MIA on the IPCC

American press largely ignores latest controversies

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.

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.

[Update – 2/2, 11:00 a.m.: As Rich Stone of Science pointed out in the comments section, the germ of the “Glaciergate” story cropped up in an article by Pallava Bagla in Science publication in November. It focused on the Raina report, a study that challenged the IPCC’s statements about rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers. Last week’s issue of Science contained an interesting Q&A between Bagla and Rajendra Pachauri, the panel’s chairman, in which Pachauri responded to recent criticisms and discussed the outlook for an international climate accord.]

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.