Almost two weeks ago, the Sunday Times, a British newspaper, “broke” the story that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had made significant errors in its 2007 report on the impacts of global warming. (Indian journalist Pallava Bagla actually reported this story for the BBC back in December without creating much of a stir.)
The report stated that there was a very high likelihood that glaciers in the Himalayas would disappear by 2035 if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Three days after the Times published its article, the IPCC essentially admitted that this was an error (while glaciers in the region are melting, they are unlikely to vanish that quickly) and apologized (pdf) for the “poorly substantiated” claim.
Much like the controversial cache of e-mails hacked and leaked from a British climate research center in November, the error has caused a worldwide debate about the quality of the IPCC’s reports and processes. Unlike “Climategate,” however, the so-called “Glaciergate” affair has not received much attention in the American press; nor has subsequent criticism that the panel also overstated the link between global warming and a rise in monetary damages related to natural disasters. As the Knight Science Journalism Tracker pointed out in a news roundup on Wednesday:
US media largely have had little in recent days on the troubles at the UN’s climate-watching IPCC – an agency under siege peripherally due to the largely dismissed flap over emails, right in the cross hairs for its Himalaya glacier melt forecast screw-up, and potentially over suggestions of systematic exaggeration of global warming’s signature in specific storms, droughts, or other natural disasters.
But the fracas continues making headlines in the UK, in Europe generally (see Sascha Karberg’s post here on German press), and especially in India, home of the IPCC boss and host to those melting glaciers.
In the days after the story first broke, The New York Times and The Washington Post each ran one print article about the Himalayan glaciers error. The Christian Science Monitor, now published online, produced one piece, and the Associated Press and Bloomberg sent a couple of articles over the wire.
Unfortunately, that’s about it. Meanwhile, outlets in the U.K., India, and Australia have been eating the American media’s lunch, churning out reams of commentary and analysis. Journalists in the U.S. should take immediate steps to redress that oversight.
Overseas, reporters have already explained many details of IPCC’s gaffe. The glaciers error can be traced back to a 1999 article in New Scientist. The piece quoted Syed Hasnain, an Indian glaciologist who is currently a fellow at the TERI research institute in Delhi (run by IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri), saying that glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035. (That prediction does not exist in any peer-reviewed literature, and Hasnain told The New York Times last week that he was misquoted, but a 1996 study from Russia reported that the glaciers could come close to disappearing by 2350.) In 2005, a status report (pdf) on glaciers by WWF, an environmental group, cited the New Scientist’s article from six years earlier, and it was that report that the IPCC used as the basis for its flawed estimate of glacial retreat.
There is no doubt that glaciers around the world are losing mass at an alarming rate (the Center for Environmental Journalism’s Tom Yulsman had a good blog post on this Wednesday, as did Scientific American on Thursday). To make matters worse for the IPCC, however, the 2035 blunder is actually one of five in a single paragraph (originally highlighted, it appears, by Graham Cogley, a professor of geography and glaciers at Trent University in Canada), which the Associated Press laid out nicely in one of its articles.
Reactions from journalists and scientists have ranged from charges that the error proves the IPCC has intentionally misled the public and can no longer be trusted to claims that it was an isolated and innocent mistake that does not detract from IPCC’s capability and legitimacy. As usual, the best commentary and analyses have presented arguments that fall somewhere between these two extremes, and it is into that breach that American media must go.
In places, that process has already begun. New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin had an insightful post on Tuesday about pressures that the IPCC is facing “from inside and out” to enact certain changes. Lead authors of IPCC reports, a longtime critic of the panel based in academia, and the vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission alike have called for improvements in transparency and objectivity in the panel’s next major assessment report, which is expected sometime around 2013.