U.N. climate panel under review: no stranger to controversy

May 14, 2010

glaciersipccThe U.N. panel of climate scientists came under the microscope on Friday by  experts named by the United Nations to figure out how to restore faith in its work after errors including an exaggeration of the thaw of the Himalayas. 

They’ll have to write clearly, check their findings and avoid overstating their case (sounds like a journalism manual). But how? And are there only isolated slips, or a wider problem? Also, why hasn’t the panel learn more from past controversies?

Rajendra Pachauri (below right), chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, acknowledged at the start of the session in Amsterdam there had been errors in the last major report in 2007 — but said the did not detract from the overall conclusions that warming is under way and that people are very likely to be the cause by burning fossil fuels.

The panel has drawn most criticism for wrongly projecting that glaciers in the Himalayas might all melt by 2035 (that was part of a 3,000 page text but did not make it to a summary for government policy makers). Pachauri said people had got the message from the media that  projections of glacier melt were wrong, for instance, but the panel had not managed to restate its overall message that the ice is in retreat around the world. To show that point, he gave the graph (above left).

A repeated theme was that the Geneva-based Secretariat was “lean” with a budget of just $5-7 million a year and would need to be bolstered to face future challenges to its work, including better communications.pachauri

Still, it’s not as if the IPCC is a novice — past controversies include a 1995 conclusion that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”. That was the first, cautious indication that humans were to blame for climate change, raised to a 90 percent certainty in the 2007 report.

“I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process,” Frederick Seitz, head of the George C. Marshall Institute, wrote in the Wall Street Journal at the time of the 1995 finding.  And that controversy is still rumbling on — Seitz is among scientists criticised in a new book “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, subtitled “How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”.

Sceptics say the panel has exaggerated risks of climate change and failed to include dissenting views and see the Himalayan mistake as symptomatic of a wider problem. Pachauri said that the panel is willing to redouble its efforts and says morale is high — with more scientists than ever wanting to take part in the unpaid extra work.

The review panel, led by economist Harold Shapiro, a former president of Princeton,  will report back on ideas to the United Nations by Aug. 30. He says they welcome ideas.

(Photograph of Rajendra Pachauri by Bob Strong, Reuters. Taken at Copenhagen summit in December 2009)


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