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Yet Another Climate Science Mess

IPCC Error Ignites New Wave of Attacks on Research

This  Feb. 1, 2005 file photo shows an aerial view of the Siachen Glacier, which traverses the Himalayan region dividing India and Pakistan, about 750 kilometers (469 miles) northwest of Jammu, India. SOURCE: AP/CHANNI ANAND With the latest climate scandal—this time, involving dubious claims made about the likely fate of the Himalayan glaciers—the case grows ever more urgent for serious rethinking of science communication practices.

Here we go again. In the all-out war to undermine the credibility of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—and with it, mainstream climate research—skeptics have once again found a relatively small weakness and blown it into a mega-scandal. And very sad to say, the IPCC has probably made the job a lot easier for them.

For the definitive account of what some are now calling “GlacierGate,” I refer you to Climate Science Watch’s Rick Piltz, whose exhaustive investigation and explanation shows clearly that the IPCC made an inexcusable error in the Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation, Vulnerability) volume of its Fourth Assessment Report. The peer review process broke down, and very dubious (and, indeed, plagiarized) claims were published about the likelihood of the Himalayan glaciers vanishing, due to climate change, by the year 2035. The central offending sentence is the following:

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

Not only is this business about 2035 an exceedingly dubious assertion, but part of the error seems traceable to a simple typo—an original source made predictions for the year 2350, not 2035.  When doubts were raised about the passage, however, the IPCC failed to respond either quickly or well. IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri even reportedly referred to a November Indian government report that questioned the IPCC’s findings about the glaciers’ vulnerability as “voodoo science.” Actually, the voodoo was all the IPCC’s, but the U.N. body only acknowledged its error several months after questions were first raised in the Indian report. “In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly,” the IPCC coughed out on January 20.

As a result of these flubs, the “Glaciergate” scandal has grown vastly larger than it should have, and skeptics are calling not only for the resignation of Pachauri, but even the revocation of the body’s 2007 Nobel Prize. There are also allegations that the erroneous content was added to the IPCC report for stark political reasons, but this seems questionable.

So without exonerating the IPCC in this instance—there is no defense for such shoddy work—let’s attempt to inject a little sanity here. The IPCC goofed, but we should keep matters in perspective. We’re talking about one tiny section of a 938-page report on how climate change will affect different parts of the world. It would be amazing if errors did not slip into such a vast document, whatever the professed peer review standards may be. And the mistake was originally caught not by skeptics, but by scientists, including an IPCC report co-author. In the broadest sense, the scientific process is actually working here, even if the IPCC stumbled in this case.

Moreover, Himalayan glaciers are retreating, even if they’re not doing so faster than glaciers in other parts of the world, and even if they won’t be gone by 2035. As a team of scientists who exposed the IPCC’s mistake in a letter to the journal Science judiciously put it:

This was a bad error. It was a really bad paragraph, and poses a legitimate question about how to improve IPCC’s review process. It was not a conspiracy. The error does not compromise the IPCC Fourth Assessment, which for the most part was well reviewed and is highly accurate.

That seems like a very balanced take on “GlacierGate”—which itself follows just months after the devastating “ClimateGate.” It is impossible not to compare the two—even as it is also extremely disheartening to do so.

Once again, this flub and its aftermath raises deep questions about how climate scientists respond to crises and scandal. One of the simplest rules of public relations is that the cover-up is worse than the crime, and that certainly seems to describe what happened in this instance.

More generally, in the case of both GlacierGate and ClimateGate, it needs to be understood that while many science defenders will seek to set the record straight in these instances, and put whatever failing has occurred in proper context, that’s not really enough to distract attention away from a scandal. True, the larger picture of climate science doesn’t change because of the various “-Gates”; but in each case, that larger picture isn’t the story of the moment. The scandal is; and shifting out of the scandal frame, once it has been firmly established, is difficult or impossible to do. You can’t rewind a punch to remove a black eye; you have to wait for the black eye to heal. That’s why these messes should be avoided in the first place, or defused immediately when they happen. (It is hard to believe that, with skeptics out to find anything they can to undermine the IPCC, they could ever vanish completely.)

In broadest perspective, it is time to recognize that it is all-out war right now in the climate research arena. Climate scientists are under concerted attack, as is the scientific information they produce and defend. Moreover, it’s a nastier and, in many ways, a worse situation than what obtained while George W. Bush was president. We’ve swapped a centrally organized government effort to distort climate science for a kind of grassroots, guerilla war against it, driven by blogs and skeptic scientist amateurs who nourish a powerful sense of self-motivation, a generous helping of anger and outrage, and seem to smell blood in the water.

Climate scientists must take this new threat with the utmost seriousness. Frankly, I’ve never seen things this bad, or climate research so vulnerable in the public eye. It is crisis time, folks. And the attacks are just going to keep on coming.

Chris Mooney is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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