The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA, September 2008. Photo: Gretchen Weber
Yet another climate controversy has revived what have become increasingly common attacks on scientists’ credibility. The latest flap arose when the IPCC admitted on Wednesday, that its 2007 prediction that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 was unfounded.
Attacks on the integrity of scientists have brought about a “loss of innocence” in the climate science field, said Ben Santer, a Research Scientist for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Santer lamented that “Fourteen or fifteen years ago, it was possible to do science and not be too worried about being the subject of Congressional investigations, Freedom of Information Act requests, and very personal and very public attacks. Those innocent days are over now.”
Santer, who’s been a key author of some IPCC reports, said the science that goes into those reports is the most rigorous that he’s seen in his career.”If your research suggests that humans are having a pronounced effect on climate,” he continued, “I think the expectation is that you will be subjected to tremendous scrutiny. And some of that is appropriate, certainly in terms of the science and the integrity and credibility of the science, but unfortunately, that scrutiny is moving to very unwelcome areas, and it’s also focusing on individuals and motives, and all of this stuff is very distasteful,” he said.
Santer was joined on the call by Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center , who raised concern that the intense and personal nature of much of the criticism climate scientists have been facing (most recently in response to the East Anglia hacked email incident, now widely known as “Climategate”) may be keeping promising young scientists out of the field at a time when they are most needed. In the wake of the East Anglia emails, a blizzard of accusations of data manipulation blew through the blogosphere and in certain corners of the Senate.
“It does make it difficult to bring young scientists into the field,” Santer agreed. They look at what has gone on and there is genuine concern there. They must be asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to get involved in critical but possibly contentious issues if there is the possibility that I will spend months or even longer dealing with questions not about the science that I have done, but about my own personal integrity?’” said Santer.
Thompson affirmed that while it’s difficult to put a specific timetable on the disappearance of glaciers, the scientific evidence documenting glacier recession is overwhelming. Research indicates that more than 90% of the world’s glaciers are receding, he said, including approximately 95% of the glaciers in the Himalayas.
“Glaciers do not have any political agenda,” said Thompson. “They just sum up what’s happening in the environment and they retreat or react to that en masse.”
The conference call was organized by the activist Union of Concerned Scientists.
The London tabloid, the Daily Mail, reported yesterday that a lead author of the Asia chapter of the IPCC’s 2007 assessment admitted that he knew the 2035 claim was unsubstantiated, but he approved including it in the report anyway. Murari Lal reportedly said in an interview with the Daily Mail that he knew the 2035 number came from a report that was not peer-reviewed, but that the claim of imminently disappearing glaciers would, “impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.”
Michael Schlesinger, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded to the Daily Mail report with dismay.
“I am greatly saddened and deeply offended by this person’s behavior,” he wrote in an email. “A scientist does not lie nor change the facts to suit an agenda. Rather s/he tells it as it is, as best as it is known to her/him.”
[Lal] He said these were “the most vilest allegations” and denied that he ever made such assertions. He said “I didn’t put it [the 2035 claim] in to impress policymakers…. We reported the facts about science as we knew them and as was available in the literature.”