Climate Science: The Latest Embarrassment

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 21, 2010

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Look, I am worried enough about the environment to want to make sure that climatologists get things right; it would be rather bad if they didn’t, and if we made policy based on erroneous assumptions. That’s why the content of the e-mails from the climate research center at the University of East Anglia, which were revealed last year, were so damaging. And that’s why this is no fun to report on either:

The UN’s top climate change body has issued an unprecedented apology over its flawed prediction that Himalayan glaciers were likely to disappear by 2035.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said yesterday that the prediction in its landmark 2007 report was “poorly substantiated” and resulted from a lapse in standards. “In drafting the paragraph in question the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly,” the panel said. “The chair, vice-chair and co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of IPCC procedures in this instance.”

The stunning admission is certain to embolden critics of the panel, already under fire over a separate scandal involving hacked e-mails last year.

The 2007 report, which won the panel the Nobel Peace Prize, said that the probability of Himalayan glaciers “disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high”. It caused shock in Asia, where about two billion people depend on meltwater from Himalayan glaciers for their fresh water supplies during the dry seasons.

It emerged last week that the prediction was based not on a consensus among climate change experts but on a media interview with a single Indian glaciologist in 1999. That scientist, Syed Hasnain, has now told The Times that he never made such a specific forecast in his interview with the New Scientist magazine.

“I have not made any prediction on date as I am not an astrologer but I did say they were shrinking fast,” he said. “I have never written 2035 in any of my research papers or reports.” Professor Hasnain works for The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi, which is headed by Rajendra Pachauri, head of the climate change panel.

Dr Pachauri has defended the panel’s work, while trying to distance himself from Professor Hasnain by saying that the latter was not working at the institute in 1999: “We slipped up on one number, I don’t think it takes anything away from the overwhelming scientific evidence of what’s happening with the climate of this Earth.”

The mind reels. Do Dr. Pachauri and others realize just how much they have damaged their credibility? And do they realize just how devastating that loss of credibility could be in the event of a climate emergency that they seek to report on. Even if they get the science right, they may not be believed.

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