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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Climate Science Slipping?

In our article on Climategate, we cited overwhelming scientific consensus — represented in part by the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — pointing to a global rise in temperatures. But the IPCC’s credibility has been challenged since we wrote that article, with several situations coming to light in which the panel reproduced erroneous results from non-peer-reviewed literature.

Himalayan Glaciers: The IPCC’s 2007 Working Group II report misrepresented the melt rate of the Himalayan glaciers, saying they could be gone by 2035. The IPCC has admitted this alarming claim is untrue.

A letter in the journal Science traced the incorrect data to a report from the advocacy group World Wildlife Fund that cited a decade-old article from the magazine New Scientist, which had quoted Indian scientist Syed Hasnain. The scientist now says he was "misquoted" and that his research indicates that only small glaciers could disappear entirely.

Despite this retraction, the IPCC says that it still stands behind the synthesis report, which collects the conclusions of three different working groups, and which does not repeat the 2035 error. Working Group II’s subject is the potential effects of climate change on the natural and human environment. The physical basis for climate change is covered by Working Group I — no errors have been uncovered in that report.

Amazon Rain Forests: There have been other examples of sloppy citation and fact-checking unearthed in the WGII report, which runs to more than 900 pages. For instance, a claim that "up to 40 percent of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation" was backed up with a citation of another WWF report. The claim actually has support in peer-reviewed data, but IPCC’s citation to an environmental advocacy group has given skeptics grounds to attack its objectivity and credibility.

Netherlands Flood Risk: The IPCC also has admitted that the report misstates how much of the Netherlands is below sea level. The 55 percent it claimed is actually the portion of the country that’s "at risk of flooding." Only 26 percent is below sea level.

Conflict of Interest? Critics have also raised concerns that panel head Dr. Rajendra Pachauri may have financial conflicts of interest. According to journalists Christopher Booker and Richard North, Pachauri stands to gain from overstating the danger of climate change because he serves as an advisor on sustainability to a number of banks. Booker and North offer no proof that Pachauri has profited from his advising work, but they speculate that his remuneration "must run into millions of dollars." Pachauri says that his payments go to the Energy Resources Institute, his research foundation in Delhi — but Booker and North also question that organization’s integrity, saying that it is "closely linked" with a company that invests in, among other projects, renewable energy and carbon trading. Booker, it should be noted, is a skeptic who claims man-made global warming has been "disproved."

We’ll leave it to our readers to judge how much these mistakes undermine the credibility of the IPCC, or of climate scientists generally.