The story is about a claim in the 2007 IPCC report that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. It turns out that the evidence for this claim was from a speculative comment made by a not-very-prominent glaciologist in New Scientist in 1999. The Times and The Express have gone to town with this story. So, what does it really mean?
A little bit of background…
To understand the significance of Glaciergate, we first need to understand how the IPCC works. So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is split into 3 Working Groups:
- WGI: The Physical Science Basis
- WGII: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
- WGIII: Mitigation of Climate Change
WGI reviews and synthesises all the work on the physics and chemistry of the Earth system and tries to make projections of how things like temperature, rainfall and atmospheric circulation will change in the future. I refer to this report a lot in my work as a meteorologist/climatologist.
I know a little about Working Group II – it is written by hydrologists, glaciologists, economists, social scientists and medical scientists – but I have very little idea about what goes on in WGIII. I also confess that I’ve never looked at the WGIII report. WGs II and III rely on a certain degree of speculation; it is their business to ask what the world would be like if certain things happen based on the projections from WGI.
Was the Himalayan meltdown a “central claim” in the IPPC report?
The 2035 date relating to the Himalayas appears in one sentence in Chapter 10 of the Working Group II report. So this is one sentence in nearly 3000 pages. As far as I can see (please correct me if I’m wrong) the 2035 claim was not repeated in the WGII Summary for Policymakers or the overall Synthesis Report. This was not a central claim.
Given that WGII is speculative by nature then Glaciergate appears to be a reviewing error rather than an attempt to distort the science. Why the claim was given an implied “very likely” (90% certain) tag is worrying but then this is the first questioning of anything in the report that I can remember since it was published in 2007 – that says a lot for the skill and thoroughness of the report reviewers.
Most importantly, though, the WGII glacier claim changes absolutely nothing about the fundamental science behind climate change that appears in WGI. This is like saying you wont trust anything in the economics section of The Times because they once printed a football result wrong. The WGI science is all robust and, if anything, quite conservative in its claims and projections.
Dr Rajendra Pachauri (IPCC Chair) is a former railway engineer with a PhD in economics and no formal climate science qualifications…
Today’s Express also makes this statement as if it undermines the whole of the IPCC. If anything, it just shows that the reporter has very little idea what the IPCC actually does. Pachauri has worked in several different scientific disciplines and has headed a large organisation before. In my mind, that more than qualifies him to head the IPCC.
Anyway, if you’re looking for people with in depth knowledge of specific fields, then there are the WG Chairs. For example, WGI was chaired by Susan Solomon, who stands a pretty good chance of being awarded a Nobel prize for her work in the 1980s on the ozone “hole”. Beneath the WG Chairs, each chapter has at least 1 co-ordinating author and 1 lead author. Beneath them, each chapter also has many contributing authors, all experts in their field.
This attack on Pachauri doesn’t hold up very well.
The revelation is the latest crack to appear in the scientific concensus over climate change…
This claim was made in the Times yesterday, with the other cited cracks being the CRU email theft and something about sea level rise estimates. This claim seems to assume that “consensus” means that no new work is going on in the climate sciences or at least demonstrates a complete ignorance of how science works.
Things will change in the science, which is exactly why the plans for the next IPCC report (due in 2014) are already well under way! These are exciting (and, if I’m honest, a little depressing) times for climate science so its disappointing that many people outside the research community don’t want to know about it.