In a post defending the credibility of the IPCC, RealClimate.org, a blog run by a group of climate modelers (some of who have worked with the panel), offered a suggestion for how the group could improve one aspect of its review process:
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 [Working Group 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.
… 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.
It is also a good opportunity for journalists to try to better explain how the IPCC works (for better or worse) to the public—and RealClimate’s point about the differences between “WG1” and “WG2” is key. The Observatory has repeatedly argued that one of the best ways to improve climate reporting is for journalists to better delineate between points of science where there is a high level of consensus (e.g., that the world is getting warmer and human industry is largely responsible for that) and points where there is still a lot of uncertainty (such as the scale and timing of impacts). If the Himalayan-glacier peg has grown too stale for editors, reporters have another IPCC-related storyline with which to carry out this delineation.
Last Sunday, the Sunday Times was at it again with a story questioning the IPCC’s use of a report supposedly linking global warming to a rise, in recent decades, of monetary damages from natural disasters:
The Sunday Times has since found that the scientific paper on which the IPCC based its claim had not been peer reviewed, nor published, at the time the climate body issued its report.
When the paper was eventually published, in 2008, it had a new caveat. It said: “We find insufficient evidence to claim a statistical relationship between global temperature increase and catastrophe losses.”
The IPCC issued a rebuttal (pdf) of the Sunday Times’s work the next day, calling it a “meaningless and baseless” attack:
This section of the IPCC report is a balanced treatment of a complicated and important issue. It clearly makes the point that one study detected an increase in economic losses, corrected for values at risk, but that other studies have not detected such a trend. The tone is balanced, and the section contains many important qualifiers. In writing, reviewing, and editing this section, IPCC procedures were carefully followed to produce the IPCC mandate.
Bob Ward, the policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, then penned a column for the Guardian, another British paper, arguing, “‘Disastergate’ is an excuse for IPCC critics to dig up old academic rows.” Ward pointed out that Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, has long criticized the panel for misrepresenting Pielke’s and others’ research on the relationship between global warming and the rising cost of natural disasters.
So, yes, an “old row” it is, but a very important one, to which the American press should pay more attention (taking a cue perhaps from the Guardian, which thought the flap between the Sunday Times, the IPCC, Ward, and Pielke was newsworthy enough). For, indeed, the row continues. Over the last week, Pielke has posted a number of entries on his blog revisiting his criticisms of the IPCC’s work on disaster losses and responding to Ward’s defense of the panel (see here, here, here, here, and here). Today, he announced that next Friday he will debate Ward at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. The event is titled, “Has Global Warming increased the toll of disasters?”
That’s a great question. Unfortunately, the debate is in London, which probably means we’ll be hearing crickets in the U.S. media while coverage of this momentous topic continues elsewhere.