The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has come under intense fire in recent weeks over errors uncovered in its 2007 report, the scientific touchstone for faltering global climate talks.
A prediction that global warming would melt away the Himalayan glaciers that provide water to a billion people in Asia by 2035 has been dismissed by glaciologists as preposterous, and will be withdrawn.
This weekend, the Sunday Times of London reported that a passage suggesting that natural disasters including hurricanes and floods had increased in number and intensity has also been challenged. The newspaper quoted an IPCC official saying the claim is under review.
Both assertions, which would appear to exaggerate the impacts of climate change, are especially damaging because they are based on sources that do not meet the IPCC’s own standards of reliability.
“The review process must be made stricter,” Herve Le Treut, a top climate modeler and director of France’s Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute, said Monday.
“The IPCC is responsible for the quality of the content. It has to exercise that responsibility to be sure that every part of the document has undergone careful scrutiny,” he told AFP.
Le Treut nonetheless defended the core methods and findings of the three-volume, 2,600-page report, saying that minor errors were inevitable and had been taken out of context, sometimes by people bent on discrediting the panel.
“They look at one sentence in one chapter in a huge book, and don’t even try to put it into perspective,” he said.
Embattled IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri also insisted there is “nothing wrong with procedure as such”, blaming the errors uncovered on “poor communication” among the reports’ hundreds of authors, and a failure to respect the rules.
At the same time, he seemed to acknowledge that the controversy had damaged the climate panel’s credibility, and undermined troubled UN climate talks derailed by the near collapse of the Copenhagen climate summit.
“All of this is very bad timing, it is very unfortunate,” he told AFP Saturday, even before the controversy over natural disasters had surfaced.
Climate skeptics have seized upon the errors as evidence that the IPCC is biased or unreliable. In the United States, the revelations have made an already uphill battle to pass climate and energy legislation all the more difficult.
“At this point in time, things don’t look very good at all. They look very bleak — I’m being very completely candid,” Pachauri said about the status of climate talks.
Several scientists complained of poor cooperation between physical scientists responsible for volume one and social scientists who worked on volume two, where all the errors have been found.
“I was a coordinating editor in Working Group 1, and I never had any interaction with Group 2 reports — this was detrimental,” said Le Treut.
Georg Kaser, a glaciologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, said none of the glacier experts who contributed to the report had bothered to review what had been said on the subject in the second volume.
“I blame my colleagues very much for this,” he said by phone.
Pachauri agreed that the three working groups — totalling some 2,000 scientists — had “become a bit compartmentalised”, but said that the problem would be rectified in the next IPCC report, due in 2013.
“There will be more communication” across disciplines in future, agreed Eric Rignot, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and an expert on glaciers and a lead author of the IPCC report.
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