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The IPCC is not infallible (shock!)

Filed under: — group @ 19 January 2010 - (Italian)

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.

East Rongbuk glacier 1921 and 2008East Rongbuk glacier just below Mt. Everest has lost 3-400 ft of ice in this area since 1921.

More generally, peer-review works to make the IPCC reports credible because many different eyes with different perspectives and knowledge look over the same text. This tends to make the resulting product reflect more than just the opinion of a single author. In this case, it appears that not enough people with relevant experience saw this text, or if they saw it, did not comment publicly. This might be related to the fact that this text was in the Working Group 2 report on impacts, which does not get the same amount of attention from the physical science community than does the higher profile WG 1 report (which is what people associated with RC generally look at). In WG1, the statements about continued glacier retreat are much more general and the rules on citation of non-peer reviewed literature was much more closely adhered to. However, in general, the science of climate impacts is less clear than the physical basis for climate change, and the literature is thinner, so there is necessarily more ambiguity in WG 2 statements.

In future reports (and the organisation for AR5 in 2013 is now underway), extra efforts will be needed to make sure that the links between WG1 and the other two reports are stronger, and that the physical science community should be encouraged to be more active in the other groups.

In summary, the measure of an organisation is not determined by the mere existence of errors, but in how it deals with them when they crop up. The current discussion about Himalayan glaciers is therefore a good opportunity for the IPCC to further improve their procedures and think more about what the IPCC should be doing in the times between the main reports.

Update: This backgrounder presented by Kargel et al AGU this December is the best summary of the current state of the Himalayas and the various sources of misinformation that are floating around. It covers this issue, the Raina report and the recent Lau et al paper.

1,804 Responses to “The IPCC is not infallible (shock!)”

  1. 1801
    ferocious says:

    In regards to the political nature of the IPCC and the UNEP(posts 91, 448, others), sometimes it is best to go back and look at history. This is from the 1994 Rio treaty:

    ” The Convention on Climate Change sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenge posed by climate change. It recognizes that the climate system is a shared resource whose stability can be affected by industrial and other emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Convention enjoys near universal membership, with 192 countries having ratified.

    Under the Convention, governments:

    * gather and share information on greenhouse gas emissions, national policies and best practices
    * launch national strategies for addressing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to expected impacts, including the provision of financial and technological support to developing countries
    * cooperate in preparing for adaptation to the impacts of climate change

    The Convention entered into force on 21 March 1994. ”

    This is in 1994. 6 years after Dr. Hansen published a seminal paper which predicted unending global warming due to CO2 emissions, and testified in front of the US Congress during the hottest days of August in 1988. Dr. Hansen’s paper was based on about 22 years of data showing a rise in global temperatures of about 0.26 deg C from 1966 to 1988. Between 1988 and 1994, when this conference took place, there was no rise in temperatures. That gives a total of 0.3 deg C in three decades. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how substantial these conclusions were. Based on everything I’ve read here on Real Climate the conclusion that CO2 was responsible for a large increase in global temperature and constituted a substantial risk worth spending billions on was a very shaky conclusion at the time. As our moderator is wont to say, 22 years is just weather, not climate. A thirty year trend of 0.1 deg C/decade is well within the normal variations of the climate over that length of time.

    Reading the UN documents, and those from previous sessions, it is readily apparent that the conclusion had already been drawn by the policy makers at the UN much earlier that CO2 was the major driver of global warming and they embarked on a manor political effort in response. The whole process is plainly a political operation using science, of a sort, as a backstop. The current efforts of the IPCC, although it is not a UN organization, are still political efforts aimed at controlling the emissions of CO2. The science may be “settled” to a degree, but the IPCC operation is clearly a political power play.

  2. 1802
    ferocious says:

    Regarding 1707, 1708 The Netherlands have been partially below sea level for centuries. Remember Hans Christian Anderson and the tale about the boy and the dike. Lucky them that the land hasn’t sunk and the seas haven’t risen in all that time.

    The AR4 error was in not checking their facts(which is supposedly done by or at least under the responsibilty of the lead authors). Perhaps the reports should be a little smaller and easier to check.

    In an interesting side note, about 1/4 of New Orleans is also below sea level. Perhaps we need a new IPCC regulation that no more than 25% of any settlement can be under sea level. But that would prevent us from pursuing the great idea to actually build cities under the ocean, with no worries about flooding!

  3. 1803
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Lucky them that the land hasn’t sunk and the seas haven’t risen in all that time.”


    This is false. They have to spend a LOT of money on “adapting” to climate change by building walls.

    “The AR4 error was in not checking their facts”

    Yours too.

    “In regards to the political nature of the IPCC”

    It isn’t.

    “Dr. Hansen’s paper was based on about 22 years of data”

    More like 122.

    “A thirty year trend of 0.1 deg C/decade is well within the normal variations of the climate over that length of time.”

    A trend isn’t a normal variation.

    A variation varies.

    A trend is a trend.

    It seems you have the IPCC beat all to heck on the number of errors front.

    You must be doing an excellent job at killing the opposition to the IPCC.

  4. 1804
    Georgi Marinov says:

    1797 Didactylos:

    However, I think my results using more reasonable figures (what we can achieve today) demonstrates that, although the required land area is very large, it is also possible to do, and most importantly it is worth doing. If our calculations had shown that we needed more land than exists on earth, then we would have had to do some serious rethinking.

    There are many things wrong with this.

    First, energy isn’t the only limiting factor, so even if you managed to somehow fix that, the plenty of other resources/sinks we have/are soon going to exhaust will do us, just maybe a little later. There is no point creating further artificial carrying capacity and overshooting even more, because this only means that the crash will be harder and a lot more of the real carrying capacity will be destroyed in the process.

    Second, related to the last point: rethinking it if it requires “more land than there is on Earth” is a very dangerous approach to things. For the Earth to be able to sustain us, vast portions of it should be left untouched so that the ecosystems on which we depend aren’t disturbed beyond a level at which their capacity to support us is eroded. This means that obviously we can’t convert “all the land” to energy generation. We already use a lot more arable land than we should be using, having destroyed huge amount of forest in order to create it. We can’t afford to destroy more. We can probably expand into deserts, but this is viable only for solar panels and not for biofuels.

    You are right that we will need a basket of renewables, but if you do the math and compare where we are now, where we need to be and when we need to be there, you will see that it’s not realistic to expect renewables to meet the expectations that are placed on them and avert the crash. And actually, the argument that goes like “We are using X amount of energy now, and 0.005*X of it comes from renewable source Y, it will take enormous amounts of money, land and materials plus a lot more time than we have to scale it up to 5*X” is a lot more justified than the “We need a basket of sources” statement makes it seems. Because at this point it applies to even the most widespread renewable sources and nuclear and there aren’t that many of these sources. You can’t (on average) scale up the basket of renewables better and faster than the best source in it.