When will the IPCC melt away?

News that Himalayan glaciers are not receding as quickly as claimed shows we need new ways to assess the evidence.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

‘Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 square kilometres to 100,000 square kilometres by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).’

This quote from the most recent assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 has been widely quoted. Here’s the opening to a report from the CNN website from as recently as October 2009: ‘The glaciers in the Himalayas are receding quicker than those in other parts of the world and could disappear altogether by 2035 according to the 2007 IPCC report. The result of this deglaciation could be conflict as Himalayan glacial runoff has an essential role in the economies, agriculture and even religions of the region’s countries.’ In an article in the state-run newspaper China Daily in 2007, the UN’s resident coordinator in China, Khalid Malik, warned that the source of much of China’s water – the Himalayas – was under threat: ‘These glaciers are receding faster than any other glaciers on the planet. Some estimates predict that they could completely disappear by mid-century. This would result in the eventual drying up of water supplies.’

In September 2009, the Financial Times reported that Nepal’s prime minister, Madhav Kumar, had told a conference in Kathmandu: ‘The Himalayan glaciers are retreating faster than any other glaciers in the world as the temperature is increasing. The potentially catastrophic impact on lives and livelihoods has assumed a huge importance in our international relations.’ Greenpeace has, unsurprisingly, quoted the factoid, too: ‘Glaciers in the Himalayas provide the water source for one-sixth of humanity. Now that water source is threatened by climate change… Himalayan glaciers could shrink from the present 500,000 square kilometres (193,051 sq miles) to 100,000 square kilometres (38,610 sq miles) by the 2030s.’

The disappearance of the Himalaya glaciers has been one of the leading examples of how climate change will devastate the planet and spark conflict over ever-dwindling supplies of essential resources like water. Unfortunately, for those who have promoted the story, it’s just not true. In a report this week in The Sunday Times, Professor Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University, said: ‘Even a small glacier such as the Dokriani glacier is up to 120 metres thick. A big one would be several hundred metres thick and tens of kilometres long. The average is 300 metres thick, so to melt one even at five metres a year would take 60 years. That is a lot faster than anything we are seeing now, so the idea of losing it all by 2035 is unrealistically high.’ There certainly does appear to be glacial melting going on, but at nothing like the rate that the IPCC report claimed.

Getting an important fact wrong like this is bad, given that the IPCC is supposed to be the authoritative statement on the reality of global climate and our understanding of it. But science is always a provisional attempt to grasp reality and should always be assumed to be subject to revision. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, scientists get it wrong. However, the process by which this claim found its way into the IPCC report is truly shocking.

The claim was originally made in an article in 1999 in an Indian magazine by Syed Hasnain, a scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The claims were picked by New Scientist journalist, Fred Pearce, who did a short telephone interview with Hasnain and wrote the story up, noting that this was a non-peer-reviewed suggestion that would be backed up by a report later. In fact, it was pure speculation, which was not backed up by Hasnain’s research.

In 2005, the environmental campaign group WWF published a report on the subject, which was picked up in the media. For example, here’s BBC News: ‘Melting glaciers in the Himalayas could lead to water shortages for hundreds of millions of people, the conservation group WWF has claimed. In a report, the WWF says India, China and Nepal could experience floods followed by droughts in coming decades. The Himalayas contain the largest store of water outside the polar ice caps, and feed seven great Asian rivers.’ It was this report which was specifically cited as the source in the IPCC report.

Towards the end of last year, India’s environment minister suggested that the ‘Himalayan glaciers, although shrinking in volume and constantly showing a retreating front, have not in any way exhibited, especially in recent years, an abnormal annual retreat, of the order that some glaciers in Alaska and Greenland are reported’, basing his conclusion on studies carried out by the Geological Survey of India. The head of the IPCC, the Indian economist and engineer Rajendra Pachauri, dismissed the reports as ‘voodoo science’. However, a Canadian geographer, Graham Cogley of Trent University in Ontario, then made headlines by pointing out the source of the IPCC claim: the WWF report from 2005. In turn, the WWF report relied on the New Scientist story from 1999. In other words, the IPCC had made a high-profile claim based on precisely zero peer-reviewed research. That would be bad enough practice for a blog, never mind the Bible of Climate Change Science.

In an effort to explain this, Cogley could only conclude that the IPCC had misread a report from 1996 which suggested that there may be such glacial melt by 2350, simply transposing the figures to arrive at the year 2035. Even this explanation, farcical as it would be, may be too generous to the IPCC. The man in charge of preparing the chapter in question, Professor Murari Lal, admitted to The Sunday Times that he is ‘not an expert on glaciers’ and had not visited the region and so had to rely on ‘credible published research’. How a non-expert could treat an off-the-cuff quote, repeated in a report by a campaign group, as ‘credible published research’ remains unanswered.

This is not the first time that widely quoted claims about the climate have proven to be dubious. There was, of course, the ‘Climategate’ scandal at the end of 2009, when emails and documents were leaked from the UK’s Hadley Centre suggesting that research supposedly claiming that the past few decades are the warmest for a thousand years was manipulated to produce the desired result. ‘Climategate’ also revealed very high-profile researchers discussing how to ensure that contrary research remained outside the ‘peer-reviewed’ literature.

The University of Colorado academic, Roger Pielke Jr, offers other examples of such dubious sourcing for apparently authoritative claims. For example, both the IPCC and Britain’s 2006 Stern Review picked up on reports that economic losses from major weather events would increase with global warming. However, the sources were non-peer-reviewed papers emanating from work conducted for the German re-insurance company Munich Re, and the conclusions seem to run counter to the general consensus on the issue. Indeed, Pielke Jr argues that the Stern Review managed to inflate the estimates of climate-related damage by a full order of magnitude, but his argument has not been disputed, simply ignored.

Summing up, Pielke Jr criticises the IPCC and others for three kinds of error:

1) Reliance on non-peer reviewed, unsupportable studies rather than the relevant peer reviewed literature.

2) Reliance on and featuring non-peer reviewed work conducted by the authors of the assessment reports.

3) Repeated reliance on a small number of secondary or tertiary sources, repeatedly cited such that intellectual provenance is lost.

These problems do not mean that climate science can be thrown out as simply wrong. But they do strike at the heart of claims that the IPCC has provided indisputable evidence that the climate change is real, will be substantial and will cause immense damage. These ‘facts’ need to be assessed in an independent, non-politicised manner, something that is quite impossible at present given the heavily politicised origins of the IPCC (see Digging up the roots of the IPCC, by Tony Gilland).

Yet what we are seeing is not a problem of some liberal, green, pro-government conspiracy trying to force high-tax, pro-state policies on us all, as some American right-wingers would have us believe. Given the way in which the green agenda has been endorsed across the political spectrum, and by everyone from treehugging hippies to the bosses of enormous multinational companies, there is clearly something else at work. One major factor has been a propensity to assume the worst. Over the past few years, we’ve seen plenty of scary stories that have received wide publicity, from disease epidemics to feeling terrorised about terrorism. Underpinning them all has been a sense that humanity is at the whim of events that are out of our control and against which we have little capacity to protect ourselves. Such overblown fears have been part and parcel of the panic about climate change, too.

These fears are then amplified and exploited for political purposes, from crackdowns on civil liberties to restrictions on consumption. Fear – and particularly environmental fear – is just about the one ‘big idea’ that the political establishment can find any purchase with today in order to justify its policies and existence. Indeed, two things now live in parallel: the real, open, provisional and tentative science of climate change – which suggests we may have some substantial climatic problems to deal with in the future – and The Science, a closed, certain, often fantastical set of conclusions based on moralism and politics rather than temperature measurements and atmospheric physics.

That’s not to say that the world isn’t getting warmer (though global temperature seems to have pretty much flatlined in recent years) or that significant warming wouldn’t be a threat if we did nothing to respond to it. But what we need to recognise is that what we actually know about these things is not anything like as certain as alarmists would have us believe and that such uncertainties are obliterated in the search for a big, essential truth around which society can be reorganised. The result will be a misguided effort to throw society’s resources at what are often the wrong problems and endless restrictions on our personal freedom in the effort to reduce our ‘footprints’ and ‘save the planet’.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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