Glaciergate in perspective

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

Each group produced a separate report in 2007.  They were each about 1000 pages long.  This was the fourth IPPC report round, the others were in 1990, 1995 and 2001.

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.

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9 Responses to “Glaciergate in perspective”

  1. Andy Says:

    I think I will get all my climate change news from you, it seems as though the mainstream press only find soundbytes and extrapolate them into goodness knows what. doh, like what they’ve always done.

    • andyrussell Says:

      Hi Andy

      Thanks for the kind comment! There are definately some papers/journalists/columnists out there that have an anti climate change stance that no amount of evidence would change. Although, I was surprised that The Times jumped on this particular bandwagon. I wouldn’t give up completely on the mainstream though, just employ a skeptical mindset! Another great online source info is RealClimate, despite being a bit dry sometimes they have some heavyweight authority behind them.



  2. Cedric Katebsy Says:

    Liked the article.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. On “the real holes in climate science” « Andy Russell's Blog Says:

    […] There’s been a lot of bad press recently for climate science but a lot of has focused on very minor issues. For example, most of the coverage on the UEA CRU email leak/theft/hack (so-called climategate) has focused on what some of the “skeptic” community wished was in the emails rather than what was really there. The Guardian has gone over some of the issues from the leak in depth in a recent series of articles, although this seems like a lot of focus on old issues. As Prof. Phil Jones himself said in a recent interview in The Sunday Times: “I wish people would read my scientific papers rather than my emails”. Glaciergate was equally blown out of all proportion given that the original claim only appeared in one sentence in a 3000 page report. […]

  4. scienceofdoom Says:

    It must be very frustrating to see one error create such a fuss. So why did it?

    Maybe I can comment on what I believe is the reason why.

    The IPCC has demonstrated a slight bias towards the “disaster scenario”.

    Why did Mann’s climate reconstruction make it into TAR? At the time it was one paper, with hundreds of earlier ones showing the MWP around the world. Perhaps Mann is right.

    But how do you think it looks to everyone with a passing knowledge of climates past?

    It looks like an attempt to show the current warming in a more scary light. And one of the fascinating aspects of the climategate emails was seeing that other key figures thought Mann’s paper was poor. And Briffa thinking that the MWP was “at least as warm” as current temperatures.

    But that didn’t appear in the IPCC.

    How do you think that looks to us vaguely scientifically literate people that the IPCC is trying to win over – at least I thought that was what they were trying to do.

    It looks like they are trying to pull “a fast one”.

    Take Chris Landsea’s open letter after he resigned from the IPCC. Before starting the work on what effect a warming climate would have on hurricanes, disasters etc, his boss was doing the media conference saying how bad it would be. His boss has done excellent scientific work, but here he is being a politician. And bringing the science into disrepute.

    The IPCC wasn’t interested in Landsea’s comments about how this would obviously affect the direction of the research they hadn’t started. Demonstrating a clear bias.

    There are many other examples.

    Well, if you only wanted to win over climate scientists then you would have nothing to worry about.

    There are lots of seekers of climate truth out there. People who don’t agree with you are not “rejecting established climate science”, it’s actually hard to understand it.

    In my unimportant opinion, the IPCC first won lots more political driving force by over-playing its hand. It understood that.

    And now secondly, that over-playing of its hand has rebounded – seriously damaging the credibility of climate science to the “outside world”. To the non-convinced, to the seekers. It didn’t understand or expect that.

    It seems like most of the climate community can’t understand it either.

    • andyrussell Says:

      Ok, well this is all a bit off topic as the post was about the very minor glacier claim in WG2 – all the palaeoclimate stuff appears in WG1 – but I agree that it is an issue.

      I guess I would look at this situation from the other perspective and say that surely the fact that Mann and Briffa were arguing about this point means that there was healthy debate between the scientists as to which interpretation of the palaeo records was nearer the truth. The email leak certainly contains no evidence of a conspiracy to promote the “disaster scenario”. That said, the Mann plot made it into the 2001 report. There’s not a lot else to say about this as I don’t think that the discussions that led to this decision took place in the leaked emails. However, I think Briffa’s more recent work implies that his views on the MWP are converging with Mann’s and the 2007 (AR4) section on the last 2000 years is much more robust than the 2001 equivalent. The science moved on and improved. Maybe 2001 was too early to present a consensus view on palaeoclimatic reconstructions but there was political pressure to do so. It’s not the ideal situation.

      “How do you think that looks to us vaguely scientifically literate people that the IPCC is trying to win over – at least I thought that was what they were trying to do.”

      This is a relevant point as the IPCC was set up to advise policymakers about the science and potential impacts of climate change, not to inform the public, scientifically literate or not, about climate change. I think the IPCC probably needs reforming now so that it is in more of a position to play both roles as well as to react more quickly to new research and to separate the hard science (WG1) from the more speculative impacts projections (WG2).

      • scienceofdoom Says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. You are right, I am off topic as far as which working group we are talking about..

        But I sensed the question you were asking is “why the furore?” Or maybe you were just saying, “there shouldn’t be a furore..”

        The off-topic point that I really have is that I think the “climate science brand” has been severely damaged. Not to climate scientists, of course.

        I’m not trying to say that climate science is “wrong” or “in need of reform”. But the climate science community believes it has an important message. How to convey that message?

        You can’t convey it if no one “outside” thinks you are credible.

        Regardless of what individual scientists have done, or even what many lead authors of the IPCC have done, a perception has been created from the non-stop barrage of press releases via the main stream media for at least 5 years. A perception of overplaying climate fears. The IPCC gave the appearance of joining in.

        I subscribed to 2 UK newspapers on their “climate RSS” and it was comical. 5 releases a week with “it’s worse than we thought” and how bad it would be for the world, or in this particular release the green tree lizard in northern Chuxiong. Not a single good outcome. As though anything outside 1880-1950 climate was on the brink of a precipice. That was the climate optimum for the world and now.. well, say your prayers.

        I have no idea if climate science as a whole thought this was good. But if they – climate scientists – thought it was bad, it never made it into the mainstream media.

        I sense that the climate science community doesn’t really understand what a perception problem this has created, hence my post.

        I’m just one person, I could well be totally wrong.. And I don’t know the answer, I can just see a real problem. The outsiders have no way to judge the core science – hardly a physics degree to be seen, and nothing of post-docs in radiative physics.

        How do you think they will judge whether the core science is reliable?

        From all the other little cues that they are given.

      • andyrussell Says:

        I don’t want to sound like I’ve got my head stuck in the sand shouting “Everything is fine! The science is good!” as there is clearly is a PR problem.

        I wrote about Glaciergate because it seemed that the media reaction was “Well all the science is wrong then, you’ve been lying to us.” when most of the stories I read didn’t even have the first idea about how the IPCC works. It was even worse when the CRU email story broke – in most of the articles I read the reporter didn’t even know what CRU stood for (Climatic, not Climate, Research Unit) or that it was not part of the Met Office Hadley Centre. Now I realise that these are very, very minor points but how do you then trust the rest of their work when they’ve not even checked that?

        So what’s my point? I suppose the media and politicians loved climate science for a long time and the scientists enjoyed that. The current backlash, though, is too extreme and is using any lame “revelation” to keep it going. It probably stems from a bit of misunderstanding about how science works on the part of journalists and vice versa. Now seems like a good time to re-brand and re-structure the IPCC to face the current issues rather than those from 1988 when it was set up.

  5. IPCC AR5 WG1 author shake up « Our Clouded Hills Says:

    […] relating to the IPCC in recent months (e.g. the unimaginatively named “Climategate”, “Glaciergate”, the now retracted “Amazongate” and the not-so-heavily-covered-…-I-wonder-why? […]

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