Climate Scientists Respond to IPCC Critics

Snowstorm at Donner Pass, January 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Snowstorm at Donner Pass, January 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

As we all know, climate scientists have been on the hot seat lately. Among other recent incidents, they’ve drawn fire for the leaked East Anglia emails and for the now-retracted assertion in a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that Himalayan glaciers might be gone by 2035.  In both cases, researchers admitted missteps and expressed regret. But they say neither incident invalidates the mass of evidence that the Earth is warming and that human activity is a likely cause.

On a call with journalists this week, three leading scientists defended the IPCC, its processes, and climate science in general.  Fielding questions were Penn State glaciologist Richard Alley, Scripps Institute climate scientist Richard Somerville, and Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institute Department of Global Ecology at Stanford.

“There are errors, and you can find errors on both sides,” said Alley, referring to the fact that previous IPCC reports had underestimated sea-level rise.  “It’s done by humans. It’s not perfect.  But these errors in no way impact our fundamental understanding that we’re adding CO2 to the air, that this is turning up the Earth’s thermostat,” he said.

Somerville made a similar point about the false Himalayan prediction in the 2007 report.

“I liken what’s happened here to the occasional error that happens a bank statement or a phone book,” he said, noting that the 2007 report was 3,000 pages long.

Just because a bank makes a mistake on your statement, he argued, “That’s not a reason to distrust banks.”

The scientists defended the IPCC standards and review process, but supported the IPCC’s recent announcement that it will seek an outside review for future studies in efforts to avoid mistakes in the future.  It’s not clear yet what the independent review process will look like.

“The best thing we can do to push errors to the minimum is to have more eyes looking and to have more expertise and more transparency,” said Field.

There’s no question that errors such as the one about the Himalayan glaciers have provided fodder for critics of climate science and may have contributed to a recent decline in public concern about (and belief in) global warming. During their call this week, the climate researchers bemoaned the fact the urgency of their findings isn’t getting through.

“The fact is that we don’t have forever to decide to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases,” Somerville said. “That’s not something you can procrastinate for ever. Mother Nature imposes a time scale and it’s measured in a few years, not a century.”

Scientists are being forced to defend their work against attacks that are based on policy, not science, Somerville said. The IPCC has a mandate to be policy-neutral, and its goal is to provide information that is policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive, he said.

“And yet, when you take apart the criticisms that have been made of IPCC and climate science in general, you’ll find, I believe, that in many cases they are motivated by policy concerns rather than scientific concerns,” he said.  “And so I think you’ll find individuals and organizations who have strong views on carbon taxes or government participation in free markets or ceding sovereignty of one country by signing international agreements – all kinds of things like that that are disguised as concerns about the science.”

There’s an interesting conversation happening at Yale Environment 360 about the future of the IPCC.  Robert T. Watson, chair of the IPCC from 1997 to 2002, argues in an essay that while there’s room for improvement in terms of implementation, the IPCC’s procedures are sound.   On the other side, University of Colorado Environmental Studies Professor Roger A. Pielke argues for sweeping reform, citing, among other criteria, a need for a mechanism for resolving allegations of error and a policy pertaining to real and perceived conflicts of interest.

  • James Mayeau

    You link a treasure trove of climate propaganda sites in your blog roll.

    Most of the conspirators are represented.

    Then you come in here with a weak, “As we all know, climate scientists have been on the hot seat lately.”

    NO if people only get their news from KQED then WE DON’T ALL KNOW, because you, along with every other member of America print journalism, haven’t seen fit to report on.

    Tell us something origninal. Tell us something that you didn’t scrape out of Gavin Schmidt’s cesspool.

  • http://ncwatch.typepad.com/ Russell Steele

    There are some really weak arguments from the scientist, citing a few mistakes. Really?

    The Himalayan retraction has just the tip of the iceberg, further retractions and corrections include the IPCC’s assessment that 40 percent of the Amazonian rain forest was at risk of destruction from climate change was also revealed to be without scientific foundation. The Daily Telegraph identified 20 more claims in the IPCC’s 2007 report that are based on reports from advocacy groups such as Greenpeace rather than peer-reviewed research, including claims that African agricultural production would be cut in half, estimates of coral reef degradation, and the scale of glacier melt in the Alps and the Andes. The claim that 55 percent of the Netherlands was below sea level, and therefore gravely threatened by rising sea levels, was a real blunder. There is more, but not enough room here to discuss them all.

    We are not talking about, a few mistakes, but multiple mistake. If the IPCC reports were by bank statements, I would be looking for another bank real fast.

    • Craig Miller

      Russ, I think you’ve hit upon the central disconnect here. The point, it seems to me, is that IPCC reports are _not_ bank statements. They don’t contain nearly that degree of exactitude, nor were they ever intended to do so. Scientific assessments–even carefully reviewed ones–are not designed to reduce uncertainty to zero. It’s a continuing process of research and refinement.

  • http://ncwatch.typepad.com/ Russell Steele

    Hindustan Times: Global Warming has no impact on Himalayas claims Wadia Director

    “Senior scientists at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WITG) has rejected the Global Warming Theory and told that the Himalayas are quite safer zone on earth, where Global Warming has no role in controlling the conditions.

    In an exclusive chat with HT, Director WIHG Dr AK Dubey has said that the conditions of Himalayas are controlled by the winter snowfall rather than external factors like much hyped Global Warming. He told that for a concrete result, at least 30 years of continuous research with steady outcome is needed to confirm the actual impact.

    “According to a data for over 140 years available with a British weather observatory situated in Mukteswar (2311m) in Almora has actually revealed that temperature in that region witnessed a dip of .4 degrees,” he said.”