change official, has announced his resignation, which will take effect July 1, five months before 193 countries are due to reconvene in Mexico for another attempt at a global deal on climate.
Do we want to deal with this problem or not?”
The IPCC correction combined with the release of private emails from global warming scientists at the University of East Anglia has raised suggestions of a crisis in climate science.
The UN climate change panel IPCC not only wrongly predicted Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, it also put more than half of the Netherlands below sea level. The error surfaced at a time when the IPCC is already under fire for another false claim that revealed earlier this week. The 2007 report states glaciers in the Himalayas will disappear by 2035, while the underlying research claims the mountain ice would last until 2350, British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph discovered.
When Cramer heard of that blunder she wrote a letter to the IPCC, saying she was “not amused” there were mistakes in the scientific report she bases the Dutch environmental policies on. Now she is confronted with errors in the data about her own country. “This can’t happen again,” the minister told reporters in The Hague on Wednesday. “The public trust in science and politics has been badly damaged.”
The IPCC based its claim about Dutch vulnerability to rising sea level on data it received from the Netherlands environmental assessment agency PBL. “The Netherlands is an example of a country highly susceptible to both sea-level rise and river flooding because 55% of its territory is below sea level where 60% of its population lives and 65% of its Gross National Product (GNP) is produced,” according to the report.”
But the Dutch agency now admits it delivered incomplete wording to the panel. “It should have said 55 percent of the Netherlands is vulnerable to floods; 26 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level and another 29 percent can suffer when rivers flood,” the PBL said in a statement after the mistake was uncovered by Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland on Wednesday.
The error features in chapter 12.2.3 of the “Impact, adaptation and vulnerability” section of the IPPC report. This part of the analysis was drafted by the so-called working group II, a different group than the one that wrote the part about the scientific basis of climate change and its causes.
One of the reasons the document is error-prone is in the width of its scope, experts say. A description of consequences of climate change all over the world is bound to touch on areas few people know anything about. In its report, the IPCC draws on publications assessed by outside scientists, reports from organisations like the World Bank and management consulting firm McKinsey, and even descriptions from tourist guides and observations from volunteers. Those sources have to be supported by others and are scrutinised through “qualitative analysis.” But a problem in the analysis is there are few scientists in the world who know a lot about regional effects. Few people have enough knowledge and insight to predict longtime trends in ice development in the Himalaya, for example.
The Dutch mistake, however, is of a different order. Scientists missed the incorrect wording of the claim that they received from the PBL. Maarten Hajer, the director of that agency argued the conclusions of the IPPC are still solid: climate is changing, the earth is warming up and human behaviour is to blame for a large part of that. He did acknowledge damage had been done to the reputation of climate scientists. “But I prefer to call it a scratch in the finish rather than a dent,” he said.
Climate scientists hit out at ‘sloppy’ melting glaciers error.
The IPCC report combined the output from three independent working groups, which separately considered the science, impacts and human response to climate change, and published their findings several months apart.
The report from working group two, on impacts, included a false claim that Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035, which was sourced to a report from campaign group WWF. The IPCC was forced to issue a statement of regret, though Pachauri and senior figures on the panel have refused to apologise for the mistake.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, several lead authors of the working group one (WG1) report, which produced the high-profile scientific conclusions that global warming was unequivocal and very likely down to human activity, told the Guardian they were dismayed by the actions of their colleagues.
“Naturally the public and policy makers link all three reports together,” one said. “And the blunder over the glaciers detracts from the very carefully peer-reviewed science used exclusively in the WG1 report.” Another author said: “There is no doubt that the inclusion of the glacier statement was sloppy. I find it embarrassing that working group two (WG2) would have the Himalaya statement referred to in the way it was.” Another said: “I am annoyed about this and I do think that WG1, the physical basis for climate change, should be distinguished from WG2 and WG3. The latter deal with impacts, mitigation and socioeconomics and it seems to me they might be better placed in another arm of the United Nations, or another organisation altogether.”
The scientists were particularly unhappy that the flawed glacier prediction contradicted statements already published in their own report. “WG1 made a proper assessment of the state of glaciers and this should have been the source cited by the impacts people in WG2,” one said. “In the final stages of finishing our own report, we as WG1 authors simply had no time to also start double-checking WG2 draft chapters.”
Another said the mistake was made “not by climate scientists, but rather the social and biological scientists in WG2 … Clearly that WWF report was an inappropriate source, [as] any glaciologist would have stumbled over that number.”
The discovery of the glaciers mistake has focused attention on the IPCC’s use of so-called grey literature: reports that do not appear in conventional scientific journals, and are instead drawn from sources such as campaign groups, companies and student theses. The IPCC’s rules allow such grey literature, but many people have been surprised at the scale of its inclusion.
The report from WG2 cited the erroneous WWF report again, though not the glacier claim, in a separate section on human health, and also referenced reports from Greenpeace, the World Resources Institute, wildlife trade group Traffic as well as insurance companies Swiss Re and Axa. Working group three draws extensively on grey literature, including a newspaper article from the Asia Times.
Most WG1 scientists contacted by the Guardian defended the use of grey literature. “In many cases these reports have to use grey literature and anecdotal evidence because there is nothing else available, for example reports of sea level rise on small island states.”
Another author said: “Part of the problem is that WG2 largely involves the social science community. They are more used to referring to a diversity of sources, in fact, expert opinion is also an important analysis tool in the social sciences.”
Several authors defended Pachauri and the IPCC process. “The IPCC is not a hierarchical, top-down organisation. The chapter authors have great freedom in writing their assessment without interference from the top, and so it should be.”
Do we owe anything to future generations who are not here today to be part of the decision-making process. Science and the IPCC cannot answer these questions.”