IPCC, take a bow!

IPCC, take a bow!

by Tony Thomas

February 13, 2012

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has in the past been a bit reluctant to confess to, and correct, errors in its major assessment reports. These reports are the basis for the Australian government, among others, deciding to tax C02 emissions, so the reports need to be correct (apart from accuracy being a virtue in itself).

In the case of the Himalaya-gate howler in the 2007 IPCC report, IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri initially accused the complainant, an eminent Indian glaciologist, of practicing ‘voodoo’ and ‘magical’ science, and making indefensible accusations. He added that the glaciologist had no business questioning such an eminent body as the IPCC.

It appeared that Pachauri had not even read the brief section complained of, as its bad arithmetic and dubious provenance (gossip recycled by the activist Worldwide Fund for Nature), spoke for themselves.

This arrogance in November 2009 from the IPCC chair was too much for the respectable scientific community, and within a few months Pachauri was compelled to invite the InterAcademy Council, a peak-of-peak international science body, to report on IPCC procedural reforms to prevent such errors and loss of credibility re-occurring.

One fruit of the IAC’s report in August 2010 was that the IPCC panel at its May 2011 Abu Dhabi session, issued a detailed 12-page protocol and flow charts for error correction.

So far so good. In the past couple of months two error-sets in IPCC reports can be used to see how well the IPCC walks the walk rather than just talks the talk.

This is an important distinction. The IPCC has always had its rules and procedures but its thousands of authors and reviewers have in many ways chosen to treat these rules with derision. Just two examples:

When the IPCC authors cited non-peer publications, they were obliged to ‘flag’ them as such in the footnotes. Donna Laframboise, Canadian investigative journalist, did some checking and found in the 2007 IPCC report that out of the 5,587 non-peer citations, a grand total of six, or 0.1% , were flagged.

Material for inclusion and citation in an IPCC report must be published by certain deadline dates, to ensure that authors and reviewers have opportunity to study the material. In practice, if authors liked particular research, they didn’t pay no mind to deadlines. The prime example was the alarmist UK report by Nicholas Stern about the cost of not introducing carbon taxes. It missed the deadline but still got 26 references across 12 chapters of the 2007 report.
Well, about these two errors we’ve found. When my review of Donna’s marvelous expose of IPCC workings was published last October, there was an immediate response from the University of NSW that Donna had incorrectly described a researcher as a ‘lead [senior IPCC] author’ when she was actually just a ‘contributing [junior] author’.

Simultaneously, IPCC insider Dr Richard Betts, from the UK Met Office, and himself a 2007 lead author, had been reading her book and snapped that she needed to ‘check more carefully’ about the researcher’s title.

Donna checked the actual IPCC report on the web and confirmed that the error was by the IPCC itself.

Betts then conceded to her, via Twitter, that the IPCC had wrongly categorised five “Contributing Authors” as “Lead Authors”, and omitted names of a dozen “Lead Authors”.

That was it. He made no apology, nor advice that he would do anything about the error. He definitely hadn’t imbibed the letter or even the spirit of the IPCC’s May 2011 error protocols. [See Addendum below.]

A month later I emailed Donna asking, had the IPCC report actually been corrected? Yes, it had, she replied, emailing the before-and-after versions of the IPCC website. Scorecard for the IPCC: Result, ok. Process, not ok.

The second error turned up like this. Doing some other research I noticed reference to a book by the first IPCC Chair Bert Bolin about the early days of the IPCC, ie the 1980s-90s. Seven days later and $37 poorer, I had the book from the excellent UK Book Depository online store.

There was the usual multitude of footnotes at the back. One caught my attention:

As a curiosity, it might be interesting to note that there is a major error in Figure 2 of the Working Group 11 summary for policy makers in that the two eco-systems ‘Savannah, dry forests, woodland’ and ‘Tropical Forests’ have been interchanged, but I have not seen this corrected anywhere in the IPCC publications. (p253).

Bolin was referring to the Second Assessment Report of 1995, the first to damn humans for causing global warming, and which thus set the governments of the world on a path that…well, these days I’m not sure what.

I thought, “Well, obviously, if the ex-chair of the IPCC goes to all this trouble to point out a major error in a report, the IPCC will of course have taken notice and made the correction?”

IPCC reports are thousands of pages long but the IPCC deserves all credit for its user-friendly web interface. In google-minutes I was looking at the Figure 2 of 1995 and trying to work out from the blurry color-coding what it was actually saying. Eventually I concluded that South-East Asia from PNG northwards is covered with savanna, dry forests and woodland, while northern India and the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas rejoice in tropical forests.

Illustration: Detail from page 31, IPCC Second Assessment Climate Change 1995.
Text (pdf) is here… The correct situation is here…

But given a doubling of global CO2, we can expect the central US tropical forest belt, for example, to shift eastwards to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, even stretching east to Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Either citizens of the US need to cut their emissions, and fast, or the IPCC’s mistake has now gone uncorrected for 17 years.

Assuming the latter, I wrote off to Renate Christ, the IPCC’s secretary in Switzerland, carefully following the steps for a complainant outlined in the new IPCC protocol.

It turns out that such an error in a critical ‘Synthesis Report’ has to set off giant alarm bells in the IPCC. Responsibility, the protocol says, rests with the IPCC chairman (Dr Pachauri) himself. Both he and the co-chairs of the (relevant) Working Group at the time of the assessment, “will be kept informed of the evaluation and participate as appropriate.” The protocol’s details are even more draconian: All Working Group co-chairs and the executive committee have to get involved. They in turn may need to consult their predecessors about it, involving 17-year time travel in this instance.

After Donna’s brusque treatment, I was gratified to get an email back within 48 hours from Jonathan Lynn, Communications Head, filling in during Dr Christ’s absence.

Thank you very much for reminding us that this needs dealing with.

On the face of it it looks pretty straightforward, but it’s a bit complicated for our internal procedures as it involves an old report whose working groups have long disbanded.

Still, I’ve forwarded it to our Executive Committee (which includes Dr Pachauri) and I assure you it’s being worked on.

Best wishes, Jonathan Lynn.

Jonathan is being so nice that I actually feel guilty at putting the IPCC to all this bother. Scorecard for the IPCC: Result, ok. Process, Great. IPCC, take a bow!

Tony Thomas is a retired journalist.


Richard Betts, who is head of the Climate Impacts strategic area of the UK Met Office, asks for corrections.

Three days after Donna Laframboise posted her gripe about being criticized for what was in fact an IPCC error, and after she demanded an IPCC correction, Betts advised her via Twitter that he had emailed the IPCC advising them about the error, and the IPCC emailed back that it was fixing it. To this extent, my comment that Betts hadn’t said he would do anything about getting the error fixed, was with hindsight incorrect.

Betts also asks me to give him, and not Donna, the credit for finding the error. Actually, I’d give them joint credit, since Donna also “found” the error by stubbing her toe on this landmine on the IPCC website.

Betts has now written to Donna: “For the public record here, as opposed to the private tweet, I’m sorry my original message gave the impression that the mistake was yours not IPCCs.”


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