20 Apr 2010: Opinion

Despite Attacks from Critics,
Climate Science Will Prevail

The chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges it has been a rough few months for his organization. But, he argues, no amount of obfuscation and attacks by conspiracy theorists will alter the basic facts — global warming is real and intensifying.

by rajendra k. pachauri

Science thrives on debate. Only by challenging scientific findings do we expose weak arguments and substantiate strong ones. But the process relies on the debate being devoid of political taint and grounded in sound scientific knowledge. Sadly, that has not been the case in the recent barrage of criticism leveled against climate science.

The readers of Yale Environment 360 are by now familiar with recent questioning by some of the validity of the widely accepted science of climate change. The release of emails stolen from the University of East Anglia was used just prior to the Copenhagen Climate Summit to project an unflattering portrayal of climate scientists in general and to voice allegations that climate science was deeply flawed. (It is significant that the U.K. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee last month issued a report essentially exonerating the researchers involved of any ill intent or wrongdoing, as did an independent panel established by the university.) This episode was followed by accusations that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which I chair, had exaggerated the severity of climate change.

Though some of the criticism has been thoughtful and was welcomed by the IPCC, much of it relied on unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and gross mischaracterizations that would be laughable were they not intended to create a bias in public perceptions on this critical issue. Certainly, in any
To call climate science a ‘hoax’ amounts to a tremendous disservice to science and to humanity.
human endeavor there is always room for improvement, and that is particularly true of enhancing the level of thoroughness in searching for new knowledge. In this context, the IPCC has listened and learned from the more reasoned criticism voiced recently. As I will explain later in this article, the panel is also taking action to refine its procedures in response to fair and objective criticism. But to call climate science a “hoax,” as some fringe critics have done, amounts to a tremendous disservice to science and to humanity as a whole.

Preparing Assessment Reports

Before responding to the criticism about the IPCC, I believe it is important to describe how the panel functions. Only by understanding how the IPCC prepares its reports can one put recent developments into perspective.

The IPCC’s primary work entails collecting and assessing published material on climate science and assembling it into Assessment Reports (ARs) that are issued every five to six years. These reports provide assessments on scientific, technical, and socio-economic factors, which can provide the basis for making rational policy decisions. The IPCC makes no policy recommendations of its own.

All the scientists who work on IPCC assessments devote their time voluntarily and receive no compensation. Yet their work is unprecedented in scale; it is the world’s most comprehensive source of climate change information. The latest assessment, AR4, completed in 2007, had more than 450 lead authors who worked during the course of several years to complete the report; their efforts were supplemented by about 800 contributing authors and some 2,500 expert reviewers.

At each successive stage of drafting, the report was carefully reviewed. A total of about 90,000 comments were produced during the review process. The authors considered and reacted to each of those comments. By the time it was completed, AR4 cited approximately 18,000 peer-reviewed publications. It also included a limited amount of gray (or non-peer-reviewed) literature in cases where peer-reviewed literature was unavailable. (For example, there is often no peer-reviewed literature on impacts of climate change, both current and projected, in many developing countries.)

AR4 has been criticized for exaggerating the severity of climate change. On the other hand, many regard the report as too conservative and an understatement of the impacts of climate change. This is due in part to the
The IPCC has a duty to correct or clarify any errors that may slip into reports of this magnitude.
fact that preparing an assessment report takes several years. For instance, AR4 was based on scientific studies completed before January 2006, and did not include later studies that may show accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet and indications that sea levels may rise even higher than previously projected. These and other published material will be assessed in the AR5, which is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

With the enormous increase in published literature on various aspects of climate change, the lode of knowledge that the authors of AR5 will have to unearth will increase substantially, making the task ahead even more daunting. There is now much higher awareness worldwide of the scientific realities of climate change. There is also a much higher expectation of infallibility in all that the IPCC does, particularly since the panel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

IPCC procedures are robust and rigorous, but they can always be improved. Upholding exacting standards is a responsibility and a sacred trust that IPCC authors — and I — accept with the utmost respect and sincerity. It is our duty to correct or clarify the inevitable oversights and errors that may slip into reports of this magnitude and complexity.

With this in mind, I would like to provide a response to some issues that have given rise to recent controversy.

Himalayan Glaciers

AR4 stated that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. This figure was incorrect and unfortunately based on a single unsubstantiated source. When this error came to light, the IPCC expressed its regret and noted it on its website. The error was contained in a single sentence and in one graphic representation out of AR4’s nearly 3,000 pages.

It did not appear in any of the IPCC summaries relied on by policymakers. In those summaries, the language states: “Glacier melt in the Himalayas is projected to increase flooding, and rock avalanches from destabilized slopes, and to affect water resources within the next two to three decades. This will be followed by decreased river flows as the glaciers recede.” This statement remains valid, as does the fact that widespread loss of glacial mass and reduction in snow cover will accelerate throughout the 21st century largely as a result of human activities that are warming our Earth’s atmosphere.

Amazon Rainforest

The IPCC was accused of exaggerating the extent to which the Amazon rainforest could be damaged by a decrease in rainfall. The paragraph in question correctly stated: “By mid-century, increases in temperature and associated decreases in soil water are projected to lead to gradual replacement of tropical forest by savanna in eastern Amazonia. Semi-arid vegetation will tend to be replaced by arid-land vegetation.”

This was a classic case in which the controversy was initiated not by scientists but by the mainstream media, which badly distorted the facts. Blogs and other articles argued incorrectly that a report, the “Global Review of Forest Fires,” should not have been cited as a reference, because
This was a classic case in which controversy was initiated not by scientists but by the media.
it was published by two non-governmental organizations. But the paragraph in question accurately presented results in the literature it cited. It was a small part of a long, well-referenced discussion of Amazonian risk. Although the “Global Review of Forest Fires” was not a peer-reviewed document, it nevertheless was an important compilation, assembling information from more than 100 sources, including peer-reviewed scientific papers and reports from governments and non-governmental organizations, as well as news articles.

On March 18, 18 respected rainforest scientists from Brazil, the U.S., and the U.K. issued a lengthy statement reaffirming the IPCC’s conclusion that up to 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest is at risk because of climate change. Their statement can found online.

African Agriculture

Another alleged exaggeration of AR4 was that climate change could reduce crop yields in parts of Africa by up to 50 percent. The only concern here was that in condensing the material from the underlying Working Group II Summary for Policymakers for the Synthesis Reports, the important qualifying phrase “by climate variability and change” was omitted from a statement that read: “Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised.” This is no way diminished or altered the scientific basis or the policy relevance of the statement included in the synthesis report.

Many of the IPCC’s conclusions about impacts in various regions of the world include the effect of climate variability, not just the effect of climate change. In the full underlying reports, this caveat was fully explained. This is another area where a small issue of the wording of one sentence — on a subject that was dealt with in a balanced way throughout the report — has been blown out of proportion.

Major findings of the AR4

None of these issues diminish in any way the major findings of the AR4, which presented voluminous, well-documented evidence of the steady warming of the planet. For instance, 11 of the last 12 years covered in the report (1995-2006) were found to rank among the 12 warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature since 1850. The 100-year linear temperature increase for the period 1906-2005 was 0.74 degrees C. The temperature increase was found to be widespread around the globe and greater at higher northern latitudes. For instance, the Arctic region has been warming at twice the rate of the global average. The AR4 also documented the steady disappearance of Arctic sea ice, the retreat of glaciers worldwide, and changes in the timing of seasons around the globe — all convincing evidence of a warming world.

In addition, the report found that sea level increases were consistent with warming, having risen since 1961 at an average rate of 1.8 millimeters per year and since 1993 at 3.1 millimeters per year, due to contribution from thermal expansion of the oceans, and melting glaciers and ice sheets.

As for the projected impacts of climate change, several findings are of significance to policymakers. Based on current knowledge and trends, approximately 20 to 30 percent of plant and animal species assessed so far
None of these issues diminish the major findings, which presented voluminous evidence of warming.
are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperatures exceed 1.5 to 2.5 degrees C. At lower latitudes, especially in seasonally dry and tropical regions, crop productivity is projected to decrease with even small levels of temperature increase (1-2 degrees C), which would increase the risk of hunger. At the same time, coastal areas are projected to be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion due to climate change and sea level rise. This effect will be exacerbated by human-induced pressure on coastal areas.

The health status of millions of people is projected to be affected, for example, through increases in malnutrition, diseases, and injury due to extreme weather events. It is reasonable to project increased frequency of cardio-respiratory disease due to high concentrations of ground level ozone in urban areas related to climate change. Infectious diseases will likely spread as the climate warms. The availability of water would also be impacted significantly by climate change, with exacerbation of current stresses on water resources.

Many adverse impacts can be reduced, delayed, or avoided by mitigation, and mitigation measures and investments over the next two to three decades will help stabilize levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The AR4 has determined that the cost of stringent mitigation is actually quite modest and is not likely to exceed 3 percent of global GDP in 2030, if the world targets a path of emissions that would stabilize global temperatures at a rise of between 2.0-2.4 degrees C. Mitigation measures also carry benefits such as higher energy security, lower levels of air pollution, and job creation.

The IPCC’s findings about already-observed changes, projections for the future, and mitigation options provide a robust framework for decision making.

The Road Ahead

I stand firmly behind the principle that the IPCC must do all that is humanly possible to eliminate errors or any statements that might be easily misinterpreted. It is for this reason that the IPCC, in tandem with the Secretary General of the United Nations, has requested the Inter-Academy Council to carry out a review of IPCC procedures and practices so that the
The public is entitled to demand clear and credible knowledge on which decisions can be based.
work of the panel meets the highest possible standards and its assessments maintain a high level of credibility and reliability. The review will include the IPCC’s use of gray literature.

The scientific community, as embodied in the work of the IPCC, is ready to meet in all respects the increasing and exacting expectations of policymakers and the public. Given the importance and the serious implications of any actions related to climate change, the public and political leaders are entitled to demand clear and credible knowledge on which decisions can be based.

In a field such as this, perfect certainty about the future will remain elusive. But we have adequate certainty today based on the findings of the AR4, which give us a rationale for taking action and meeting the challenge of climate change. What actions are in the best interests of society should be the subject of a spirited, intense, and science-based global debate.

I sincerely believe that this period, difficult though it has been, will have a positive outcome. Climate science will be the better for it. The public will be better informed by it. And the scientific community will learn that it has to interact with and be accountable to the public.

More from Yale e360

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Robert T. Watson, the former IPCC chairman, says the organization he once headed needs to acknowledge its errors and improve its work, but notes that the evidence of climate change is irrefutable.

Major Change Is Needed
If the IPCC Hopes to Survive

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.
We are living in an information age when any comments or criticism warrant an instant explanation or response. The IPCC has to develop the capability to do this. Gone are the days when an important subject like climate change could remain the preserve of ivory tower scientific institutions. Knowledge in this field is of critical relevance to society and will become increasingly so.

Though the controversy — and the misinformation surrounding it — may appear to have weakened support for climate science, I believe this will be short lived. With controversy comes discussion, and with discussion comes understanding. History is replete with examples of how politics temporarily trumped science, but the truth eventually triumphed.

Let’s hope it wins out in time for world leaders to take action.

Stuti Sharma, a research associate at The Energy and Resources Institute, contributed research for this article.

POSTED ON 20 Apr 2010 IN Climate Climate Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Asia 


Let's hope real science prevails, because if we allow the rubbish that loosely gets called climate "science" to hold sway then basically you may as well throw away the hard work many decent scientists have spent building up the reputation of science.

Scientists must stick to scientific principles. Simple things like making predictions and evaluating their performance, not on how many people believe the prediction or how many experts vote the "consensus", but how accurate the predictions are.

Posted by Mike Haseler on 20 Apr 2010

Just like as the "debate" between Darwinian evolutionists and IDers, this is a non-debate.

Detractors aren't interested in science, but their own preferences. They'd rather this wasn't happening because it is much easier to do nothing, or allow technological innovation to win out. Intelligent Design scientists are looking for the fingerprints of a designer that is apparently inherent in all complex systems. AGW critics are hoping they find none of ours in regards to climate change. Too bad. Our prints are everywhere. We've altered the face of the planet and redistributed materials and introduced everything in abundance into land, sea, and air. How can one believe that has a negligible effect? It's been measured. You're basically saying that every independent scientist and scientific group on the planet (thousands of them) are conspiring to... do... what?

Conspiracies of this scale fall apart after so many people, and I doubt that all of these scientists are in their field for political and ideological reasons. Most scientists steer clear of politics. They'd rather be in the field or the lab. Yet they all somehow manage a concerted effort to squeeze in time to confer on how to overthrow the world in between their research, lab time, and teaching jobs? Absurdity ad infinitum.

Posted by Mustang on 20 Apr 2010

"AR4 stated that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. This figure was incorrect."

1. Interesting statement. There is no figure to find anywhere when the Himalayan glaciers could melt (away). If the figure were incorrect, a correct one could be given. If none given, as is, why mention these glaciers at all? Not a figure is incorrect but a complete statement.

2. Wasn't Mr. Pachauri qualifying other scientists as doing voodoo science, when having told the facts? So again, a "figure is incorrect"? And his behaviour is the way how he and IPCC are taking care of the quality of their work?

Give me a break.

Posted by Jurgen Schlenzig on 20 Apr 2010

Is it possible that we may be informed as to why, when the data regarding the Himalayan Glaciers was discovered to be erroneous, we were not informed? I understand this was several weeks before COP10, and yet this data was portrayed then as valid.

Posted by JER0ME on 20 Apr 2010

Climate science will prevail - eventually - when all the spin and political content has been removed.

The IPCC is a disgrace and should be disbanded. It has been responsible for untold misery around the world and has set up unrealistic and unachievable expectations. AR4, held up as based on rigorous peer reviewed science is little more than an activists wish list. It is not worth the paper it is printed on.

Science should be about truth, not advocacy. The sooner the world accepts and implements that the better we shall all be.

Posted by John Carter on 21 Apr 2010

I am the coordinator of a Citizen's Audit of the references cited in AR4 (the 2007 IPCC report). Our team of 40 citizen auditors from 12 countries sorted and counted all 15,531 references. We announced our findings last week.

Contrary to Dr. Pachauri's assertion, 30% (nearly one in 3) of the references listed in the climate bible are not articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. There is not a "limited" amount of non-peer-reviewed material, as Dr. Pachauri claims. Instead, we found 5,587 instances.

I've done a blog post in response to the above piece. It appears here:

By the way, in November, Dr. Pachauri told the Times of India that research that had not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal did not meet the IPCC's standards and would not even be considered by the IPCC. In his words, such research belongs "in the dustbin."

Posted by Donna Laframboise on 21 Apr 2010

Dr. Pachauri: Thank you for a well-reasoned, clearly explained defense of the work of the thousands of scientists who contributed to IPCC's AR4. It helps to see the scale of the project and the difficulties of conducting multiple metastudies from the vast reservoir of existing data, then integrating the metastudies into a cohesive statement on the condition and changes of our planetary climate system. Truly, this is an awe-inspiring work, on the order of the Human Genome Project.

I have only one suggestion to offer to IPCC, in hopes of improving future predictions: Show the non-linear projections of the trends, so that worst-case scenarios have a higher degree of reliability. Keep the linear projections of trends as the useful minimum boundary of human impact that they are, but let the world see why these projections are really quite conservative and cautious when dealing with data that is trending more exponential than linear.

I make this suggestion mainly because policy changes are largely stalled in the nations that most need to do something. (Like IPCC, I do not advocate any particular policy.) By the time these nations (USA, rising economies in Asia) perceive the dangers, their policy choices will be limited to:

1 risky geoengineering solutions that may create more problems than they solve, or

2 too little, too late.

The charges of alarmism by many, based on what IPCC has published, are not only exaggerated but cowardly. IPCC's claims are really quite modest, in terms of the robustness of the supporting data.

Mike: Climate for the whole planet is not going to return solid verification of these predictions as fast as most humans would find convenient. Our lifespans are too short to judge the predictions made for this system based on what we observe in the here and now. If models work well for past data, and account for variability with mechanisms that clearly were at work in the system at the time (such as the aerosol-shading of the industrialized Northern Hemisphere), then we would be wise to accept the models. Our alternative is to wait several decades to see if our predictions come true on time scales that are meaningful to what we mean when we say "climate". From all I have seen, I suspect we cannot afford to wait that long.

Jurgen: I have read from other articles addressing this that the figure for final meltoff of the Himalayan glaciers was supposed to be 2350, making 2035 a simple typographical error. 2350 is a cautious claim for this, while 2035 (if IPCC had tried to ignore the error after it was found) is an audacious claim. 2035 is not impossible, given all of the factors that contribute to the system, including: The slope of the land the glaciers rest on; the warming of oceans and air in the Northern Hemisphere; the darkening of the glaciers' surfaces from industrial soot; the formation of meltwater pools on the ice; etc. As to your second point, I am not familiar with the source of your reference to "voodoo science", and I read a lot on this topic. Could you please clarify?

Jerome: When an error is discovered in science, it is not like marking a student's multiple-choice test question wrong. The correct procedure is to go back to the data to find out how the error happened and correct the information. To say the date of 2035 is wrong without offering a corrected date of 2350 and an explanation for the error is not how things are done in science. (To anyone wishing to take Dr. Pachauri to task for not presenting the correction here, the correction is already published elsewhere for you to read, if you care to.)

John: Your dismissal of IPCC seems misguided. What the media has done with IPCC's reports is a disgrace; you should be calling for the disbanding of media corporations. If IPCC's expectations work out to be genuinely unachievable, the "untold misery around the world" is yet to come as a result of our inaction. Science (yes, including this science) is about improving our understanding of the reality we live in. Newton's laws of motion remain a good, useful approximation for most conditions, even after Einstein's laws of relative motion are shown to be more accurate in the larger universe. Which is "truth"? Neither. Science continues trying to improve our understanding, even beyond Einstein.

Posted by Daniel on 22 Apr 2010

Donna: Why don't you just read the scientific literature directly, as the Swedish National
Broadcast company did in a recent survey:

"The Science department has gone through ISI, the world's largest database of peer-reviewed research articles and searched for publications that clearly contradict the conclusion of human-induced global warming. The survey also looks for “climate sceptic” scientists and research articles which are often cited on Internet and blogs. From 2009 onwards, we have found a total of five articles that explicitly question the man-induced global warming. During the same period, more than 8000 research papers on climate change have been published, according to the ISI database"


Why would I trust the work of "Anonymous" from Canada or "TTY" from Sweden? If they can not come forward with their names, this is not worth much. Reading science literature does take some training and knowledge. Being able to see clouds does not make you a climate expert, no more than being able to put a Bandaid on a wound makes you a trained physician.

Posted by Bo Norrman on 22 Apr 2010

The need for action to control global warming is based in significant part on the forecasst of future conditions without such control. These forecasts are made using mathematical models. However, I have never seen any documentation that these models have been validated as such models must be to useful in forecasting.

In this case these models could be validated by reproducing the last fifty years of global temperatures based on inputs of known and verified data. Without such validation we are being asked to accept these models on faith, hardly a scientific approach.

I would like very much to see a congruent plot of actual versus modeled global temperature data for the last fifty years. Can anyone tell me where I can find such a validation?

Posted by Richard O'Connell on 23 Apr 2010

Richard: Exactly what you are describing has been documented back in the 2001 IPCC Report, Working Group 1: The Scientific Basis. Climate models have successfully reproduced the past as far back as the start of the modern instrumental record, which is about 1850. While there are uncertainties with models, they have also made predictions that have been subsequently confirmed by observations. They are based on physics and mathematics and are a useful tool, as they provide policymakers our best ascertainment about future conditions given various emission scenarios. It's also important to note that all the models cannot account for the current warming without incorporating a rise in CO2.


Or for a more casual explanation of the reliability of climate models:


Posted by Scott on 23 Apr 2010

Make the findings clear And easily understandable by anyone. Then the grassroots movement will start. We can all see fires, tornadoes, drought. Concentrate on effects in USA, the biggest polluter. We are kind people. Wake us up.

Posted by Jeff on 26 Apr 2010

Jeff: The information is already there for anyone to look at. For instance, last year The U.S. Global Change Research Program released a report that is exactly what you are asking for. It specifically only looks at Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. It is laid out clearly and careful attention has been make to make it very understandable. Unfortunately, I think the problem is more that people who argue against don't want to see or understand the information.


Posted by Scott on 27 Apr 2010

"The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) coordinates and integrates federal research on changes in the global environment and their implications for society. The USGCRP began as a presidential initiative in 1989 and was mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-606), which called for "a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change."

I would hardly count on this organization releasing any documents contrary to their mission. That is the nature of bureaucracies.

The basis of the science and its approach has been flawed thus far. Just fix these and let's see the results.

Posted by Jim T on 03 May 2010

The panel, headed by Rajendra K Pachauri, had claimed that the Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035, causing a lively furore . "The clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly," said IPCC in a statement on its website, accepting the error.

Here the views of India’s Environment Minister Mr.Jairam Ramesh are very relevant:
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said such forecasts were alarmist and without scientific basis.

He also took a dig at the comments made by IPCC chairman R K Pachauri, who had dubbed the Union environment ministry's report, which stated that global warming is not the only reason for glaciers melting, as 'voodoo science'.
Jairam Ramesh said that the most important lesson that India must learn from the whole episode is that there is no substitute for domestic scientific capability.

This is the second time that the world has been proved wrong on its views on climate change and India, the minister said. "The first time was when the United States government estimated in the early 1990s that wet paddy cultivation in Indian fields produced yearly 38 million tonne of methane gas and that this was the second most preponderance for emission of greenhouses gases.

"But it was later established by the India's leading agro-scientist A P Mitra, who challenged the US administration's estimates and found that the emission was four million tonnes per annum on average," Ramesh said, adding the second time was on the 'glacier melting' issue.

"What it shows is that there is no substitute for indigenous study, monitoring and modelling. That is why we have set up a network of scientists and researchers to carry out researches based on our local requirements and conditions," the minister added.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 07 May 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
rajendra k. pachauriABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rajendra K. Pachauri is chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Since 2001, he has served as director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), an India-based research organization focused on issues related to energy, environment and sustainable development. He is the author of more than 100 academic articles and 23 books and is director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute.



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