22 January, 2010

IPCC’s reaction to the Himalayan meltdown affair too weak

Sergio Abranches

The mistake about the Himalayan glaciers meltdown deserves a stronger statement by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC. The case is not central do the core evidence on climate change, but it is not a minor issue either.

Let’s begin with the facts. Several geologists contested the inclusion in the latest report of the IPCC of a highly contentious claim about the speed at which Himalayan glaciers are melting. The mention on a paragraph of the report was based not on peer-reviewed research, but on a quote of a New Scientist story in a document issued by the NGO World Wildlife Foundation, WWF – “An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China”:

The New Scientist magazine carried the article “Flooded Out – Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities” in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming”. The article also predicted that freshwater flow in rivers across South Asia will “eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages”.

The use of “grey information”, that is, not peer-reviewed, was a mistake in itself, attributable to the lead author or authors of the section on glaciers to be later used in the report. Besides, the text should have been checked by a referee prior to its final acceptance.

The Indian government published a study – Himalayan Glaciers: A State-of-Art Review of Glacial Studies, Glacial Retreat and Climate Change, by geologist V. K. Rayna, dismissing the claims of such a rapid meltdown of the glaciers. The Guardian’s Adam Vaughn says that IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri dismissed the report as not peer-reviewed and added:

“With the greatest of respect this guy retired years ago and I find it totally baffling that he comes out and throws out everything that has been established years ago.”

Jonathan Leake and Chris Hastings of The Sunday Times report that Graham Cogley, a geographer from Trent University in Ontario, Canada, traced the IPCC claim back to the New Scientist. Cogley contacted Fred Pearce, the author of the original NS story, who re-interviewed Hasnain. The scientist confirmed that his 1999 comments had been “speculative”. Pearce published the update in the New Scientist.

According to the Times, Cogley said:

“The reality, that the glaciers are wasting away, is bad enough. But they are not wasting away at the rate suggested by this speculative remark and the IPCC report. The problem is that nobody who studied this material bothered chasing the trail back to the original point when the claim first arose. It is ultimately a trail that leads back to a magazine article and that is not the sort of thing you want to end up in an IPCC report.”

The Times story also got the reaction of Professor Murari Lal, who oversaw the chapter on glaciers in the IPCC report. He told the reporters he would only recommend that the claim about glaciers be dropped:

“If Hasnain says officially that he never asserted this, or that it is a wrong presumption, than I will recommend that the assertion about Himalayan glaciers be removed from future IPCC assessments.”

The New Scientist quotes Murari Lal saying he “outright rejected” the notion that the IPCC was off the mark on Himalayan glaciers. “The IPCC authors did exactly what was expected from them,” he said to NS’s Fred Pearce. He also told Pearce that “we relied rather heavily on grey [not peer-reviewed] literature, including the WWF report.” His conclusion is that “the error, if any, lies with Dr Hasnain’s assertion and not with the IPCC authors.”

That’s a strange notion of responsibility by a scientist playing the role of lead author for a section of the world’s most important official scientific statement about climate change. Any good journalist would tell him, that “the error of one’s source is one’s error too”, since one has the obligation to verify the validity of one’s sources. Not to mention the quality of one’s choices of sources.

Hasnain, interviewed by the Times of India, said:

“I am unnecessarily being dragged into the controversy. The IPCC did not even consult me or ask me for my research papers for inclusion in the fourth assessment report”.

Hasnain is now a Fellow with The Energy and Resources Institute, TERI. TERI’s Executive-director is Rajendra Pachauri. TERI displays on its site news about Hasnain’s opinion on glaciers meltdown here and here, for instance.

The IPCC has finally issued a bland, bureaucratic, statement admitting the error:

It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.

The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of “the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report”. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.

There are three orders of concern IPCC scientists should have about this role affair. The first one is the circumstance under which the error has been exposed.The second one is that the IPCC is part of a delicate architecture of climate change politics already in crisis. This architecture depends critically on its credibility and accountability. Finally, climate science has to be the foundation of both a global climate accord and global climate change governance.

The circumstance is very negative. The CRU hack incident was hardly over. The “deniers” campaign against what they call “warmism” is hotter than ever. The inclusion of the mistaken paragraph on the IPCC report revealing that the proper validity checks have failed is obvious fodder for further attacks on the soundness of climate science and the reliability of the IPCC itself. The circumstances are pretty bad for the IPCC side, and warrants a far stronger reaction that the bland statement issued by the Chair.

It is clear that the lead author was reckless. It is also clear that the document he was responsible for was not reviewed adequately by qualified referees. It is also clear that the IPCC resisted looking more carefully at the issue when faced with initial criticism. Those directly responsible for these blunders should be formally impeded to participate in the making of AR5.

The credibility issue is a major one. The global climate accord is crumbling due to a serious confidence crisis among the Parties to the Climate Convention. Science should be the stalwart of the system. It has to contribute to increase confidence in the system, not to add to confusion and discredit.

Climate science has to be the guideline of collective decisions, and that role forces it to be extremely rigorous with itself.

I was far more comfortable with the answer I got from Richard Betts, Met Office’s head of climate change, on the CRU Hack incident. He told me in Copenhagen that they will rebuilt CRU’s data bank from the scratch on a transparent and verifiable way, to eliminate any objection to the data’s validity. He also said these procedures are to make science clearer and still more credible, despite their total confidence on the integrity of scientific procedures and quality of its findings. That’s how issues of credibility should be dealt with. I hope they’re doing it.

The role system of global climate governance will require sound science and checks and balances to ensure accountability and confidence-building. Science should be teaching how to build credible procedures for monitoring, verifying and reporting, beginning with its own production.

These are major political and intellectual considerations deserving a proper response from the IPCC and the global climate science community.

One should not also neglect the fact that the Himalayan meltdown is a major geopolitical concern. Himalayan glacial waters are a crucial source for millions in the region. It is also, a matter of regional water security and political stability.

Although not a decisive issue regarding the validity of the core evidence on climate change in the IPCC assessment, it is a major climatic and environmental issue in itself.

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