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Confidence Melting Away: Can Climate Forecasts Still Be Trusted?


First, it was a series of e-mails that led many to begin doubting the veracity of climate scientists. Then, the United Nations climate body itself had to reverse dire predictions about the melting of glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains. Other claims have raised doubts as well.

The Siachen Glacier is home to the world's highest crisis region. Here, at 6,000 meters (19,680 feet) above sea level, Indian and Pakistani soldiers face off, ensconced in heavily armed positions.

The ongoing border dispute between the two nuclear powers has already claimed the lives of 4,000 men -- most of them having died of exposure to the cold.

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Photo Gallery: UN Climate Body Under Fire for Mistaken Projection
Now the Himalayan glacier is also at the center of a scientific dispute. In its current report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the glacier, which is 71 kilometers (44 miles) long, could disappear by 2035. It also predicts that the other 45,000 glaciers in the world's highest mountain range will be virtually gone by then, with drastic consequences for billions of people in Asia, whose life depends on water that originates in the Himalayas. The IPCC report led environmental activists to sound the alarm about a drama that could be unfolding at the "world's third pole."

"This prognosis is, of course, complete nonsense," says John Shroder, a geologist and expert on glaciers at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. The results of his research tell a completely different story.

For the past three decades, the US glaciologist has been traversing the majestic mountains of the Himalayan region, particularly the Karakorum Range, with his measuring instruments. The discoveries he has made along the way are not consistent with the assessment long held by the IPCC. "While many glaciers are shrinking, others are stable and some are even growing," says Shroder.

Untenable Claim

The gaffe over the Himalayan glaciers has triggered an outcry in the world of climatology. Some are already using the word "Glaciergate" in reference to the scandal over a scientifically untenable claim in the fourth IPCC assessment report, which the UN climate body publishes every five years. The fourth assessment report was originally published in 2007. Last week, the IPCC withdrew the erroneous claim and apologized for the error.

German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is also upset about the incident. "The error in the IPCC report is serious and should not have happened," Röttgen told SPIEGEL. "Scientific accuracy is a vital condition to support the credibility of the political conclusions we draw as a result." Although the minister still has confidence in the overall validity of the IPCC report, he wants to see "a thorough investigation into how the error originated and was communicated."

But why wasn't this clearly nonsensical claim noticed long ago by at least one of the 3,000 scientists who contributed to the IPCC report? "What's really amazing is that such a blunder remained uncorrected for so long," says Shroder.

To err is human, say IPCC officials like Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "We shouldn't question the credibility of an almost 3,000-page report because of one error."

But other climatologists are calling for consequences. They insist that IPCC Chairman and Nobel laureate Rajendra Pachauri is no longer acceptable as head of the panel, particularly because of his personal involvement in the affair. "Pachauri should resign, so as to avert further damage to the IPCC," says German climatologist Hans von Storch. "He used the argument of the supposed threat to the Himalayan glacier in his personal efforts to raise funds for research." Storch claims that the Indian-born scientist did not order the retraction of the erroneous prediction until it had generated considerable public pressure.

'Best of My Abilities'

Pachauri, for his part, rejects calls for his resignation. "I have a commitment to successfully complete the Fifth Assessment Report, a commitment that I am certainly not willing to set aside," the IPCC chairman said.

The prognosis drama began in 1999. The theory of the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 first appeared in an article in the British popular magazine New Scientist, for which Indian glaciologist Syed Hasnain was interviewed.

As it turned out, the specification of the year 2035 was the result of a simple mistake. In an article published three years earlier, Russian glaciologist Vladimir Kotlyakov did in fact predict a massive decline in the area covered by glaciers, but not until the year 2350. "All of the IPCC's peer-review procedures failed," says Canadian geographer Graham Cogley.

Indian scientist Hasnain's ties to the IPCC chairman have triggered a public relations crisis. The glaciologist now works at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, whose director is none other than Rajendra Pachauri. Could this explain why Pachauri suppressed the error in the Himalaya passage of the IPCC report for so long?

The erroneous prediction of a precipitous end for the Himalayan glaciers was already revealed in November, when a glaciologist working for the Indian environment ministry presented a study on Himalayan glaciers that arrived at completely different conclusions than the IPCC report. But Pachauri dismissed the new study as "voodoo science."


In mid-January, the New Scientist confessed to its own sloppiness, exactly one day after IPCC Chairman Pachauri and his glacier expert Hasnain had announced a joint venture involving TERI, Iceland and the United States to study the Himalayan glaciers, with half a million dollars in funding from the New York-based Carnegie Foundation. "Perhaps Pachauri was so hesitant to look into the matter because he was trying to protect the research projects being conducted by his own institute," says climate statistician Storch. Pachauri, however, claims that he was simply pressed for time: "Everybody in the IPCC was terribly preoccupied with planning for several events that were to take place in Copenhagen," he said, referring to the climate change summit held in the Danish capital in December.

Toyota, the world's largest automaker, also contributed $80,000 to TERI. Last week the Japanese company was awarded the $1.5 million (€1.05 million) "Zayed Future Energy Prize" for its Prius hybrid car. Pachauri was the chairman of the jury, but he explains that he temporarily suspended his chairmanship because of his consulting activities. Nevertheless, he did manage to praise Toyota at the awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi, saying that the company deserves "the fullest appreciation" for bringing about a radical shift in technology.

Unfortunately, the questions about the IPCC and its president come at a time when the credibility of climatologists has already suffered, partly as a result of the theft of confidential e-mail messages written by scientists, the content of which has led critics to claim that data were manipulated. Although none of these incidents negate the evidence supporting climate change, facts ceased to be the focus of the acrimonious debate long ago. Instead, it now revolves around questions of belief.

'Criticism Has Become Fashionable'

"Confidence in the authority of the science of climatology is currently eroding in the public consciousness," says Roger Pielke Jr., an American social economist and expert on natural disasters. Environmental economist Richard Tol agrees, saying: "Criticism of climate research has become fashionable." And the British science journal Nature warns that climatologists can no longer assume that solid evidence alone will convince the public.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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1. Political & Other Agendas Prostitute Science
WriteRightWright 01/27/2010
The climate change issue is a prime example of science being misused to serve a polical agenda. Stalin used "science" to prove that crops grew better under communism on collective farms. Does anybody really beleive that? Today, others appear to be using Global Warming or Climate Change as a means to gain political power or economic advantage. I see all of this as unethical. The data shows a warming trend in our planet's climate. Geologic and similir records suggest that warming and cooling phases have occurred numerous times over the past several million years. Right now, the data suggest a warming trend is afoot. We really don't know why it is happening or exactly how far it will continue. Back around 800 AD, Europe's climate was warm enough to grow grapes and make wine in England, then it became too cold and stayed too cold for centuries. Now it's warm enough again. The first warming cycle can't be blamed on too many SUVs on the road and burning too much fossil fuel in electric power plants. How sure can we be about the source of this warming trend? The notion that all of this climate change is caused by humans seems ludicrous and smacks of a political agenda. Show the data and substantiate the claim. So far, I've been seeing a lot of words, but no data trail or model that definitively connects atmospheric CO2 levels that we're seeing with global temperatures. The popular claim is that the planet is heating up too fast, and it's all our fault. It's being arfully repeated much the same way Joe Goebbels practiced The Big Lie. Any efforts to suppress data that says otherwise is plain dishonest. Of course I'm skeptical. The IPCC has damaged its credibility by allowing this kind of foolishness. We need to get all of the data out there for examination, before anybody can draw a concluson. This is what makes science work, objective analysis of all the data with no preconceived notions. Kick out the politicians and the businessmen. Let the data lead us to the answers. People like Al Gore are using this issue to gain political power to control people. Business interests like Munich Re wish to use this to gain leverage to increase profits. Too many "scientists" and institutions have prostituted themselves for political favor or for money. It's got to stop.
jin_fenghuang 01/28/2010
What a shock, both sides are picking and choosing the data that supports their claim. It does not negate the fact, however, that we should not be polluting our planted the way we are. Giving in to company greed and people's laziness is not a responsible way of dealing with pollution. Even if it does not do so right now, it will come back to haunt us, especially so since more and more people -all over the world- demand their right to transportation, electricity and all the comforts we take for granted.
3. What will it take?
Wanderer13 01/29/2010
From the article: "Although none of these incidents negate the evidence supporting climate change,..." Exactly what will it take for this writer to recognize that man-made global warming is a hoax? YES, climate changes, largely in response to the changes in radiation from the sun; few or none dispute this. Just about everything else is disputed, however, and this article shows why: shoddy science and political posturing trumps the truth. We have seen that scientists on the AGW payroll have lost data, ignored data that contradicts their premises, and tried to stifle debate and the acceptance of sceptical papers. Now we see that a major IPCC paper relied on a news release that was misquoted, and that glaciers aren't uniformly retreating as publicized. What will it take before "the evidence supporting climate change" becomes "the evidence negating the effects of man on climate"? Perhaps the Thames River in England can freeze over in the winter again, or glaciers can reclaim large parts of Europe; that MIGHT change this writer's mind, if anything can.
symewinston 01/30/2010
do you wonder why nobody comments? There is no one here, that's why? why there is no one here ? You know the answer
5. The IPCC own words disqualify them...
POLARBEAR72 04/08/2010
In the IPCC Third Assessment Report (page 774) it says: “In climate research and modeling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.” I take that statement to mean just what it says (especially): "the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible." I have had the privilege of living in Montana, Alaska and Arizona (in the United States of America) for most of the last six decades. In Montana I spent many happy summers in and around Glacier National Park. Over the years I watched the lovely glaciers there both advance and retreat. Many happy hours were spent driving from Great Falls to Missoula (about 172 miles) from the east side of the continental divide to the west side, which allows one to see both the American Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains in a just a few hours. About half way in-between these two towns is Rogers Pass and just on the West side of the pass is one of my favorite road signs. There on the right hand side of this wonderful old two-lane black top road is a seven foot by six foot wooden sign that tells a story about a record cold temperature set there in 1954. At that very spot the Continental Cold Spot Record for the United States of America was set at MINUS 70 degrees Fahrenheit (-70 F). I have hunted and fished that area since childhood, (“the golden Montana of my youth” as it says in “A River Runs Through It”.) Many times during winter hunts the temperature “dropped off the end of the thermometer” as we say back home. Suffice to say if it warmed by 2 degrees over the next century and the temperature there only fell to -68 degrees Fahrenheit, we would still survive. In Alaska I saw 75 degrees below zero Fahrenheit up on the Kuskoquim River (1989) and the old timers (the sourdoughs) told me that they had seen -80 F (On Jan. 23, 1971, weather observers at Prospect Creek, a pipeline camp 25 miles southeast of Bettles, recorded Alaska's all-time low of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit.) Again if it warmed 2 degrees over the next century to -73 up on the frozen Kuskoquim or only -78 down on Prospect Creek-we’d still survive. In Arizona I was in Phoenix in August of 1988 when the temperature went to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. But that is not the all time high temperature-that was set back in 1898 and the old timers claim it was 131 degrees. You guessed it, we survived. I have hiked the Bad Water Route in Death Valley on the 4th of July (the temperature on the hard pan that day was 161 degrees Fahrenheit) eight of us went that day-we are all still here. My point here is simply that the IPCC TAR (page 774) says that "the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible." And my own direct experiences tell me that both extreme cold and heat are easily survived by humans, who wish to adapt. The fear-mongering of the AGW alarmists denigrates both the strength of the human spirit and the wonderful resilience of the human experience. If you live in Alaska and spend time in the bush you may have the honor to witness the incredible command of the Inuit, the Eskimo, the Athabascan and/or the Tlingit peoples and their adaptations to one of the harshest climates/environments on Earth. They don’t just survive, they thrive. A change of +/- 2 degrees over a century cannot and will not stop them and to argue that it would is an insult to their honor as a people. So if we can just all escape the “good interventions” of the global environmental left (watermelons-green on the outside and RED on the inside) we will adapt and survive just fine! H.L. Menken said the “Road to Hell is paved with GOOD INTENTIONS!” I am not afraid of C02 (our atmosphere is 2% C02 and of that 2% is human-caused or .02 x.02 = .004 of the atmosphere is C02 or inversely 99.96% of the atmosphere is not C02). There is nothing unusual or dangerous about the current level of C02, it has been much higher for most of the history of the Earth, 470% higher in the Jurassic period and 1800% higher in the Cambrian, to name just two examples. That Mann, Jones and the CRU folks have all colluded to distort the climate data is clear if you read Professor Wegman’s rejection of the Mann Hockey Stick paper for the U.S. House of Representatives please see this research and critique at: http://archives.energycommerce.house.gov/reparchives/108/home/07142006_Wegman_Report.pdf Finally I would suggest that anyone who would like to see true professionals in this area explain accurately, the nature of reality in climate science, I recommend: Joe Bastardi of Accuweather reviews the climate at: http://www.accuweather.com/video/37129475001/debunking-global-warming-in-californias-wildfires.asp Finally you may wish to hear Dr. Lindzen Deconstruct AGW at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwM_B4-5gaE
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Graphic: The UN's Climate Panel Zoom

Graphic: The UN's Climate Panel

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