IPCC/Climategate Criticism Roundup

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has always had a highly polished reputation, but it’s facing an unprecedented amount of criticism now. Here’s a roundup of recent criticism and commentary on Climategate and the IPCC, organized by five issues: 1) "glaciergate," 2) African crops, 3) disaster losses, 4) whether panel head Rajendra Pachauri has too many conflicts of interest to run the IPCC, and 5) the future of the panel.

“Glaciergate"

The section of the 2007 IPCC report that deals with climate impacts, called Working Group II, included a statement in its chapter on Asia (see p. 493) that Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than any other glaciers on Earth and “the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” That statement was challenged by an Indian government report released late last year that suggested, qualitatively, that “many” Himalayan glaciers were instead growing in size and that others were stable. (The report’s conclusions were first widely publicized in a November story in Science, and the flimsy basis for the “very high” statement in the 2007 report is detailed here, in a letter to Science by a Canadian expert on glaciers.

IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri at first defended IPCC, calling the Indian government report “voodoo science,” opening up a row with scientists in his country’s government.

But on 20 January, IPCC’s leadership, after examining the issue, issued a statement expressing “regret” over “the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance.” Op-eds followed: The Australian slammed the error, as did journalists and bloggers pointing out that the reporter who wrote the November story for Science, Pallava Bagla, told Pachauri about the error in late 2009, but it took the IPCC 2 months to issue a correction.

RealClimate sought to put the error into context, linking to several studies that make clear how much danger the Himalayan glaciers face.

African crop production could be halved by 2020

The right-leaning British Times Online, which first publicized the alleged error, called the assertion of this fact “the most important” of the issues yet to emerge from the 2007 report. The claim is examined in detail by blogger Richard North, who shows that the statement, repeated in a qualified way in the IPCC Synthesis Report (which summarizes the three working group texts), has a murky scientific basis. The statement is more pessimistic than other estimates of how warming could affect African agriculture, including predictions in the British Stern Review. In addition, the U.K. Met Office has emphasized the uncertainty surrounding predictions of crop productivity in Africa.

One point of reference for the issue of climate change and agriculture is this frightening paper published in Science in 2009. Subsequently cited in 54 papers, the Science study showed that even using the lower end of 23 climate models suggested that in the tropics at the end of the century, “the hottest seasons on record will represent the future norm in many locations,” with the devastating impacts on wheat and rice yields.

Disaster losses

On 24 January, the British Sunday Times resurrected complaints, previously aired 3 years ago, about the way that the 2007 IPCC report dealt with disaster losses. The report claimed that nations had "suffered rapidly rising costs due to extreme weather-related events since the 1970s." Its reference was a study by a British expert on disasters, Robert Muir-Wood. Policy expert Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, Boulder, whose work was also cited by IPCC, said that the report cherry-picked not only from among the literature to select a paper that delivered the conclusion it hoped to highlight—that a warming globe was worsening economic losses from disasters—but also from within Muir-Wood's paper.

IPCC defended its characterization of the matter, calling the Sunday Times story “misleading and baseless” and calling the 2007 report's handling of the issue “balanced treatment of a complicated and important issue.” The Union of Concerned Scientists concurred. But Pielke said in a detailed rejoinder to the IPCC defense that its response was a “poor showing.”

Susceptibility of the Amazon rainforest

"Up to 40 percent of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation,” says the 2007 report. "Bogus" was how the British conservative paper The Times characterized it, pointing out that the reference that gave that information was a non-peer-reviewed report by the World Wildlife Fund. But forest scientists who were cited in the same section of the IPCC report have come to the defense of the 40% statement, and it appears the error is one of citing the wrong references for the right information.

Pachauri and conflicts of interest

An 8 February New York Times story includes data on Pachauri’s salary and the Indian organization he runs, The Energy Research Institute. In a column published in Der Spiegel, Pielke and University of Hamburg economist Richard Tol and climate scientist Hans Von Storch said that IPCC needs to adopt conflict-of-interest guidelines akin to those of the United Nations or U.S. federal agencies. If they did so, they wrote, Pachauri would not be allowed to lead IPCC. “It appears that Pachauri has not broken any rules for the simple reason that there is no code of conduct governing conflicts of interest for IPCC participants and leaders,” they wrote.

Where the IPCC goes from here

There’s a good overview of the state of play in the Wall Street Journal here; the article asserts that scientists fear that the drumbeat of criticism about the 2007 report is damaging the report's credibility with the public. The Journal offers no data to back that concern, but a poll conducted by Yale University and George Mason University found that the number of respondents who believe that “global warming was happening” dropped from 71% to 57% between 2008 and January 2010. It is not known whether problems with IPCC were connected with that decline.

IPCC faces more criticism from politicians than ever: In the wake of the revelations about the Himalayan glaciers data, the U.K. director of Greenpeace called for Pachauri to step down; so has Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) and others. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin told a crowd recently that efforts to include the polar bear on the endangered species list are based on “these global warming studies that now we're seeing (is) a bunch of snake oil science."

On 2 and 4 February, IPCC released two documents describing its “principles and procedures” and declaring that the “the scientific community and the world can count on the IPCC to provide an accurate picture of what is known and what is not known.” But the articles were not widely publicized, and it is unclear whether they’ve had any effect. “Public relations is not our strong suit,” Carnegie Institution for Science ecologist Chris Field, Working Group II co-chair, told ScienceInsider.

Defra science chief is among the prominent scientists calling for reforms at IPCC; NASA veteran climate scientist Andrew Lacis says IPCC is right to highlight anthropogenic warming but is too political about it. In last week’s issue, Nature ran a series of short op-eds from climate scientists suggesting various reforms, including proposals to radically restructure the panel, tweak its procedures, speed up its reports, or replace it with a Wikipedia-type mechanism. The Guardian ran a useful piece last week laying out some of the options for reform; one particular gripe that many seem to agree on is that the IPCC effort has become too large and unwieldy.

The National Review says the next IPCC report may not matter much because recent events, they say, suggest that "the global-warming thrill ride looks to be coming to an end" as scientists have been shown to be overhyping the threat.

For a similar overview with more scientific detail and comments, see RealClimate here.

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