25 Feb 2010: Opinion/Climate Science Under Fire

The IPCC Needs to Change,
But the Science Remains Sound

The former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the organization he once headed needs to improve its work and openly acknowledge its mistakes. But, he writes, a handful of errors does not mean that human-induced climate change is an illusion or that CO2 emissions do not need to be cut.

by robert t. watson

Until last December, a very large majority of the scientific community and most politicians would have agreed that the scientific evidence of human-

THE IPCC UNDER FIRE:
A CONTRASTING VIEW

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a critic of the IPCC, says the group’s work was marred well before the recent controversies, and that the latest allegations of inaccuracies should be an impetus for sweeping reform. READ MORE
induced climate change was unequivocal and that the sole question was whether the world’s political leaders could agree in Copenhagen to meaningful, legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. But, as we now know, the negotiations only produced an aspirational target of limiting the global mean surface temperature to no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and an accord that does not bind any country to reduce its emissions.

Since then, there have been reported errors and imprecise wording in the Fourth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued in 2007. These include the hyped statement that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 or earlier (the IPCC admitted that this was an outright error and not evidence-based); that agricultural production in some North African countries would decrease by up to 50 percent by 2020 (the synthesis report failed to include the nuances and more detailed discussion in the underlying chapter); and that over half of the Netherlands was below sea level, rather than a quarter. (This was largely a definitional issue — the Dutch Ministry of Transport uses the figure 60 percent below high water level during storms.)

These errors or imprecise wording in the IPCC’s 2007 Working Group II report, coupled with the issues surrounding the hacked e-mails and temperature data from the University of East Anglia, have provided the climate skeptics and some in the media with ammunition to undermine public confidence in the conclusions of the IPCC and climate science in general.

Clearly, the language in the leaked e-mails could suggest that the scientists may have inappropriately manipulated the data to support the theory of human-induced climate change and attempted to suppress other data that contradicts this theory. That is why I applaud the University of East Anglia — affiliated with the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, where I work as strategic director — for rapidly establishing an independent review of the whole issue. But to suggest that the hacked e-mails or the identified inaccuracies in the IPCC’s Working Group II report undermine the broad evidence that the Earth’s climate is changing due to human activities — or that any talk of carbon emissions cuts should be suspended — is simply untenable.

Recently, the UK Royal Society, the National Environment Research Council and the UK Meteorological Office issued a joint statement not only supporting the findings of the 2007 IPCC report, but showing that recent scientific information further strengthens those conclusions. The
In many cases, the IPCC is very conservative in its statements.
statement concluded that these agencies could not emphasize enough the body of scientific evidence that underpins the call for action now. Also, a statement from 11 science academies in developed and developing countries concluded that climate change is real, and that we need to prepare for the consequences, and urged all nations to take prompt action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

So let me return to the issue of the IPCC, which is one of the most rigorous scientific review bodies in existence. Many thousands of scientists have dedicated their time to preparing and reviewing the most comprehensive and authoritative assessments of climate science available. In addition, governments from around the world have reviewed and approved the IPCC’s key findings. The reports undergo two rounds of peer review, and the policymakers’ summaries of the working groups are then subjected to a word-by-word approval of all governments in the presence of the chapter lead authors.

In many cases, the IPCC is very conservative in its statements, e.g., the projections of sea level rise reported in Working Group I were based on contributions from thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of mountain glaciers, but did not contain a contribution from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, due to an inadequate understanding of the current rate of melting.

Some would say that only four mistakes or imprecise wording have been found in the 1,000-page Working Group II report, and none in working groups I and III, and so would ask: Is there really a problem? But given that each of the mistakes overstated the implications of climate change, it is critical to regain any lost trust from the media, public, governments, and private sector. The IPCC could start by posting all errors — accompanied by explanations of how they were made — on its Web site.

I see no evidence that the authors purposely overstated the potential impacts from climate change in an effort to convince the public of the
The peer-review process should have caught these inaccuracies and careless wordings.
seriousness of the threat. The threat is serious enough without the need to hype the issue. But the expert and government peer-review process should have caught these inaccuracies and careless wordings. The vast amount of attention in the print and TV media, especially in the UK, has clearly left some of the public confused, if not skeptical.

The challenge now is to regain any lost trust through a continuing re-examination and restatement of the evidence, clearly identifying what we know and what is still uncertain. It is critical that the public understand the issue of climate change, given the need to both mitigate and adapt in a cost-effective and socially responsible manner.

So does the IPCC process need to be significantly revised? I would argue no, that the IPCC is more than capable of conducting rigorous and reliable assessments in an open, transparent, and inclusive manner. But the IPCC needs to regain its full and deserved credibility. The procedures for the selection of authors and review editors and the peer-review process and approval of reports are all sound. What is needed is to tighten up the implementation of these procedures, coupled with training of authors and review editors. The selected authors need to represent the full range of credible views, including those of the skeptics, and must ensure that all statements are based on sound science and that the citations used contain convincing evidence.

The IPCC should consider shorter reports focused on the key issues, rather than the all-encompassing reports that have become the norm. Authors, peer reviewers, and the working group secretariats need to be absolutely rigorous in ensuring that all conclusions are backed up by evidence, with an accurate assessment of how good the evidence is, and that all of the citations are valid. Gray literature — i.e., the use of non-peer-reviewed literature — can and should be used as long as it is evidence-based and available to the peer reviewers for evaluation.

One criticism often aimed at the IPCC is that it is inflexible and unable to conduct rapid response assessments of new evidence due to the requirements of two rounds of peer review involving experts and governments. One solution to this weakness is to complement, not replace, the IPCC by developing a “peer-reviewed” Wikipedia that can continually update the evidence and synthesize the findings and note where the new evidence strengthens, modifies, or undermines previous conclusions.

In my opinion, there is no doubt that the evidence for human-induced climate change is irrefutable. The world’s leading scientists, many of whom have participated in the IPCC, overwhelmingly agree that what we’re
We must not allow the skeptics to derail the political will to safeguard the planet.
experiencing cannot be attributed to natural variation in the climate over time, but is due to human activities. And they also agree that if we do not act, climate change will continue apace with increasing droughts, floods, and rising seas, leading to major damaging impacts to the natural world (loss of species and critical ecosystem services) and society (displaced human populations).

There is no doubt that the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has increased significantly over the past 150 years primarily due to human activities. These gases are radiatively active and absorb and trap outgoing infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface and hence, based on simple physics, the Earth’s atmosphere must respond by warming. The only issue is by how much and when.

The IPCC concluded that the global temperature data and analyses are robust, with evidence of increasingly variable and extreme temperatures, coupled with increasingly severe weather events, heat waves, floods, and droughts. While a number of scientists argue that some of the land temperature data is contaminated and unreliable because of the urban heat-island effect and movement of observational sites, ocean data — as well balloon and satellite data — also show an increasingly warmer world. These data sets are clearly free from any potential contamination from any urban heat island effect.

In addition, the evidence for a changing climate over the past 100 years also comes from observed changes in retreating mountain glaciers throughout most of the world, a decline in the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice, melting of the Greenland ice sheet, changes in precipitation patterns, and changes in vegetation and the behavior of wildlife. Yet despite this accumulating evidence, the challenges of the skeptics must be fully addressed.

The key question is the cause of the observed changes in temperature. The IPCC concluded that it is more than 90 percent certain that most of the observed changes over the past 50 to 60 years are due to human activities and that the changes cannot be explained by known natural phenomena.

Future increases in greenhouse gas concentrations are projected to be accompanied by increased climate variability and more extreme climatic events, leading in general to adverse impacts on agriculture, water quantity and quality, coastal erosion, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of ecosystem services. Developing countries will be the most vulnerable. Therefore, it is clear that climate change is not only an environmental issue, but a development and security issue.

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An equitable and substantive post-Kyoto agreement is essential if the target of 2 degrees C is to be realized. Industrialized countries must demonstrate leadership, and provide developing countries with technical and financial assistance to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while they address the critical issues of poverty and hunger.

Given the limited success at Copenhagen, 2010 is a critical year for the world’s political leaders to unite in the fight against climate change. Strong and visionary political leadership will be essential. We must not allow the skeptics to use the incident at the University of East Anglia or the mistakes in the IPCC report to distract us or derail the political will to safeguard the planet.

Click here to read a contrasting view from IPCC critic Roger A. Pielke Jr.



POSTED ON 25 Feb 2010 IN Climate Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics 

COMMENTS


Sir:

In regards to developing countries, the issue is not limited to development and security issues. It also encompasses morality, ethics and justice.

In regards to the statement: "This will require a peak of global emissions of all greenhouse gases by around 2015, and at least a 50 percent reduction in global emissions by 2050, relative to 1990," based on numerous recent reports this assertion is as defunct as the Hummer. These reports (eg. Pagani, Hansen, Oppenheimer, Dickens) indicate we are headed to 2C rise with the present 430 ppm, equivalent. Further, the goal of 350 ppm concentration, endorsed by many nations, is not obtainable by some reduction over future decades, such as 50 percent by 2050.

If old science is presented as current, then your analysis is as irrelevant as our pervasively corrupt world politics (and finance).

Posted by James Newberry on 25 Feb 2010


"Clearly, the language in the leaked e-mails could suggest that the scientists may have inappropriately manipulated the data to support the theory of human-induced climate change and attempted to suppress other data that contradicts this theory".

Yes, Bob absolutely hits the nail on the head with this comment.

"But to suggest that the hacked e-mails or the identified inaccuracies in the IPCC’s Working
Group II report undermine the broad evidence that the Earth’s climate is changing due to human activities — or that any talk of carbon emissions cuts should be suspended — is simply untenable".

Bob now hits his thumb. Ouch!

Bob always says this. Regardless of how wrong he has been shown to be. Total and unashamed denial.

Posted by John Catley on 25 Feb 2010


"The IPCC concluded that the global temperature data and analyses are robust..."
If it is so robust, why isn't it transparent? Why isn't the code and all supporting information available so it can be replicated or falsified? Why was it necessary to avoid the FOI requests, and threaten to destroy the data?

There can be no confidence in the validity of the temperature record until there is open access to the code and data so that the temperature analyses can be replicated.

Posted by B. Kindseth on 25 Feb 2010


Bob, the glaciers and a whole bunch of other doomsday announcements weren't errors, they were a deliberate ploy to capture the public's attention and frighten them into following the political agenda of the IPCC.

For years now we've been told that the source of our information on climate science was the unimpeachable IPCC, where only rigourously peer-reviewed literature surface. Now we find that a small group of scientist/activists were dominating WG1 and far from rigorously peer-reviewing the papers were nodding their own papers through while strenuously trying to stop anything that didn't support the alarmist position.

On top of that we find that the WWF, Greenpeace and other activist environmental groups were providing non-peer reviewed and non-scientific papers whose doomladen predictions were put in the SPM in the guise of peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Your conclusion is that the overwhelming evidence for AGW still stands and the IPCC made a few minor errors.

I still don't see this overwhelming evidence, correct me if I'm wrong Bob but doesn't it boil down to the following:

"Global temperatures have been rising since the 19th century."

"Human CO2 emissions have been rising since the 19th century."

"We can only account for half of this rise through natural forcings."

"Therefore the other half must be caused by the CO2."

The rest is flim-flam warnings of ice-cap melting and glaciers receding etc. being proof of AGW when they're no such thing.

Please correct me if I'm wrong either by producing a measurable predictable mathematical relationship we can observe, or pointing to anywhere in the historical records where CO2 has driven temperature.

Thanks

Posted by geronimo on 26 Feb 2010


Geronimo wrote: I still don't see this overwhelming evidence, correct me if I'm wrong Bob but doesn't it boil down to the following:

"Global temperatures have been rising since the 19th century."

"Human CO2 emissions have been rising since the 19th century."

"We can only account for half of this rise through natural forcings."

"Therefore the other half must be caused by the CO2."

The rest is flim-flam warnings of ice-cap melting and glaciers receding etc. being proof of AGW when they're no such thing.

I'm not Bob, but I have the corrections you requested.

First, we need to agree that average global temperatures have been rising, and still are. Your first statement seems to support this, so I will assume you are not arguing otherwise.

(Note to anyone wishing to be taken seriously: DO NOT argue that one cold winter only in North America OR ten years that showed no major warming from the cherry-picked data-point of 1998 disproves the warming trend. Also, DO NOT argue that climate scientists have not accounted for [insert climate factor of choice here]; they have, regardless of what you have heard.)

The link between carbon dioxide and infrared capture was demonstrated in 1859 by Tyndall. His results have been replicated many times, and the holes in the absorption spectrum of carbon dioxide are easy enough to look up; where the holes are, light is reflected. Carbon dioxide forcing is measured routinely on Mars and Venus, and its warming effect applies here, too.

(Note to anyone wishing to be taken seriously: DO NOT argue that the low content of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere means it is irrelevant. The atmosphere of Mars is SO THIN that there is actually only a little more carbon dioxide in its pure carbon dioxide atmosphere than there is in Earth's much thicker atmosphere, where it is only 387ppm.)

Natural forcings is an interesting term that clearly still includes solar cycles and Earth's orbital variations. Most of the other things often cited as "natural" are, in fact, altered by human activity. Naturally occurring, background emissions of carbon dioxide are swamped by emissions from human industry and land mismanagement, whether intentional burning of vegetation or misguided efforts to preserve vegetation beyond what available water resources can support. Permafrost is thawing, an entirely natural process accelerated by increasing global temperatures.

Most of the carbon dioxide increase remains stored in the oceans, as carbonate ions useless to photosynthesis. Most of the temperature increase also remains stored in the oceans. At some point, the rising ocean temperatures will cause the carbonate to outgas as carbon dioxide, as predicted by the often-cited graph that purports to show that carbon dioxide changes follow temperature changes. This is exactly like opening a warm carbonated drink.

(Note to anyone wishing to be taken seriously: DO NOT argue that a small change in ocean pH, becoming less basic [more acidic, for those who do not know what a base is] is irrelevant. This change affects many extremely small living things that are essential to their ecosystems. The proper analogy to draw is this: Suppose somebody decided to make a small-seeming but permanent change to the pH of YOUR BLOOD. Is this okay? If not, then it should be equally not okay for the oceans. (For those who do not know, such a change in your blood would cause you to cramp everywhere, uncontrollably, causing muscles and nerves to shut down.)

In regard to your request for a measurable, predictable mathematical relationship, the request is unreasonable. The Earth is changing slowly, so far. A system that big does not change easily on timescales comparable to human lifespans. If you must see change that rapid to be convinced, just wait a few years; the shock to Earth's equilibrium caused by human activity is comparable to the combination of meteor impact and resulting volcanism that destroyed over half the species on Earth 65 to 55 million years ago (first on land, then in the oceans). But by the time it is changing quickly enough to convince you, it will be too late for us to do anything about it.

In regard to your request for records of carbon dioxide driving temperature . . . where to begin? I will assume that by "historical records" you mean to include the data sets we have been using, including ice core data and other proxies essential to studying anything older than civilization. The key misunderstanding in this request of yours is that the graph you are thinking of does not show what you think it does. If you look at the graph correctly, drawing vertical lines through both line graphs to guarantee that you are looking at the same point in time, you will see what I saw: Sometimes temperature begins to rise a little before carbon dioxide; sometimes carbon dioxide begins to rise a little before temperature; regardless of which one leads initially, they then go up together in a very close feedback-loop relationship.

Posted by Daniel on 27 Feb 2010


''the IPCC, which is one of the most rigorous scientific review bodies in existence''

This is obviously not true. (In fact RW is really impeaching himself from a legal point of view at this stage.) From its conception it was a political body designed to inform/persuade policy makers
I believe many of the scientists have long since lost sight of the difference betweeen good science and successful political advocacy.

I have to agree with Geronimo(above) and still don't understand the argument for cause and effect. Even if we accept an anthropogenic rise in CO2 and a rise in temp where is the evidence for attribution and why why is mitigation on this dubious basis even remotely likely to be possible?

Posted by PKthinks on 28 Feb 2010


Hi,

I would like to say that irrelevant of the science being right or wrong even if we take the IPCC worst case scenario the policies they suggest are certainly wrong.

They do not take into account the ability to adapt, something humanity has done extremely well. Also they seem to think that sea level rises will bother people when simply investing in better sea defences (see the Netherlands for an example) which are cheap as chips to build when compared with, oh let’s say an offshore wind farm.

As for mitigation isn't it more important to keep the lights on and power flowing than to save a few species that fail to evolve in a slightly warmer climate? The West will move onto things like Nuclear power (see California I believe for the new station they're testing) but to expect the Third World to not use coal, which is the cheapest and most readily available, to get themselves out of poverty is nothing short of a true crime against humanity.

Posted by Leo M-G on 12 Apr 2010


Comments have been closed on this feature.
robert t. watsonABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert T. Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1997 to 2002, is Strategic Director for the Tyndall Center at the University of East Anglia and Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

 
 

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