Recapping the IPCC's Scandalous First Two Months of 2010: Sloppiness, Errors & Nitpicking

ipcc report cover image

image: IPCC

In the past eight weeks or so since COP15 the IPCC has gotten itself into the headlines for mostly all the wrong reasons. Though frankly none of the revelations about the world's authoritative climate change body undermine the basic science of climate change, or the fact that we need to collectively address it, the casual observer might think otherwise. Let's take a a quick look back at some the allegations:Himalayan Glaciers Gone by 2035? Nope
In the second week of the year the story began emerging that an oft-quoted claim in the 2007 IPCC report--one which figured quite prominently into a number of TreeHugger posts, it must be admitted--regarding the rate at which glaciers in the Himalayas were melting was suspect. The claim was that in parts of the mountain range glaciers might be gone by 2035. Though there seem to be a couple of plausible explanations for the origin of this claim, it found its way into the IPCC report via a WWF paper on the subject.

The trouble is that the figure quoted was entirely speculative, not peer reviewed, and even magnified through what seemed to be popular internet inflation of range--the original statement was made about a certain part of the Himalayas, but got expanded by some to be all of the glaciers throughout the range. Even though there were always scientists questioning the statement, the 2035 date stuck.

The IPCC eventually came around and retracted the statement, issuing a public apology on the matter.

Though it provided much fuel to the fire burning under the organization, the fact of the matter is that with a few exceptions glaciers worldwide are indeed retreating at historically high rates. Even those few which are advancing can be at least in part attributed to changing local climatic conditions.

The IPCC Chair Getting Rich From Climate Change? Nope
In all this it didn't help that people were alleging that IPCC head Dr Rajendra Pachauri may have known about the problem with the date before COP15. There were calls for him to make a personal apology or even resign.

In fact Pachauri himself was subject to personal attacks in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference, the sort of which picked up after the retraction of the Himalayan glacier claim.

The IPCC chair was personally profiting from promoting international action on climate change, getting rich even. Possibly even having ties to polluting industries. The trouble is that none of it was true once the surface of the situation was penetrated.

In fact, the IPCC chair isn't actually paid a salary, only receiving travel expenses. Any money received for speaking or the like is turned back to the research institute in India which he heads, and pays him what amounts to, by developed nation standards, a decidedly middle class salary. In fact many of the people attacking him for supposedly getting rich from climate change probably have much much higher salaries themselves.

As for the criticism that Dr Pachauri had a taste for expensive suits, he even revealed that his tailor in India charges him the equivalent of about $50 a suit.

Amazon Not Threatened by Global Warming? Nope
Following quickly behind these accusations were ones about more improper citations in the 2007 assessment report. This time they were about the possibility of the Amazon turning to savannah because of climate change. Another piece of so-called grey literature (non-peer reviewed) was cited by the IPCC.

Unfortunately for those looking for evidence of error, it turned out that even if the citation was sloppy, the science behind it was solid. A good deal of the Amazon rainforest is at risk of turning into savannah, or at least a significantly different type of forest as precipitation patterns change in the region.

Wrong on Amount of Netherlands Below Sea Level? Yup
Most recently a background note in the 2007 report has come to light as being incorrect.

It states that 55% of the Netherlands is currently below sea level, and therefore obviously even more at risk than the rest of the low-lying country to rising sea levels. As it turns out, and the IPCC admits, 26% of the nation is actually below sea level and 29% susceptible to river flooding. Still a vulnerable situation, but not as severe in implication as the original statement.

All in all a definitely wrong statement, but more than anything else a case of sloppiness than ineptitude.

Time for the IPCC to Open Up? Yup
All of this really leads to the question of what comes next for the IPCC and whether some alternate system or organization is needed. In the middle of all this New Scientist came out with an editorial saying that, in essence, the IPCC needs to get with the times and open up. They need to make more frequent issue-oriented updates between the large assessment reports. They need to review how literature gets cited and what gets officially included. They need to make use of the internet community that has grown up and is maturing since the IPCC was first formed. It's an idea worth paying attention to.

Climate Science Undermined by It All? Nope
On the balance, through beyond a doubt there are errors in the 2007 assessment report, none of them undermines climate change science. In fact when it comes to rates of ice melting and sea level rise the report is overwhelmingly too conservative in its projections.

While we collectively need to work to point out these issues when they arise, I have to wonder, much like the timing of the Climategate email story, to what degree the unearthing and reporting of the IPCC errors is collective schadenfreude or willful misinformation on the part of those doing the exposing.

Global Climate Change
Himalayan Glaciers Entirely Gone by 2035?!? Probably Not.
IPCC Head Pachauri Says Climate Skeptics, Lobbyists Will Ramp Up Efforts to Sabotage 2010 Global Deal
Amazon Rainforest Near Tipping Point - IPCC Projections of Decline Validated

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