Sunday, January 17, 2010

What was that they were saying about the science being settled?

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which didn’t seem to mind being seen as the final word on all things climate change, appears to have based some of their conclusions on information taken from the back of a cereal box.

Well, maybe not, but we now know of at least one instance where a major IPCC doomsday prediction was based on information taken not from the vaunted peer-reviewed literature, but rather from an organization whose stock in trade is exaggerating perceived environmental threats.

The Sunday Times (UK) reports today:

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world's glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC's 2007 report.

It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephone interview with Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was "speculation" and was not supported by any formal research. If confirmed it would be one of the most serious failures yet seen in climate research. The IPCC was set up precisely to ensure that world leaders had the best possible scientific advice on climate change.


The New Scientist report was apparently forgotten until 2005 when WWF cited it in a report called An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China. The report credited Hasnain's 1999 interview with the New Scientist. But it was a campaigning report rather than an academic paper so it was not subjected to any formal scientific review. Despite this it rapidly became a key source for the IPCC when Lal and his colleagues came to write the section on the Himalayas.

When finally published, the IPCC report did give its source as the WWF study but went further, suggesting the likelihood of the glaciers melting was "very high". The IPCC defines this as having a probability of greater than 90%.

The report read: "Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate."

So the WWF report didn’t even pretend to be an academic paper, but instead was a “campaign” report from start to finish.  Instead of following the trail to the source of the assertion, they swallowed WWF’s interpretation whole, and even went further by assigning a “very high” likelihood that the glacial disappearance would occur in the specified timeframe.  All ultimately based on a speculative remark in a phone conversation.

Given the fact that the IPCC’s conclusions have been used by organizations and governments to pursue a fundamental reordering of civilization, this is negligence and arrogance of the first order.  We skeptics can be forgiven for wondering how much of the IPCC’s assessments are fueled by incompetence or personal biases.