Explaining a Global Climate Panel's Key Missteps

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Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty

A Cambodian girl sits in her house at a flooded village in Kandal province, east of Phnom Penh

When it was awarded a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may well have been one of the most respected organizations in the world.

To some, the IPCC's co-Nobelist, Al Gore, would never be anything more than a Democratic politician, and therefore inherently untrustworthy, but the global climate body rose above politics, having the benefit of being made up of thousands of scientists from more than 100 countries, who drew conclusions on climate change from countless peer-reviewed scientific studies. The Norwegian Nobel committee lauded the IPCC's fourth assessment report in 2007 as creating an ever broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming.

But that was 2007. Over the past week or two, the IPCC has seen its reputation for impartiality and accuracy take serious hits. First the global body admitted to an embarrassing factual mistake: the claim in the 2007 report that the glaciers of the Himalayas could disappear by 2035 if the world continued warming at its current rate. That finding was revealed to be false, and worse, it was discovered to be based not on any peer-reviewed science but on a speculative comment made to a New Scientist reporter by one researcher.

Even as Glaciergate — yes, that's what they're calling it — unfolded, there were new claims that the IPCC had essentially trumped up the link between climate change and the rising toll from natural disasters. IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the group's Nobel in 2007, had to dodge calls for his resignation amid charges that he was benefiting financially from global-warming research. Very suddenly the global body that had seemingly closed the case on climate change was springing more leaks than, well, a melting glacier.

What's wrong with the IPCC? To some degree, it's a victim of its own size. In a group as large as the IPCC, producing climate-assessment reports in excess of 1,000 pages — exclusively with voluntary labor — errors are going to be inevitable. Humans make mistakes and the IPCC has owned up to its error, says Richard Somerville, an atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a lead author on the 2007 IPCC report.

The IPCC could be better, but we need to keep its missteps in perspective, Somerville says. A bank can make mistakes too, but that doesn't mean you tear down the bank. And for all the attention paid to the IPCC's mistakes, the panel's overall conclusion that global temperatures are rising and that man-made greenhouse-gas emissions are the key cause remains as solid as science can be. There is no debate about the core urgency, says Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Still, there's always the risk of groupthink, of the marginalization of dissenting views, in a body as big as the IPCC — something critics of the group have complained about for some time. At a meeting of major developing nations in New Delhi earlier this week, Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, called for the IPCC's next major assessment, due in 2014, to include a broader set of scientific viewpoints. "We need to adopt an open attitude to scientific research and incorporate all views," Xie told reporters. "Scientists are waiting for the fifth assessment report and amongst us, we will enhance cooperation in the report to make it more comprehensive."

IPCC supporters point out that the global body does a self-assessment after every major report, looking at what went wrong and what can be improved. Communication will be key — in the case of the mistake about the Himalayan glaciers, some glaciologists have said they knew about the error and tried to alert the IPCC before publication, but were unable to get it fixed. There will inevitably be improvement as the IPCC moves forward, says Bob Corell, a scientist with the Arctic Governance Project and the Global Environment and Technology Foundation. Each time it gets better.

The pressure on the IPCC to be flawless will only increase as the political climate on climate change heats up. And yet, it's much harder to predict the future impact of global warming accurately, especially at the local and regional level, than it is to build the broader case that more carbon dioxide means higher temperatures. But that's exactly the sort of information policymakers will need to prepare for climate change going forward, and it's exactly the sort of information most at risk of being hyped.

One gap that is broadly recognized is the need to increase our ability to project changes on a local and regional scale, says Frumhoff. The state of that science is still preliminary.

In the meantime, the IPCC will remain a political football, as supporters and opponents of climate action battle in Washington. For the public, however, none of the scientific infighting really matters. A survey released last week by Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican pollster, found that despite all the noise, substantial majorities of Americans on both sides of the political divide believe that climate change is real, and that something needs to be done about it. They don't want to know the details — the exact speed of the Himalayan glaciers' melt is not going to motivate the public one way or another now.

Instead, Luntz counseled advocates to focus on the energy independence and green jobs that could result from action on energy and climate change. For climate scientists, questions about the IPCC won't end anytime soon. But for the rest of us, the only question that will matter is whether taking action on energy can really help jump-start the American economy.