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.
"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.
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.
- Part 1: Can Climate Forecasts Still Be Trusted?
- Part 2: New Ammunition from an E-Mail Scandal
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