The 2035 glacier claim and the IPCC

Previously, I described an asymmetry between the approach of climate change deniers and climate scientists, with the latter unwilling to retract any claims no matter how poorly justified or effectively rebutted. I think the instance with the IPCC and ‘poorly substantiated’ Himalayan glacier data is illustrative.

A failure to properly vet some information has come to light, and the IPCC has responded in an open and honest way:

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-Chair, and Co-Chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established 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 in an IPCC report.

Climate deniers have jumped on all this to argue that it undermines the overall conclusions reached by the IPCC. Far from calling into question the overall scientific consensus, this willingness to concede errors demonstrates one of the reasons for which it is robust, namely a willingness to accept and respond to valid criticism. By contrast, deniers of various stripes tend to rub along well with one another, even when they have wildly different positions: that climate change isn’t happening, that it is actually beneficial, that it is caused by something other than greenhouse gases, etc.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “The 2035 glacier claim and the IPCC”

  1. U.N. Panel’s Glacier-Disaster Claims Melting Away

    By Gene J. Koprowski


    The world’s most famous climate change expert is in the midst of a massive controversy, as the leading environmental science institute he heads scrambled to explain data it promulgated for a U.N. report.

    Contacted by at TERI, officials would not respond to a request for additional comment. IPCC is expected to withdraw the report’s claim eventually.

    Hundreds of millions of people in India, Pakistan and China would be severely affected if the glaciers were actually to melt. There are some 9,500 Himalayan glaciers.

    Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh questioned the findings of the 2007 report during a news conference.

    “They are indeed receding and the rate is cause for great concern,” Ramesh said of the glaciers. But, he said, the IPCC’s 2035 forecast was “not based on an iota of scientific evidence.”

    One of the key elements in the growing scandal is the revelation that IPCC based some of its public proclamations on non-peer reviewed reports.

    “The data, all the data, needs to come to light,” says Dr. Jane M. Orient, president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness and an outspoken skeptic on climate change.

    “Thousands of scientists are capable of assessing it. The only reason to keep it hidden, locked in the clutches of the elite few, is that it decisively disproves their computer models and shows that their draconian emission controls are based on nothing except a lust for power, control and profit.”

    The IPCC “made a clear and obvious error when it stated that Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035,” added Patrick J. Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental policy at the libertarian Cato Institute, in an interview.

    “The absurdity was obvious to anyone who had studied the scientific literature. This was not an honest mistake. IPCC had been warned about it for a year by many scientists.”

  2. Glaciers and the IPCC
    Off-base camp
    A mistaken claim about glaciers raises questions about the UN’s climate panel

    Jan 21st 2010
    From The Economist print edition

    THE idea that the Himalaya could lose its glaciers by 2035—glaciers which feed rivers across South and East Asia—is a dramatic and apocalyptic one. After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said such an outcome was very likely in the assessment of the state of climate science that it made in 2007, onlookers (including this newspaper) repeated the claim with alarm. In fact, there is no reason to believe it to be true. This is good news (within limits) for Indian farmers—and bad news for the IPCC.

    The IPCC, like ancient Gaul, is divided into three parts. Working Group I looks at the physical science of climate change. Working Group II is concerned with impacts, vulnerability and adaptation. Working Group III deals with mitigation. The claims about Himalayan glaciers come from a short “case study” in a chapter on Asia in WG-II’s report from 2007. Like all of the IPCC’s work, this was meant to be an expert assessment of relevant research, resting mostly on peer-reviewed sources but also, at times, on the “grey literature”—reports by governments and other organisations that are not commercially or academically published.

    The WG-II case study cites a grey report by the WWF, an environmental group, as the source of the date 2035. The WWF in turn cites a study presented in 1999 to the International Commission on Snow and Ice (ICSI) by Syed Hasnain, chair of ICSI’s working group on Himalayan glaciers.

    But the passage about 2035 that the WWF report quotes comes not from that ICSI report (which was unpublished) but from an article that appeared around the same time in Down to Earth, an Indian magazine. This article was based in part on an interview with Dr Hasnain, who was also quoted by New Scientist as saying it was possible the glaciers would be gone in 40 years. The article in Down to Earth claims that the area covered by glaciers would drop from 500,000km2 to 100,000km2 by 2035, a claim found in the IPCC report but not in the WWF report. This suggests the Down to Earth article was itself a source for the IPCC, though Murari Lal, a retired Indian academic, now a consultant, who was one of the four co-ordinating lead authors of the chapter, says this was not the case.

    There are two further problems with the area figure. One is that the research in question was looking at all the world’s glaciers, not just the Himalaya’s. The other is that the research was looking at the prospects for 2350, not 2035.

    Georg Kaser, a glaciologist at the University of Innsbruck, explains that a timescale of centuries, not decades, is far more plausible for the Himalaya. Politics and logistics make a comprehensive study of Himalayan glaciers difficult, but if those individual glaciers which have been studied recently are representative, then the glaciers are retreating. This retreat, however, is likely to take a long time. To melt a glacier at an altitude above 6,000 metres, where many of the Himalayan glaciers are found, requires a lot more warming than can be expected by 2035—a point made forcefully in a letter to Science by Dr Kaser and others, published this week. Jeff Kargel of the University of Arizona, one of its authors, stresses that its criticism is aimed at this specific claim, not at the IPCC in general, and should not be seen as undermining the panel’s conclusions.

  3. News in Summary: The IPCC and glacier shrinkage

    By Maggie Koerth-Baker on news

    Over the course of this week, you’ve probably heard at least a little about the controversy surrounding a mistake in the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report from 2007. Short version: The Working Group II section, which covers observed and projected impacts of climate change, states that Himalayan glaciers are “very likely” to disappear by 2035. Glaciologists say that’s bogus. And the IPCC report, itself, sources the claim to a position paper put out by the World Wildlife Fund, rather than any peer-reviewed research. The error was first pointed out by scientists within the climate research community. As of yesterday, the IPCC has apologized, and is reviewing how such a sketchily sourced factoid made it into the final report.

    So what should you take away from this incident? Two things:

    It’s a mistake. But mistakes happen, and this really isn’t even a big one.

    Climate science is science, not a religion. It makes no claim to infallibility. In fact, the whole thing with science, in general, is that it assumes mistakes will happen. Systems like peer review exist to catch those mistakes. Standards, like reproducibility and independent verification, push our knowledge, over time, closer to the truth. The basic facts about climate science—that climate change is happening and that human activities are the most likely cause—don’t stand and fall on single sources. They’re based on hundreds of peer-reviewed papers that, combined, lead to a robust conclusion. That’s different from this claim, which was based on one source, and a flimsy one at that. It shouldn’t have made it into the IPCC report. There are some critics who say there are other, similar, mistakes going on in Working Group II. But neither of those things undermines the real science.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the Himalayan glaciers really are retreating, just not so very fast.

    The real problem lies in how the IPCC responded to criticism

    While the mistake doesn’t undermine the well-sourced facts about climate change, the way it was handled does undermine public confidence in those well-sourced facts. And that’s a big problem. A scientist who reviewed the Working Group II report says he spotted the mistake before publication, and was ignored. A scientist who pointed out the mistake after publication, in a report prepared for the Indian government, was publicly criticized as a practitioner of “voodoo science” by IPCC chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri.

    It’s not OK that it took resounding pressure by the scientific community and the press in order to get this addressed.

    Climate scientists have to deal with a whole lot of crap. Most of the time, that crap is about as well-sourced as this glacier claim. So it is, on one level, understandable that some scientists have developed a knee-jerk “circle the wagons” response to criticism. But that response is very, very bad when it starts being applied to any criticism. The Internet can’t make us all armchair experts, so we have to rely on the people who really are experts to tell us what’s going on—and we have to be able to trust them to self correct. The experts did that here, but they did it in a way that—to the average layman—made it look like they’re more interested in being “right” than being accurate. That can’t happen when there’s so much at stake.

  4. The IPCC is not infallible (shock!)

    Like all human endeavours, the IPCC is not perfect. Despite the enormous efforts devoted to producing its reports with the multiple levels of peer review, some errors will sneak through. Most of these will be minor and inconsequential, but sometimes they might be more substantive. As many people are aware (and as John Nieslen-Gammon outlined in a post last month and Rick Piltz goes over today), there is a statement in the second volume of the IPCC (WG2), concerning the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are receding that is not correct and not properly referenced.

    The statement, in a chapter on climate impacts in Asia, was that the likelihood of the Himalayan glaciers “disappearing by the year 2035″ was “very high” if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate (WG 2, Ch. 10, p493), and was referenced to a World Wildlife Fund 2005 report. Examining the drafts and comments (available here), indicates that the statement was barely commented in the reviews, and that the WWF (2005) reference seems to have been a last minute addition (it does not appear in the First- or Second- Order Drafts). This claim did not make it into the summary for policy makers, nor the overall synthesis report, and so cannot be described as a ‘central claim’ of the IPCC. However, the statement has had some press attention since the report particularly in the Indian press, at least according to Google News, even though it was not familiar to us before last month.

    It is therefore obvious that this error should be corrected (via some kind of corrigendum to the WG2 report perhaps), but it is important to realise that this doesn’t mean that Himalayan glaciers are doing just fine. They aren’t, and there may be serious consequences for water resources as the retreat continues. See also this review paper (Ren et al, 2006) on a subset of these glaciers.

  5. Scientists ‘losing climate fight’

    A leading Australian climate change scientist says experts are losing the fight against sceptics, who are distorting the science of global warming.

    Professor Pitman was a lead author on the IPCC’s 2001 and 2007 reports. He is also the co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

    Professor Pitman says sceptics have used the IPCC’s error to skew the climate change debate.

    “Climate scientists are losing the fight with the sceptics,” he said.

    “The sceptics are so well funded, so well organised. “They have nothing else to do. They don’t have day jobs so they can put all their efforts into misinforming and miscommunicating climate science to the general public, whereas the climate scientists have day jobs and [managing publicity] actually isn’t one of them.

    “All of the efforts you do in an IPCC report is done out of hours, voluntarily, for no funding and no pay, whereas the sceptics are being funded to put out full-scale misinformation campaigns and are doing a damn good job, I think.

    “They are doing a superb job at misinforming and miscommunicating the general public, state and federal governments.”

    And he says if scientists lose the climate change debate, it would be “potentially catastrophic”.

    “If this was academic debate over some trivial issue [it wouldn’t matter],” he said.

    “But this isn’t. This is absolutely a fundamental problem for the Earth that we desperately needed full-scale international action on a decade ago.

    “We are now 10 years too late to stop some of the major impacts that we will see and have seen as a consequence of global warming. It is not a future problem, it is a problem here today, around us.”

    Professor Pitman has accused sceptics of failing to base their arguments on the facts.

    “Most of the climate sceptics, particularly those that are wandering around publicly at the moment, don’t base their arguments on science,” he said.

    “They have probably never read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report; they aren’t writing papers in peer-reviewed literature.

    They don’t update their arguments when their arguments are shown to be false, so they’ll have no problem at all using this ammunition inappropriately and out of context to further their aims in exactly the same way as people did when they were trying to disprove the relationship between smoking and human health.”

  6. The O.J. tactic
    Climate change skeptics sound like Simpson’s lawyers: If the winter glove won’t fit, you must acquit.
    By Bill McKibben

    In recent years, every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril of climate change. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the last two decades. And Earth’s major natural systems are all showing undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater and so on.

    Yet because of a recent onslaught of attacks on the science of climate change, fewer Americans now believe humans are warming the planet than did just a few years ago.

    The doubters of climate science have launched an enormously clever — and effective — campaign, and it’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy is perhaps the O.J. Simpson trial.

    Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won’t be overwhelming, but it’s also unlikely to have many mistakes. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get some things wrong.

    Indeed, the panel managed to include half a dozen errors — most egregiously a spurious date for the year by which Himalayan glaciers will disappear. It won’t happen by 2035, as the report indicated — a fact that has now been spread so widely across the Internet that it’s more or less obliterated the indisputable fact that virtually every glacier on the planet is busily melting.

    Similarly, much has been made of the so-called Climategate scandal involving thousands of hacked e-mails and documents from a British research center. A few of the communications suggested the scientists were dismissive of research that came to conclusions they disagreed with. One British scientist, Phil Jones, has been placed on leave while his university decides if he should be punished for, among other things, not complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

  7. Panel Will Review U.N. Climate Work
    Published: March 10, 2010

    The review will be led by Robbert H. Dijkgraaf, a Dutch physicist and mathematician who is co-chairman of the InterAcademy Council. The study group will be financed by the United Nations but will operate wholly independently, Mr. Dijkgraaf said at a briefing at the United Nations.

    He said he was not certain how many members would serve in the group, but said they would represent a variety of scientific disciplines. He expects to complete the review by the end of August, before the I.P.C.C. officially begins work on its next scientific assessment report, which is to be completed in 2014.

    He said that the group intended to look forward rather than backward and would make recommendations on how to assure the accuracy of the next assessment and on setting standards for the types of publications that can properly be cited.

  8. “In its latest report, the IPCC has predicted up to 59 cm of sea level rise by the end of this century. But realclimate soon revealed a few problems.

    First, although the temperature scenarios of IPCC project a maximum warming of 6.4 ºC (Table SPM3), the upper limit of sea level rise has been computed for a warming of only 5.2 ºC – which reduced the estimate by about 15 cm. Second, the IPCC chose to compute sea level rise up to the year 2095 rather than 2100 – just to cut off another 5 cm. Worse, the IPCC report shows that over the past 40 years, sea level has in fact risen 50% more than predicted by its models – yet these same models are used uncorrected to predict the future! And finally, the future projections assume that the Antarctic ice sheet gains mass, thus lowering sea level, rather at odds with past ice sheet behaviour.**

    Some scientists within IPCC warned early that all this could lead to a credibility problem, but the IPCC decided to go ahead anyway.

    Nobody cared about this.

    I mention this because there is a lesson in it. IPCC would never have published an implausibly high 3 meter upper limit like this, but it did not hesitate with the implausibly low 59 cm. That is because within the IPCC culture, being “alarmist” is bad and being “conservative” (i.e. underestimating the potential severity of things) is good.”

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