Thursday, February 11, 2010

Inside the Climate Bunker
...But even as his credentials and honors stacked up -- from the government of France anointing him an "Officier de la legion d'honneur" to GQ India naming him 2009's "Global Indian of the Year" (FP even named him a "top global thinker" last year) -- Pachauri couldn't quite discipline his tongue. Or perhaps he didn't care what impression his verbal zingers left. In 2008, he told the Chicago Tribune: "I tell people I was born a Hindu who believes in reincarnation. It will take me the next six lives to neutralize my carbon footprint. There's no way I can do it in one lifetime."

But he attracted the most attention for barbs directed at his critics, calling those who've questioned IPCC reports "flat-earthers" -- "they are indulging in is skulduggery of the worst kind," he told the Financial Times -- and generally bristling at the prospect of unwanted scrutiny, without providing clear answers to valid questions about his stewardship. ("My conscience is clear," he announced to the New York Times this week.) But while Pachauri's larger-than-life persona and propensity for conducting himself as though beyond reproach catches attention, these characteristics don't in and of themselves defame the organization he heads -- as much as global-warming deniers are happy to seize upon any opportunity to poke holes in climate science in general.

There is, however, at least one item in the recent round of Pachauri-bashing that does the U.N. panel no credit: a glaring error in an IPCC report about the date by which Himalayan glaciers are likely to have disappeared entirely. The underlying technical report of the panel's 2007 climate assessment erroneously stated that by 2035 the glaciers would be gone entirely, when scientific consensus places the date much later (studies cited by the BBC project a date closer to 2350 -- more than 300 years later).

The 2035 date was an alarming, attention-grabbing finding -- and many journalists, including Stephan Faris last year in Foreign Policy, cited it as evidence that global warming is an urgent crisis. But, after the Indian government released its own report with conflicting glacier-melt data last fall, glacier scientists went back to the IPCC report and began to raise questions about the 2035 date. The chatter among experts was picked up in Science magazine last year, before spilling into the mainstream media, which has already been primed by the "Climategate" saga and a disappointing outcome in Copenhagen to turn climate-science disputes into heightened political narratives. (The initial error may have come because the IPCC cited a decade-old interview in The New Scientist which quoted a scientist mentioning the date 2035, as opposed to sourcing peer-reviewed scientific literature.)

With all the attention, one might think the IPCC would by now have a precise and consistent explanation -- or point to an ongoing investigation -- for how this error crept in. Alas. ...

..."That statement [about Himalayan glacier melting by 2035] is in the literature that the report cites, but it's not a statement consistent with other scientific information available ... It should not have made it into final report."

In other words, an outlier source was picked up by the chapter's authors. But what of the vaunted review process? With all the input and reactions from some so many scientific experts, did no one flag that item as questionable?

"No ... In principle, [our process] should have turned over every rock and leaf in the forest."

Interestingly, the error did come to light last fall, nearly two years after the report's initial publication, when competing glacier-melt data was released by India's ministry of environment and forests. That discrepancy quickly focused the attention of international glaciologists on both sets of data, and questions about the particulars of IPCC glacier data soon surfaced. (This, of course, raises the question of whether the IPCC's process for soliciting peer comments is targeting the right people.) ...