Scientists slam IPCC blunder, chief goes mum


New Delhi/Washington: The head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Thursday refused to answer any question on its unsubstantiated claim that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, which it subsequently admitted was a goof-up, even as four leading academics questioned the warning anew.

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The IPCC has already retracted the warning that it had carried in its 2007 report, but the global group of over 2,500 scientists is still facing a severe crisis of credibility due to the blunder.

It has also led to a number of allegations of financial impropriety against IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri and the The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the think tank he also heads. The British government is reported to be planning a probe.

As an embattled Pachauri refused requests from the global media to answer the charges, or to react when asked if he was going to resign from his chairman’s post, four leading academics wrote to the journal Science saying the claim that Himalayan glaciers may disappear by 2035 requires a 25-fold greater loss rate from 1999 to 2035 than that estimated for 1960 to 1999.

The IPCC had made a statement Wednesday admitting the blunder. It said a paragraph in its report “refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers (due to global warming). In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly”.

The statement — which came from Pachauri, IPCC vice chairs and co-chairs of its working groups — said they “regretted 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 into an IPCC Report’. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance”.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer said: “The credibility of the IPCC depends on the thoroughness with which its procedures are adhered to. The procedures have been violated in this case. That must not be allowed to happen again because the credibility of climate change policy can only be based on credible science.”

The four academics who wrote to Science — J Graham Cogley, a professor at Ontario Trent University; Jeffrey S. Kargel, University of Arizona, Tucson; G. Kaser, Institut for Geographie, University of Innsbruck, Austria and C. J. van der Veen, University of Kansas, Lawrence — said the IPCC warning “conflicts with knowledge of glacier climate relationships, and is wrong”.

“Nevertheless it has captured the global imagination and has been repeated in good faith often, including recently by the IPCC’s chairman (R.K. Pachauri),” they pointed out.

“These errors could have been avoided had the norms of scientific publication, including peer review and concentration upon peer-reviewed work, been respected,” they said.

A recent News of the Week story on Himalayan glaciers “highlights how inadequately reviewed material makes its way into the public consciousness”, Cogley and colleagues said, noting: “One source, Working Group II (WG-II) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reproduces several errors.”

“The Working Group writes that ‘glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world’ and that ‘the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035.’

“Another source advances a no less mistaken conjecture, not discussed in the news story, that Himalayan glaciers are responding to the climate of as long as 15,000 years ago,” the four academics said.

“The IPCC fourth assessment report of 2007, particularly of the physical science basis for the changes, is mostly accurate, but the first WG-II sentence derives from a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, which cites a news story about an unpublished study that neither compares Himalayan glaciers with other rates of recession nor estimates a date for disappearance of Himalayan glaciers,” they said.

WWF has since apologised for having carried the unsubstantiated claim.

Syed Iqbal Hasnain, the scientist whose 1999 statement gave rise to the goof-up, had said: “I have not given any date or year on the likely disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. The statement I gave (in 1999) — on the basis of the results being found till then — was: ‘All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating’ — and a scientific postulation was made that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear in the next 40-50 years at their present rate of decline.”

Hasnain’s 1999 statement had made it to the British magazine New Scientist, from there to a 2005 WWF report and from there to the IPCC report.