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IPCC errors: facts and spin

Filed under: — group @ 14 February 2010 - (Czech) (Svenska)

Currently, a few errors –and supposed errors– in the last IPCC report (“AR4”) are making the media rounds – together with a lot of distortion and professional spin by parties interested in discrediting climate science.  Time for us to sort the wheat from the chaff: which of these putative errors are real, and which not? And what does it all mean, for the IPCC in particular, and for climate science more broadly?

Let’s start with a few basic facts about the IPCC.  The IPCC is not, as many people seem to think, a large organization. In fact, it has only 10 full-time staff in its secretariat at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, plus a few staff in four technical support units that help the chairs of the three IPCC working groups and the national greenhouse gas inventories group. The actual work of the IPCC is done by unpaid volunteers – thousands of scientists at universities and research institutes around the world who contribute as authors or reviewers to the completion of the IPCC reports. A large fraction of the relevant scientific community is thus involved in the effort.  The three working groups are:

Working Group 1 (WG1), which deals with the physical climate science basis, as assessed by the climatologists, including several of the Realclimate authors.

Working Group 2 (WG2), which deals with impacts of climate change on society and ecosystems, as assessed by social scientists, ecologists, etc.

Working Group 3 (WG3) , which deals with mitigation options for limiting global warming, as assessed by energy experts, economists, etc.

Assessment reports are published every six or seven years and writing them takes about three years. Each working group publishes one of the three volumes of each assessment. The focus of the recent allegations is the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), which was published in 2007.  Its three volumes are almost a thousand pages each, in small print. They were written by over 450 lead authors and 800 contributing authors; most were not previous IPCC authors. There are three stages of review involving more than 2,500 expert reviewers who collectively submitted 90,000 review comments on the drafts. These, together with the authors’ responses to them, are all in the public record (see here and here for WG1 and WG2 respectively).

Errors in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4)

As far as we’re aware, so far only one–or at most two–legitimate errors have been found in the AR4:

Himalayan glaciers: In a regional chapter on Asia in Volume 2, written by authors from the region, it was erroneously stated that 80% of Himalayan glacier area would very likely be gone by 2035. This is of course not the proper IPCC projection of future glacier decline, which is found in Volume 1 of the report. There we find a 45-page, perfectly valid chapter on glaciers, snow and ice (Chapter 4), with the authors including leading glacier experts (such as our colleague Georg Kaser from Austria, who first discovered the Himalaya error in the WG2 report).  There are also several pages on future glacier decline in Chapter 10 (“Global Climate Projections”), where the proper projections are used e.g. to estimate future sea level rise. So the problem here is not that the IPCC’s glacier experts made an incorrect prediction. The problem is that a WG2 chapter, instead of relying on the proper IPCC projections from their WG1 colleagues, cited an unreliable outside source in one place. Fixing this error involves deleting two sentences on page 493 of the WG2 report.

Sea level in the Netherlands: The WG2 report states that “The Netherlands is an example of a country highly susceptible to both sea-level rise and river flooding because 55% of its territory is below sea level”. This sentence was provided by a Dutch government agency – the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which has now published a correction stating that the sentence should have read “55 per cent of the Netherlands is at risk of flooding; 26 per cent of the country is below sea level, and 29 per cent is susceptible to river flooding”. It surely will go down as one of the more ironic episodes in its history when the Dutch parliament last Monday derided the IPCC, in a heated debate, for printing information provided by … the Dutch government. In addition, the IPCC notes that there are several definitions of the area below sea level. The Dutch Ministry of Transport uses the figure 60% (below high water level during storms), while others use 30% (below mean sea level). Needless to say, the actual number mentioned in the report has no bearing on any IPCC conclusions and has nothing to do with climate science, and it is questionable whether it should even be counted as an IPCC error.

Some other issues

African crop yields: The IPCC Synthesis Report states: “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.” This is properly referenced back to chapter 9.4 of WG2, which says: “In other countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003).”  The Agoumi reference is correct and reported correctly. The Sunday Times, in an article by Jonathan Leake, labels this issue “Africagate” – the main criticism being that Agoumi (2003) is not a peer-reviewed study (see below for our comments on “gray” literature), but a report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Climate Change Knowledge Network, funded by the US Agency for International Development. The report, written by Morroccan climate expert Professor Ali Agoumi, is a summary of technical studies and research conducted to inform Initial National Communications from three countries (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is a perfectly legitimate IPCC reference.

It is noteworthy that chapter 9.4 continues with “However, there is the possibility that adaptation could reduce these negative effects (Benhin, 2006).”  Some examples thereof follow, and then it states: “However, not all changes in climate and climate variability will be negative, as agriculture and the growing seasons in certain areas (for example, parts of the Ethiopian highlands and parts of southern Africa such as Mozambique), may lengthen under climate change, due to a combination of increased temperature and rainfall changes (Thornton et al., 2006). Mild climate scenarios project further benefits across African croplands for irrigated and, especially, dryland farms.” (Incidentally, the Benhin and Thornton references are also “gray”, but nobody has complained about them. Could there be double standards amongst the IPCC’s critics?)

Chapter 9.4 to us sounds like a balanced discussion of potential risks and benefits, based on the evidence available at the time–hardly the stuff for shrill “Africagate!” cries. If the IPCC can be criticized here, it is that in condensing these results for its Synthesis Report, important nuance and qualification were lost – especially the point that the risk of drought (defined as a 50% downturn in rainfall) “could be exacerbated by climate change”, as chapter 9.4 wrote – rather than being outright caused by climate change.

Trends in disaster losses: Jonathan Leake (again) in The Sunday Times accused the IPCC of wrongly linking global warming to natural disasters. The IPCC in a statement points out errors in Leake’s “misleading and baseless story”, and maintains that the IPCC provided “a balanced treatment of a complicated and important issue”. While we agree with the IPCC here, WG2 did include a debatable graph provided by Robert Muir-Wood (although not in the main report but only as Supplementary Material). It cited a paper by Muir-Wood as its source although that paper doesn’t include the graph, only the analysis that it is based on. Muir-Wood himself has gone on record to say that the IPCC has fairly represented his research findings and that it was appropriate to include them in the report. In our view there is no IPCC error here; at best there is a difference of opinion. Obviously, not every scientist will always agree with assessments made by the IPCC author teams.

Amazon forest dieback: Leake (yet again), with “research” by skeptic Richard North, has also promoted “Amazongate” with a story regarding a WG2 statement on the future of Amazonian forests under a drying climate.  The contested IPCC statement reads: “Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000).”  Leake’s problem is with the Rowell and Moore reference, a WWF report.

The roots of the story are in two blog pieces by North, in which he first claims that the IPCC assertions attributed to the WWF report are not actually in that report. Since this claim was immediately shown to be false,  North then argued that the WWF report’s basis for their statement (a 1999 Nature article by Nepstad et al.) dealt only with the effects of logging and fire –not drought– on Amazonian forests. To these various claims Nepstad has now responded, noting that the IPCC statement is in fact correct. The only issue is that the IPCC cited the WWF report rather than the underlying peer-reviewed papers by Nepstad et al. These studies actually provide the  basis for the IPCC’s estimate on Amazonian sensitivity to drought. Investigations of the correspondence between Leake, scientists, and a BBC reporter (see here and here and here) show that Leake ignored or misrepresented explanatory information given to him by Nepstad and another expert, Simon Lewis, and published his incorrect story anyway. This “issue” is thus completely without merit.

Gray literature: The IPCC cites 18,000 references in the AR4; the vast majority of these are peer-reviewed scientific journal papers. The IPCC maintains a clear guideline on the responsible use of so-called “gray” literature, which are typically reports by other organizations or governments. Especially for Working Groups 2 and 3 (but in some cases also for 1) it is indispensable to use gray sources, since many valuable data are published in them: reports by government statistics offices, the International Energy Agency, World Bank, UNEP and so on. This is particularly true when it comes to regional impacts in the least developed countries, where knowledgeable local experts exist who have little chance, or impetus, to publish in international science journals.

Reports by non-governmental organizations like the WWF can be used (as in the Himalaya glacier and Amazon forest cases) but any information from them needs to be carefully checked (this guideline was not followed in the former case). After all, the role of the IPCC is to assess information, not just compile anything it finds.  Assessment involves a level of critical judgment, double-checking, weighing supporting and conflicting pieces of evidence, and a critical appreciation of the methodology used to obtain the results. That is why leading researchers need to write the assessment reports – rather than say, hiring graduate students to compile a comprehensive literature review.

Media distortions

To those familiar with the science and the IPCC’s work, the current media discussion is in large part simply absurd and surreal. Journalists who have never even peeked into the IPCC report are now outraged that one wrong number appears on page 493 of Volume 2. We’ve met TV teams coming to film a report on the IPCC reports’ errors, who were astonished when they held one of the heavy volumes in hand, having never even seen it. They told us frankly that they had no way to make their own judgment; they could only report what they were being told about it. And there are well-organized lobby forces with proper PR skills that make sure these journalists are being told the “right” story. That explains why some media stories about what is supposedly said in the IPCC reports can easily be falsified simply by opening the report and reading. Unfortunately, as a broad-based volunteer effort with only minimal organizational structure the IPCC is not in a good position to rapidly counter misinformation.

One near-universal meme of the media stories on the Himalaya mistake was that this was “one of the most central predictions of the IPCC” – apparently in order to make the error look more serious than it was.  However, this prediction does not appear in any of the IPCC Summaries for Policy Makers, nor in the Synthesis Report (which at least partly explains why it went unnoticed for years). None of the media reports that we saw properly explained that Volume 1 (which is where projections of physical climate changes belong) has an extensive and entirely valid discussion of glacier loss.

What apparently has happened is that interested quarters, after the Himalyan glacier story broke, have sifted through the IPCC volumes with a fine-toothed comb, hoping to find more embarrassing errors. They have actually found precious little, but the little they did find was promptly hyped into Seagate, Africagate, Amazongate and so on. This has some similarity to the CRU email theft, where precious little was discovered from among thousands of emails, but a few sentences were plucked out of context, deliberately misinterpreted (like “hide the decline”) and then hyped into “Climategate”.

As lucidly analysed by Tim Holmes, there appear to be a few active leaders of this misinformation parade in the media. Jonathan Leake is carrying the ball on this, but his stories contain multiple errors, misrepresentations and misquotes. There also is a sizeable contingent of me-too journalism that is simply repeating the stories but not taking the time to form a well-founded view on the topics. Typically they report on various “allegations”, such as these  against the IPCC, similar to reporting that the CRU email hack lead to “allegations of data manipulation”. Technically it isn’t even wrong that there were such allegations. But isn’t it the responsibility of the media to actually investigate whether allegations have any merit before they decide to repeat them?

Leake incidentally attacked the scientific work of one of us (Stefan) in a Sunday Times article in January. This article was rather biased and contained some factual errors that Stefan asked to be corrected. He has received no response, nor was any correction made. Two British scientists quoted by Leake – Jonathan Gregory and Simon Holgate – independently wrote to Stefan after the article appeared to say they had been badly misquoted. One of them wrote that the experience with Leake had made him “reluctant to speak to any journalist about any subject at all”.

Does the IPCC need to change?

The IPCC has done a very good job so far, but certainly there is room for improvement. The review procedures could be organized better, for example. Until now, anyone has been allowed to review any part of the IPCC drafts they liked, but there was no coordination in the sense that say, a glacier expert was specifically assigned to double-check parts of the WG2 chapter on Asia. Such a practice would likely have caught the Himalayan glacier mistake. Another problem has been that reports of all three working groups had to be completed nearly at the same time, making it hard for WG2 to properly base their discussions on the conclusions and projections from WG1. This has already been improved on for the AR5, for which the WG2 report can be completed six months after the WG1 report.

Also, these errors revealed that the IPCC had no mechanism to publish errata. Since a few errors will inevitably turn up in a 2800-page report, obviously an avenue is needed to publish errata as soon as errors are identified.

Is climate science sound?

In some media reports the impression has been given that even the fundamental results of climate change science are now in question, such as whether humans are in fact changing the climate, causing glacier melt, sea level rise and so on. The IPCC does not carry out primary research, and hence any mistakes in the IPCC reports do not imply that any climate research itself is wrong. A reference to a poor report or an editorial lapse by IPCC authors obviously does not undermine climate science. Doubting basic results of climate science based on the recent claims against the IPCC is particularly ironic since none of the real or supposed errors being discussed are even in the Working Group 1 report, where the climate science basis is laid out.

To be fair to our colleagues from WG2 and WG3, climate scientists do have a much simpler task. The system we study is ruled by the well-known laws of physics, there is plenty of hard data and peer-reviewed studies, and the science is relatively mature. The greenhouse effect was discovered in 1824 by Fourier, the heat trapping properties of CO2 and other gases were first measured by Tyndall in 1859, the climate sensitivity to CO2 was first computed in 1896 by Arrhenius, and by the 1950s the scientific foundations were pretty much understood.

Do the above issues suggest “politicized science”, deliberate deceptions or a tendency towards alarmism on the part of IPCC? We do not think there is any factual basis for such allegations. To the contrary, large groups of (inherently cautious) scientists attempting to reach a consensus in a societally important collaborative document is a prescription for reaching generally “conservative” conclusions. And indeed, before the recent media flash broke out, the real discussion amongst experts was about the AR4 having underestimated, not exaggerated, certain aspects of climate change. These include such important topics as sea level rise and sea ice decline (see the sea ice and sea level chapters of the Copenhagen Diagnosis), where the data show that things are changing faster than the IPCC expected.

Overall then, the IPCC assessment reports reflect the state of scientific knowledge very well. There have been a few isolated errors, and these have been acknowledged and corrected. What is seriously amiss is something else: the public perception of the IPCC, and of climate science in general, has been massively distorted by the recent media storm. All of these various “gates” – Climategate, Amazongate, Seagate, Africagate, etc., do not represent scandals of the IPCC or of climate science. Rather, they are the embarrassing battle-cries of a media scandal, in which a few journalists have misled the public with grossly overblown or entirely fabricated pseudogates, and many others have naively and willingly followed along without seeing through the scam. It is not up to us as climate scientists to clear up this mess – it is up to the media world itself to put this right again, e.g. by publishing proper analysis pieces like the one of Tim Holmes and by issuing formal corrections of their mistaken reporting. We will follow with great interest whether the media world has the professional and moral integrity to correct its own errors.

PS. A new book by Realclimate-authors David Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf critically discussing the main findings of the AR4 (all three volumes) is just out: The Climate Crisis. None of the real or alleged errors are in this book, since none of those contentious statements plucked from the thousands of pages appeared to be “main findings” that needed to be discussed in a 250-page summary.

PPS. Same thing for Mike’s book Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming, which bills itself as “The illustrated guide to the findings of the IPCC”. Or Gavin’s “Climate Change: Picturing the Science” – which does include a few pictures of disappearing glaciers though!

Update 24 March: Simon Lewis has made an official complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about Leake’s Amazon story.

Update 29 March: IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri has published an interesting article in the Guardian.

601 Responses to “IPCC errors: facts and spin”

  1. 251
    Ken Grayling says:

    I’d like to see an end to this bickering and have someone forget for a moment about the effect of gases measured in parts-per-million and analyse the effect of water vapour (the big greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere, with some predictions/projections.

  2. 252
    sailrick says:

    A documentary for TV, along the lines of James Hoggan’s book “Climate Cover Up” would go a long way toward informing the public. It should be independent of the IPCC and probably shouldn’t include Al Gore, only because he is such a target of the deniers.

  3. 253
    ICE says:

    I think the worst ‘error’ (so to speak) in all of this is actually the one about african crop yields.
    So strong a statement, making its way up to the SPM, should have been more thoroughly substantiated, and more clearly detailed. It is not technically false, but “africa” in Agoumi 2003 refers to north africa only, whereas in the SPM it is bound to be understood as sub-saharian Africa as a whole – for which the claim is then clearly much too strong.

  4. 254
    Blair Dowden says:

    Re 232: Barton, I like your short summary of the long history of climate science. But I do not think the 2004 Dai et al. paper should be on it. This is suggesting that a global warming of about half a degree caused an 18% increase in “severely dry” land area. A 36% per degree “drought sensitivity” is not credible. It suggests there were no deserts at all during the so-called Little Ice Age, and three degrees of warming will turn the whole world into desert. This is certainly not in line with the AR4 report.

    I suggest a poor measure of drought is being used, so what is being measured is mostly noise, with a possibly cherry picked start point. The paleoclimate reconstructions I have seen for the Pliocene era, which was about 3 degrees warmer, suggest the world had less desert area than today.

    I suggest you stop quoting a single paper as a defining measure unless there is more comprehensive evidence to support it.

  5. 255
    Bob says:

    Patrik, #239:

    “I didn’t know that there where so many ways of saying “the text doesn’t say what you think it says”.
    Is that really a good way of answering questions/criticism?”

    If the problem is that the meaning of the text is being either misunderstood or purposely twisted and misrepresented, then what other response would you suggest?

  6. 256
    John Peter says:

    Completely Fed Up (99)

    “So please explain how clouds stop CO2 absorbing IR radiation”

    An accessible answer would be “they block some of the (UV) radiation that drives it”


    “They facilitate chemical reactions that contribute to dimming”

    I don’t know, I’m just trying to learn this stuff.. 8<)

    john peter

  7. 257
    AxelD says:

    Great answers, guys! (CFU @190, Didactylos @200, RayL @201) You don’t like what the Times report says, so you choose to believe (eyes closed, hands over ears) it misreports an ex-chairman of the IPCC, or that he’s not to be trusted.

    Unbelievable. I’ve tried to make you understand before that, no matter how many obscure papers you link about “it’s worse than we thought”, it matters not one jot. What matters is what gets before the public and the decision makers. So what a senior adviser like Dr Watson says is important. But you just don’t get it.

    Do you know who Dr Watson is? To save you the trouble, he’s currently the Chief Scientist and Senior Adviser for Sustainable Development to the UK Government. That means that he’s one of the two top people who advises the government. The other is Sir John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science. You’ll undoubtedly know that he has recently said that the impact of global warming has been exaggerated by some scientists and there is an urgent need for more honest disclosure of the uncertainty of predictions about the rate of climate change. And no, he wasn’t misreported.

    That makes the two top UK gov’t scientific advisers openly and publicly sceptical about the claims of the IPCC. And you still believe I’m wrong when I say the IPCC needs to be replaced with a more transparently open and honest organization?

    You guys really do need to remove your heads from the sand, or wherever, and face up to reality. Your fallback position is that I have “an elastic attitude to facts”. If that makes you feel better about yourselves, fine, go right ahead, but at least I can face facts. You are currently not doing that. And brandishing obscure paper references in people’s faces is not going to change anything.

    [Response: Not likely in your mind unfortunately. Some people actually read the science, hard as that may be for you to comprehend.–Jim]

  8. 258
    Ray Ladbury says:

    AxelD, Pray, where did I say that he was misquoted? I merely said I preferred to look at the science. Do you understand the difference? No, wait, that was rhetorical!

  9. 259
    Andreas Bjurström says:

    @236 Dennis,
    Thanks for the reply. I agree and understand that your situation is frustrating. The situation in Sweden is very different, 100 % believers in congress. Climate scientists are our new priesthood that tells us how to live our lives, what is right and wrong, and we all obey …

    Nevertheless, I believe that more honesty would do good for Swedish as well as US climate science and politics. An honest attitude foster socially robust science, public trust. The IPCC has choocen a different path, authorative and technocratic, believe in us, we know what we are doing …. rather than a humble democratic dialogue among experts and the public.

    “The IPCC is right to put social science on the back burner in a political atmosphere where the facts of the physical science basis are under such nonsensical attack.”

    Yes, but by doing so the IPCC is acting as a policy advocate, the very thing that the IPCC claim to not be doing. I, you, the IPCC, we all understand that this is a lie. The sceptics understand this as well. So what good is the IPCC lies doing??? Isn´t it better to be honest and openly admit that interests and policy outcomes concern scientists? Why should we walk around and lie all the time? Im fed up with the white lies of climate believers as well as the black lies by climate sceptics …. it is time to be honest, that is my standpoint.

  10. 260
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John Peter @243,
    I don’t think that is a fair characterization. Clouds remain one of the most significant uncertainties in climate models. They just are vary unlikely to significantly affect the overall question of whether we are warming the planet.

    Again, the paper Barton vectored you to is an excellent effort. However, it is merely one paper looking at one region. I hope it’s a first step in nailing this uncertainty down.

  11. 261

    […] February 15 by Ryan Kudos to the writers at Real Climate, who have written a good pretty good post that deals with various accusations of IPCC error, and also with some general problems they see in […]

  12. 262
    Sou says:

    People keep bringing up the MWP and little ice age. Here is a quote from a recent compiled report from the Antarctic that might be worth following up for those interested in the matter:

    “There is no evidence in Antarctica for an equivalent to the northern hemisphere Medieval Warm Period, and there is only weak circumstantial evidence in a few places for a cool event crudely equivalent in time to the northern hemisphere’s Little Ice Age.”

    page xv, Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment, Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, November 2009

  13. 263
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Axle: “You don’t like what the Times report says, so you choose to believe (eyes closed, hands over ears) it misreports an ex-chairman of the IPCC, or that he’s not to be trusted”

    But WHY don’t we like what he says, Axel?

    Maybe some of us have a problem with lying.

    Not you, so much. You seem a-ok with it.

  14. 264
    Completely Fed Up says:

    PS should have made that more direct:

    you’re reporting what the TIMES says Dr Watson said.

    We’re reporting that the Times has lied many times in the past.

  15. 265
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Ken Grayling says:
    15 February 2010 at 3:57 PM

    I’d like to see an end to this bickering and have someone forget for a moment about the effect of gases measured in parts-per-million and analyse the effect of water vapour”

    Already done.

    Check the code:

    Check out the papers:

    Already done, kid.

  16. 266
    Didactylos says:

    AxelD said “at least I can face facts”

    Um… this would be a classic strawman argument. You make up your facts, and then you face up to them. Somehow, you can never bring yourself to face reality, or even admit that an objective reality exists. Yet you are hypocritical enough to tell *us* to “face reality”!

    It’s sad when senior officials start acting like jobsworths. But consider the sh*tstorm that descends on anyone who stands up for scientific integrity, and it’s easy to see why they prefer to play politics and cover their behinds, at least while the media feeding frenzy is ongoing. But despite this caution, I see nothing in Beddington’s actual comments that can be twisted into a negative light – except by paranoid nutjobs, of course.

    Meanwhile, AxelD gets his news from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, and the Times, and imagines that it is unbiased. Sweet, but not grounded in reality.

    AxelD: If you believed the garbage you spout, then you would be trying to communicate the science in some effective way, instead of spreading lies around like they are going out of fashion. Do you believe what you say? Or is it just an excuse to criticise scientists, and science itself?

  17. 267
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Andreas Bjurström says:
    15 February 2010 at 3:14 PM

    @203 Tim Jones, there are certainly some tinfoil hats around. So what?

    However, the IPCC has recurrently stated being free of errors and objectivity for the last twenty years. ”

    This would be the statements by Dr Evil and Professor Doom, who also signed the Oregon Petition, right?

  18. 268

    […] Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies has an excellent post at RealClimate, going through the deluge of distorted claims about the “errors” (in reality, there appears to be only one genuine “error” and one debatable point) in the IPCC’s last report (the “AR4”), and exhaustively debunking each one: RealClimate: IPCC errors: facts and spin. […]

  19. 269
    Sou says:

    @251 AxelD, when you yourself misquote it’s hard to take you seriously. For example, what Sir John Beddington was actually quoted as saying in the Sunday Times was:

    “Certain unqualified statements have been unfortunate. We have a problem in communicating uncertainty. There’s definitely an issue there. If there wasn’t, there wouldn’t be the level of scepticism. All of these predictions have to be caveated by saying, ‘There’s a level of uncertainty about that’.”

    It is much more likely that Beddington meant: Certain unqualified statements have been unfortunate. Predictions have to have a caveat. However, scientists have a problem when they try to communicate uncertainty – people don’t understand what ‘uncertainty’ means in science – if they did understand what scientists mean when they talk about uncertainty, then there wouldn’t be the level of skepticism there is today.

    The Times had a story it wanted to write, so it tried to fit the quotes within that story, rather than write the story around what Beddington actually said. I’ve pulled out all the actual quotes (rather than the words not quoted) and put together, they say something quite different from the spin of that the Times article.

  20. 270

    […] Los errores del IPCC: los hechos y las distorsiones…&nbsp; por Kartoffel hace 4 segundos […]

  21. 271
    David Kidd says:

    Thanks for a detailed analysis of the IPCC report “Scandal” This response is needed and I am glad it has appeared. I am not holding my breath while I wait for the various branches of the News Ltd. Media empire to even acknowledge thatthis work has been done and is available for all. I just dont think any of their star reporters will be using this as a resource for their reporting.

  22. 272
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come says:
    15 February 2010 at 12:41 PM

    Somehow global warming just doesn’t sound very threatening.”

    George “Texas Oil” Bush’s quotemaker (the US version of Peter Mendelson) doesn’t agree:

    “it was his idea that administration communications reframe “global warming” as “climate change” since “climate change” was thought to sound less severe.”

  23. 273
    Jim Galasyn says:

    AxelD claims: The other is Sir John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science. You’ll undoubtedly know that he has recently said that the impact of global warming has been exaggerated by some scientists and there is an urgent need for more honest disclosure of the uncertainty of predictions about the rate of climate change. And no, he wasn’t misreported.

    More “honest” disclosure? No. The phrase was: “We have a problem in communicating uncertainty.”

    John Beddington, the UK’s government’s chief scientific advisor told CNN last week the IPCC had done a “fantastically good job” compiling “enormous documents.”

    Climate row scientist says he considered suicide

    Professor John Beddington urged scientists to be more open with their data and admitted that recent unreliable statements about climate change have been “unfortunate”.

    But he warned that it was “unchallengeable” that man is changing the climate. … “Certain unqualified statements have been unfortunate. We have a problem in communicating uncertainty. There’s definitely an issue. If there wasn’t, there wouldn’t be the level of scepticism.”

    He said with all the predictions there has to be a caveat saying: “There’s a level of uncertainty about that. It’s unchallengeable that CO2 traps heat and warms the Earth and that burning fossil fuels shoves billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. But where you can get challenges is on the speed of change. When you get into large-scale climate modelling there are quite substantial uncertainties.”

    “On the rate of change and the local effects, there are uncertainties both in terms of empirical evidence and the climate models themselves.”

    Urging scientists to release their data, he said this room for doubt should not be an excuse to do nothing about climate change. He said: “Some people ask why we should act when scientists say they are only 90 per cent certain about the problem. But would you get on a plane that only had a 10 per cent chance of landing?”

    At last, some common sense on climate change

  24. 274
    Tim Jones says:

    Re: 241 Andreas Bjurström says: 15 February 2010 at 3:14 PM
    @203 Tim Jones, there are certainly some tinfoil hats around. So what?

    You mean @204. You wrote:
    AB: “If the IPCC had been more humble, the sceptics spinn based on a sigle error would not be possible.”

    I gave you the evidence that proved your claim was wrong.
    But yeah, I guess a tinfoil hat that plays US senator is insignificant all right. Except when it makes law
    for a powerful state.

    AB: “However, the IPCC has recurrently stated being free of errors and objectivity for the last twenty years.”

    I’m sure it tries to be.

    AB: This has been the IPCC strategy to making climate change a policy issue from the start. bert Bolin, the first chairman of the IPCC, started with this in the early 1970´s in Sweden (I did an interview with him a few years ago on this).

    I’m not sure of your point.

    AB: Moreover, to claim that the IPCC assessment is mere a scientific report with no considerations of policy, signify that the IPCC is 1) tinfoil hats themselves 2) or rather dishonest on what they are doing. I believe that a mix of 1 (the naivety of the natural sciences when it comes to the theory and sociology of science) and 2 is the case.

    Who claims this? #2 is a strong charge. I’d suggest you be able to back that up.

    From the RC page to which you respond, the IPCC addresses policy issues. It doesn’t recommend particular policies.

    Working Group 1 (WG1), which deals with the physical climate science basis, as assessed by the climatologists, including several of the Realclimate authors.

    Working Group 2 (WG2), which deals with impacts of climate change on society and ecosystems, as assessed by social scientists, ecologists, etc.

    Working Group 3 (WG3) , which deals with mitigation options for limiting global warming, as assessed by energy experts, economists, etc.

    The IPCC did write up Summaries for Policy Makers with options to consider. Is there something wrong with that? The IPCC
    was charged by the world’s governments to asses climate change and potential impacts. “The IPCC says its reports are policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive.”

    AB: To claim scientific purity (100 % truth, 100 % disinterestedness, objectivity, etc, etc) is madness for a social scientist, especially for post normal issues like climate change where science is so infected by politics.

    As far as I can tell, no scientist even says the science is settled.

    AB: For a social scientists (interested in the sociology of science) this is the equivalent to deny the most basic facts on the physical aspects of climate change.

    Climate change is infected with politics because of the controversy surrounding ways to address emissions control. Where does the IPCC AR 5 WG 1,2,3 tell us what exactly to do? It doesn’t.

    “The Nobel prize was for peace not science … government employees will use it to negotiate changes and a redistribution of resources. It is not a scientific analysis of climate change,” said Anton Imeson, a former IPCC lead author from the Netherlands. “For the media, the IPCC assessments have become an icon for something they are not. To make sure that it does not happen again, the IPCC should change its name and become part of something else. The IPCC should have never allowed itself to be branded as a scientific organisation. It provides a review of published scientific papers but none of this is much controlled by independent scientists.”

    I find most climate scientists to be extremely ignorant to most aspects of my area of expertise.

    And what would that be?

  25. 275
    PKerr says:

    In view of Jones comments, I would like to know how how long you think it is since the warming effect was detectable and what the margin of error is for 20 YRS
    I think the reporting in the press is lamentable but the media has been used to promote the warming argument hysterically so often its not surprising

  26. 276
    Septic Matthew says:

    245,, BPL: I find r = 0.874 between ln CO2 and dT for 1880-2008. Did I make a mistake somewhere? If so, please point it out.

    Look at the partial cross-correlation between CO2 change and dT with the change in solar activity taken into account. The cited article is stronger because it models non-linear relationships in the VAR approach.

    I haven’t found it yet on the posts (Do you know how to search these posts?), but I wrote a short critique of the paper — not that they did anything wrong that I know of, but that they need to supply lots more graphs, and make their data and programs available for public scrutiny (as Mann et al did for their Dec 2009 paper.)

  27. 277
    E A Barkley says:

    I don’t know that it will have any value amidst your professional number, but from a studious layman’s perspective, it appears that current facts verify only that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that humans produce alot of it, but that otherwise the data indicate no crisis – although a variety of computer models still do. That seems a significant change in tone from the consensus opinion. I for one will no longer be convinced of pending disaster simply by hearing evidence of increases in CO2 worldwide.

  28. 278
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Ken Grayling: You mean like this.

    See the little search box up at the top right corner of the page? It is your friend.

  29. 279
    Septic Matthew says:

    I thought that since I am usually sceptical of AGW, I should say that I think this review of the errors in the IPCC report was well-done. The errors are minor and no more than you’d expect in any large-scale enterprise.

  30. 280
    Josie says:

    There is an issue that bothers me greatly about the different working groups of the IPCC. But it is generally ignored by climate denialists because most (but by no means all) climate denialists are right wing.

    The later working groups of the IPCC are very much a mixture of science and neoclassical economics. Now neoclassical economics is quite clearly heavily political. And it is clearly heavily value laden. Indeed, it is based entirely on a 19th century moral philosophy (Utilitarianism).

    Incidentally, Utilitarianism is rejected by nearly every philosopher alive today because it does such an appalling job of representing our moral intuitions.

    The IPCC constantly uses Utilitarian and neoliberal assumptions raised to a fantastic level: for example talking about the “social costs” of X at a global level. It is never asked whether maximising aggregate wealth (irrespective of distribution) should actually be our goal, or whether aggregate global wealth is even a meaningful concept.

    Worst of all was the time when the IPCC decided that the life of someone in the poor world was worth 100 times less than the life of someone in the rich world. The calculation was based on what they would be prepared to lower their risk of dying…well indeed, if everything including human life is nothing more than a market. But can anyone suggest with a straight face that this is a value neutral idea, that should be treated on a par with natural science?

    That calculation raised objections even from some of the economics faithful, but it is a long way from unique in its methodology. In my opinion adopting the ethics of the slave trade is somewhat worse than a mistake about glaciers.

    The effect of this mixing of science and neoclassical economics are twofold:

    a) It raises the status of neoclassical economics above what it deserves. By mixing itself with science, it is now often seen as on a par with science. It is not.

    b) It taints the science to associate itself with this ideological project.

    Which is why I would like to keep the working groups very seperate.

  31. 281

    Revealing errors

    I agree that the errors made in the IPCC report may not be very important at first sight. But the problem is that both of the major statements that you list [glaciers and the Netherlands] have an alarmistic tone that cannot be mistaken. This is what worries serious critics. They are not just any types of mistakes – they are excellent examples of statements that should make it easier to “sell” the message. Politics, not science, is a good description. I don’t think that requiring the IPCC to use only peer reviewed literature would be of any great help to assure a neutral and correct description. It is easy to make a very biased presentation citing well chosen articles and well chosen parts of articles no matter how scientifically correct they may be.

    That the IPCC is not trying to present an unbiased and neutral description of the present development of the current climate and its consequences should be obvious to anyone. If we e.g. look at the WGII chapter 12.6.1 we see an extensive discussion of the European heatwave in 2003. A singular weather event is thus allowed to play the part of a warning example. We are also informed that this heat wave led to 35000 fatalities. Is this a balanced way to describe what a possible future climate would mean? If so, I hope that the winter of 2009/2010 appears in the next round of reports with a statement such as : On the other hand, with ongoing warming there should less risk of severe cold periods such as that which struck in 2009/2010 which claimed xxx thousand deaths in Europe alone. Do you think something like that will be included?

    But there is an even more interesting aspect of the “gates”. I do not know which media you read. The media I see are overwhelmingly alarmastic and biased in their reporting and have been so for years. This extends, amazingly enough, even to quality newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times and The Economist. The “gates” stories have finally awakened them. Instead of believing the climate story as gospel truth they have understood that they should review the material in a critical way, something that one expects from the free press but which certainly and amazingly has not taken place until now. That they finally take the time to scrutinize the IPCC publications is thus a good thing regardless of where you stand in the debate provided you have some interest in the truth. The fact that two such obvious errors remain in the text doesn’t only show that the IPCC review mechanism is faulty – it shows that almost no one has read the texts thoroughly. I blame myself for not having done so since I would almost certainly have gotten suspicious on both statements and a rather easy check would have proved them faulty. In the case of the Netherlands story it is more than amazing that this error could have survived so long without anyone noticing it – I suspect that on the order of one out of two of Dutch intellectuals would have immediately spotted the error.

  32. 282

    I, along with many other regular readers of this site, am thoroughly sick of increasingly vicious personal attacks on climate scientists, mostly ill-informed and often malicious.

    I set up a petition at so you can put your name to defending climate scientists against personal attack. Please sign and pass this request on as widely as you can.

  33. 283
    Doug Bostrom says:

    E A Barkley says: 15 February 2010 at 5:46 PM

    “…from a studious layman’s perspective, it appears that current facts verify only that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that humans produce alot of it, but that otherwise the data indicate no crisis – although a variety of computer models still do.”

    You have more studying to do, you are insufficiently studious.

    Continue your studies here, beginning again from the beginning:

  34. 284
    Tim Jones says:

    Re: 256 AxelD says: 15 February 2010

    A: Dr Robert Watson (IPCC chairman 1997-2002) says: [182]

    “The mistakes all appear to have gone in the direction of making it seem like climate change is more serious by overstating the impact. That is worrying. The IPCC needs to look at this trend in the errors and ask why it happened.”

    This is true. Exactly one (1) mistake to date, a few questionable citations and an error by the Dutch Government it asked to be corrected. But the trend is being manufactured by the press.
    Despite what Watson says, neither 1 nor two errors is a trend.

    Yet you construe this to mean:
    “That makes the two top UK gov’t scientific advisers openly and publicly sceptical about the claims of the IPCC.?”


    Even this article:
    doesn’t support your specious innuendo. Words have meaning. You seem to be leading us to believe Watson’s a skeptic when he is not.

  35. 285
    David B. Benson says:

    E A Barkley (277) — Yes, GCMs suggest big problems for the future in some scenarios; see IPCC AR4 WG1 chapter 10. Also, I encourage reading Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees”.

  36. 286
    Kate7 says:

    Regarding: It taints the science to associate itself with this ideological project.

    According to Richard Tol at the following “Summary for Policy Makers is very selective, up to the point of twisting the chapters’ findings beyond recognition. In case of SAR WG3 Chapter 6, this was done against the will of the authors. The IPCC has learned from that. The selection process for authors is now more careful (awkward people like myself are not welcome) and there is self-selection too (David Pearce withdrew).” Richard Tol

    A Political Issue for 2000—and Beyond

    (In particular refer to page 19/20: ‘Politics Enters into Drafting the IPCC Report.’ Here examples are given of ‘substantial changes … made between the time when the report was approved in Madrid and the time it was printed.The convening lead author, Ben Santer, readily admitted to making these changes.)

  37. 287
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Septic Matthew says: I think this review of the errors in the IPCC report was well-done. The errors are minor and no more than you’d expect in any large-scale enterprise.

    Good man.

  38. 288
    Jacob says:

    The ICC is not a scientific body, it doesn’t do research. What does it contribute, except propaganda?
    People who want or need to know the latest scientific information should follow and assess the scientific literature. I don’t see why they need and intermediary body like the IPCC to do it for them.
    The debate about the credibility of the IPCC is worthless, because the IPCC itself is totally superfluous.

    [Response: Read the article.–Jim]

  39. 289
    Andreas Bjurström says:

    @281 Steven Jörsäter,
    an insightful and important comment, since it goes beyond the rather simplistic factual debate, a sidetrack as far as I am concerned. What you highlight is the framing of climate change in general, and the staging of risk in particular. Sociologist Ulrich Becks book World At Risk is a good primer.

    It is frustrating that so many knowledgeable believers (knowledgeable on the physical facts and physical theories, all the WG1 people, the mature science of climate change) are almost void of knowlege on framing issues. The reasons for this is of course their limited scientific training. Yet, we can not blaim them for this. We are all limited in our expertise and insights,social scientists even more so than natural scientists.

    As a response to this post, several people will assert that I am a “denier”, which only illustrate their factual simplicity and their inability to see the broader picture. Simplictic believers should read Mike Hulmes book Why we disagree about climate change.

  40. 290

    Ken Grayling: I’d like to see an end to this bickering and have someone forget for a moment about the effect of gases measured in parts-per-million and analyse the effect of water vapour (the big greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere, with some predictions/projections.

    BPL: Water vapor averages about 3870 ppmv versus 388 for carbon dioxide. Because of their differing distribution of absorption lines, water vapor contributes about 60% of the clear-sky greenhouse effect and carbon dioxide contributes about 26%.

    CO2 is a problem because a pulse of new CO2 stays up about 200 years. Water vapor stays up an average of nine days. We can’t do anything to affect the level of water vapor, but we are jacking up the CO2 level as fast as we can.

  41. 291


    The period Dai et al. covered was actually 1870-2002. They said there was a big sudden shift in the 1970-2002 period. It’s not linear–but that’s the danger.

  42. 292


    When I regress dT on ln CO2 and TSI together, ln CO2 accounts for 76% of the variance and TSI for 2.5%, at most. If they’re construing things so that TSI is a greater influence than CO2, I’ll bet the farm their model is too elaborate to be statistically meaningful.

  43. 293
    Don Shor says:

    240: Doug Bostrom says:
    15 February 2010 at 3:13 PM
    When is Dr. Pielke Jr. going to produce some evidence to support his claim of a “classic and unambiguous case of financial conflict of interest” on the part of Dr. Pachauri??

    I thought Dr. Pachauri was OT for this thread, but since you raise the question….
    Here is the article detailing Dr. Pachauri’s potential conflicts of interest:

    Before you dismiss it because of the source, please read the details of what they are saying. Just one example that should give you pause before you criticize the industry ties of various skeptics:
    “TERI-NA [of which Dr. Pachauri is president] is funded by a galaxy of official and corporate sponsors, including four branches of the UN bureaucracy; four US government agencies; oil giants such as Amoco; two of the leading US defence contractors; Monsanto, the world’s largest GM producer; the WWF (the environmentalist campaigning group which derives much of its own funding from the EU) and two world leaders in the international ‘carbon market’, between them managing more than $1 trillion (£620 billion) worth of assets.”
    Look at the different boards he is on, and the contracts his companies have acquired.
    Now here is how Dr. Pachauri responds to questions about his financial interests and possible conflicts of interest. Bear in mind, this is a transcript. He is not being quoted out of context. No little snippets are being misconstrued. These are his own words.
    The discussion about conflict of interest is about half-way down.

  44. 294
    P. Lewis says:

    Re Tim Jones’ pointer to the Independent‘s piece on ocean acidification. The Independent reports the Ridgwell and Schmidt paper as being in Nature Genetics. Oops! It’s in Nature Geoscience.

  45. 295
    skwiself says:

    Wait. People actually come to this propaganda machine any more?


    “[Response: Go read what he actual said. It isn’t what you think. Perhaps you could also reasssess the credibility of your sources? – gavin]”

    The irony of RealClimate talking about the credibility of sources is… ironic.

    And what he actually said was that he couldn’t prove with 95% certainty that the world had warmed statistically significantly since 1995, but he could with a level of certainty very close to that. In effect. And then of course he mucked it up by saying his records are in terrible shape.

    But really a far more interesting quote than that of Dr. Jones is that of former IPCC head Dr. Robert Watson, who points out that the errors that keep cropping up in the IPCC report are all errors overstating the extent and threat of climate change. You’d think that errors would be at least somewhat evenly distributed, wouldn’t you? Some of them overstating, some of them understating. But no, apparently understatement is not all the rage in the scientific community. Although if their credibility keeps taking hit after hit, whining about unserious reporting and how the science is solid and how oil companies are mean and all the other whining habitually engaged in by the authors of this site and the entire movement won’t amount to anything. People have already stopped listening, and the arrogant, defensive tone of places like RealClimate isn’t going to bring them back. In a very real sense, the war is already lost. The credibility is already gone. China and India were never going to sign carbon treaties anyway. Now any chance of Western countries doing anything is just about zero as well. And the fault is not that of Big Oil, or climate skeptics, or allegedly bad journalists. It is the fault of people like the authors of this site, people like Phil Jones, people like Pachauri, who did such sloppy work and presented it with such hubris and treated anyone who didn’t toe their line with such arrogance and condescension.

    Maybe gavin would like to tell me to “reassess my sources” because hey maybe Exxon-Mobil kidnapped Dr. Watson and replaced him with a robot in the last two weeks, I mean when all else fails blame Big Oil, right?

  46. 296
    skwiself says:

    “I, along with many other regular readers of this site, am thoroughly sick of increasingly vicious personal attacks on climate scientists, mostly ill-informed and often malicious.”

    And I, along with the rest of the world, who have had it up to here with people like you, am tired of you and your buddies denigrating our intelligence and integrity for well over a decade, as you are still doing, are proud of doing, attacks based entirely on your moral presumption and assumption of factual invincibility, and then have the gall to complain about being the target of “ill-informed” and “malicious” personal attacks. Having the shoe on the other foot is never a fun exercise.

  47. 297
    cer says:

    AxeID @ 251:

    That makes the two top UK gov’t scientific advisers openly and publicly sceptical about the claims of the IPCC. And you still believe I’m wrong when I say the IPCC needs to be replaced with a more transparently open and honest organization?

    So if I’ve understood you’re reasoning correctly, you’re arguing that a handful of newspaper quotes from two UK government scientists (only one of whom is actually a climate expert) are enough to invalidate a technical report authored by hundreds of independent scientists working in universities and research institutes around the world? Interesting logic, but fortunately that’s not the way science works.

  48. 298
    Eli Rabett says:

    Robert Muir Wood just called Roger Pielke Jr. out
    4. Does RMS believe the IPCC has fairly represented the research findings?

    Yes, RMS believes the IPCC fairly referenced its paper, with suitable caveats around the results, highlighting the factors influencing the relationship that had been discovered between time and increased catastrophe costs. We believe it was appropriate to include the RMS paper in the report because, at that time, it was the only paper addressing catastrophe losses over time that had been normalized for changes in the values and exposure at risk.

    Roger has been exceedingly unpleasant about these issues and his experience in the past has been that others would rather not get into a fight. Swifthack has changed the rules for those who thought they would be left alone if they kept their heads down.

  49. 299

    The WWF report, cited in the WG2 report and by almost everyone else as the original source of misinformation about Himalayan glaciers, is apparently getting a bad rap — the actual WWF report is more accurate than the WG4 statement.

    I learned this from an excellent, very detailed investigation by two Yale grad students, who traced the murky sources and also the WG2 writing/reviewing/editing steps behind those sadly infamous Himalayan-glacier statements:

  50. 300
    Didactylos says:

    PKerr: it *always* takes 20-30 years of data to calculate a significant climate trend. If you have less data than this, there may still be exactly the same warming trend, but it’s not enough data to say for sure.

    So, even in 1998 (the warmest year in the hadley record) you still needed to go back to 1968-1978 to calculate a meaningful trend.

    And now, you still need to go back 20-30 years (from now) to get enough data – and when you have enough data, we can be *sure* there is a real warming trend. And there is.

    (Note: 15 years is, as Jones observes, right about the limit. More is better, and climatologists prefer 30 years.)