Worldwide glacier melt a real concern; Himalaya controversy leaves questions about IPCC leadership

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The IPCC on January 20 officially acknowledged “poorly substantiated rates of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers.” The controversy over the erroneous paragraph in the IPCC Working Group II Fourth Assessment Report should not overshadow the large body of evidence about anthropogenic climate change and its likely disruptive consequences, nor the overall IPCC synthesis conclusion that “Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability … in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.” But, as we said to ClimateWire, the IPCC should re-examine how it vets information when compiling future assessment reports. And, while the official IPCC mea culpa statement on January 20 is a necessary step in the right direction, it is not dispositive of questions this incident raises about the IPCC leadership and the organization’s public communications capabilities.

See February 5 post: Questions to an IPCC co-chair on ensuring the credibility of IPCC leadership and communications.

See January 19 post: IPCC slips on the ice with statement about Himalayan glaciers

Dan Vergano at USA Today (online science blog) reported on January 20:

U.N. apologizes for botched climate prediction

United Nations climate panel chiefs apologized Wednesday for a botched projection of all Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035.

In an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change statement, group chairman Rajendra Pachauri and other officials acknowledged “poorly substantiated rates of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”

The projection, which appeared in one volume of the Nobel-Prize-winning 2007 IPCC report, appears to have been lifted from an unreviewed online publication article written in 1999 by a researcher from India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, according to Climate Science Watch.

The Chair, Vice-Chair, and Co-Chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance,” says the IPCC statement….

Lauren Morello at ClimateWire / New York Times online reported today:

Climate Science Panel Apologizes for Himalayan Error

… Experts said the gaffes that came to light in recent weeks don’t undermine the IPCC report’s main conclusion—that evidence for global warming is “unequivocal,” and human activities are driving the climate shift. But some said the incident indicates broader problems with the IPCC process and could provide fodder for climate skeptics.

Jeffrey Kargel, an adjunct professor at Arizona State University who helped expose the IPCC’s errors, said the botched projections were “extremely embarrassing and damaging.”

“The damage was that IPCC had, or I think still has, such a stellar reputation that people view it as an authority—as indeed they should—and so they see a bullet that says Himalayan glaciers will disappear by 2035 and they take that as a fact,” he said. …

Now, there’s a danger that the uproar over the IPCC’s erroneous paragraph could overshadow the scientific group’s broader conclusions about the effects of climate change, said Ben Santer, a climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“Focusing on a mouse and ignoring the elephant would be a mistake,” he told reporters yesterday, especially since independent assessments by the National Academy of Sciences, the federal government and other sources echo the IPCC’s overall findings.

Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, agreed.

“Some errors can always get through the cracks,” he said. “These issues are very specific, and they do not detract from the overall findings of the IPCC. There’s a tremendous amount of data and evidence out there that points to human impact on our climate system.”

Credit to Santer and Thompson for getting out there in public with a scientifically based position. It should help to counter the inevitable science nihilism that the denial machine will demonstrate in a case like this, dismissing the overall evidence and attacking the overall integrity of the climate science community.

We talked with ClimateWire about the need for IPCC to examine its internal review procedures in light of this incident:

But other experts who follow climate science and policy said they believe the IPCC should re-examine how it vets information when compiling its reports.

Rick Piltz, director of the watchdog organization Climate Science Watch, noted that two separate groups within the IPCC produced very different findings about Himalayan glaciers in their contribution to the science panel’s Fourth Assessment Report.

The errors cropped up in a report by IPCC Working Group II, which “assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change and options for adapting to it.” But Working Group I, which examines the state of climate science, did not make similar claims.

“The IPCC are all overloaded and this one just got by them,” Piltz said. “The people from Working Group I with the real expertise did not look carefully at the Asia chapter of Working Group II. There’s a cross-working group vetting problem that needs to be handled better in the future.“…

Copyright 2010 E&E Publishing.

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We also are concerned about IPCC’s need for a leadership that is more skillful at getting out in front of problems like this with a public presence—instead of, as in this case, either seeming to ignore them, or talking about them only behind the scenes, and thus letting them fester until they blow up in the media with perhaps a greater potential for an anti-science-community framing.

Or, as also happened in this case, putting out cavalier and inaccurate statements in the media in response to criticism that later have to be walked back. In the emerging controversy over conflicting conclusions about the Himalayan glacier melt, in November 2009 IPCC chairman Pachauri spoke disdainfully of a report sponsored by the Indian government that concluded there is no evidence climate change has caused “abnormal” shrinking of Himalayan glaciers:

•  Pachauri said “We have a very clear idea of what is happening. I don’t know why the minister [Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister] is supporting this unsubstantiated research. It is an extremely arrogant statement.”

•  “Pachauri dismissed the report saying it was not `peer reviewed’ and had few `scientific citations’.

•  Pachauri said: “With the greatest of respect this guy [Vijay Kumar Raina, author of the report] retired years ago and I find it totally baffling that he comes out and throws out everything that has been established years ago.”

•  In response to statements from Raina, Pachauri said “that such statements were reminiscent of `climate change deniers and school boy science’.”

•  Pachauri said: “I cannot see what the minister’s motives are. We do need more extensive measurement of the Himalayan range but it is clear from satellite pictures what is happening.”

Thus, while the official IPCC mea culpa statement issued on January 20 is a necessary step in the right direction, it is not dispositive of the questions this incident raises about the IPCC leadership and the organization’s public communications capabilities.

IPCC statement on the melting of the Himalayan glaciers [1]

20 January 2010, Geneva

The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: “Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.”

This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.

It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938 page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment [2] refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.

The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-stablished IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of “the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report” [3]. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.

______
1 This statement is from the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the IPCC, and the Co-Chairs of the IPCC Working Groups.
2 The text in question is the second paragraph in section 10.6.2 of the Working Group II contribution and a repeat of part of the paragraph in Box TS.6. of the Working Group II Technical Summary of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.
3 This is verbatim text from Annex 2 of Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work

Earlier posts:
Sensenbrenner IPCC witch-hunt: Attempt to blacklist climate scientists must be rejected

IPCC statement on stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia

Ben Santer: Open letter to the climate science community

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