News in Summary: The IPCC and glacier shrinkage


Over the course of this week, you've probably heard at least a little about the controversy surrounding a mistake in the IPCC's 4th Assessment Report from 2007. Short version: The Working Group II section, which covers observed and projected impacts of climate change, states that Himalayan glaciers are "very likely" to disappear by 2035. Glaciologists say that's bogus. And the IPCC report, itself, sources the claim to a position paper put out by the World Wildlife Fund, rather than any peer-reviewed research. The error was first pointed out by scientists within the climate research community. As of yesterday, the IPCC has apologized, and is reviewing how such a sketchily sourced factoid made it into the final report.

So what should you take away from this incident? Two things:

It's a mistake. But mistakes happen, and this really isn't even a big one.
Climate science is science, not a religion. It makes no claim to infallibility. In fact, the whole thing with science, in general, is that it assumes mistakes will happen. Systems like peer review exist to catch those mistakes. Standards, like reproducibility and independent verification, push our knowledge, over time, closer to the truth. The basic facts about climate science—that climate change is happening and that human activities are the most likely cause—don't stand and fall on single sources. They're based on hundreds of peer-reviewed papers that, combined, lead to a robust conclusion. That's different from this claim, which was based on one source, and a flimsy one at that. It shouldn't have made it into the IPCC report. There are some critics who say there are other, similar, mistakes going on in Working Group II. But neither of those things undermines the real science.

It's also worth pointing out that the Himalayan glaciers really are retreating, just not so very fast.

The real problem lies in how the IPCC responded to criticism
While the mistake doesn't undermine the well-sourced facts about climate change, the way it was handled does undermine public confidence in those well-sourced facts. And that's a big problem. A scientist who reviewed the Working Group II report says he spotted the mistake before publication, and was ignored. A scientist who pointed out the mistake after publication, in a report prepared for the Indian government, was publicly criticized as a practitioner of "voodoo science" by IPCC chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri.

It's not OK that it took resounding pressure by the scientific community and the press in order to get this addressed.

Climate scientists have to deal with a whole lot of crap. Most of the time, that crap is about as well-sourced as this glacier claim. So it is, on one level, understandable that some scientists have developed a knee-jerk "circle the wagons" response to criticism. But that response is very, very bad when it starts being applied to any criticism. The Internet can't make us all armchair experts, so we have to rely on the people who really are experts to tell us what's going on—and we have to be able to trust them to self correct. The experts did that here, but they did it in a way that—to the average layman—made it look like they're more interested in being "right" than being accurate. That can't happen when there's so much at stake.

Where'd this all come from? Check out my IPCC Glacier Controversy reading list:

Image courtesy Flickr user ricardo.martins, via CC


  1. The IPCC chairman certainly acted irresponsibly on this one. Although it probably won’t, this ought to actually raise more of a stink than the leaked emails. There wasn’t any “smoking gun” in the leaked emails, but here there was a clear case of someone towards the top silencing contrary (and correct) voices.

    Of course it’s not a smoking gun than “disproves” global warming in any way, but it’s a terrible impression to give, and bad science.

  2. Honestly curious here, how long have glaciers been shrinking? -since the last ice age? Do studies show times in the Earths past when water levels were as high as some scientists are predicting it will be in the next hundred years or so? Is it a natural cycle that the Earth is going through as far as climate change is concerned? I’ve read and seen so much info on both sides of the Global Warming subject that I totally stopped reading about this a few years ago.

    I believe I’ve gotten past my knee-jerk reaction of automatically not believing a lot of what I see about global warming. What studies or articles should I use to help show some of my Republican friends that this shouldn’t be a liberal vs. conservative subject? And maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the way it’s seemed to be for the last 10 years or so on discussions about global warming – us vs them.

      1. Thx – I think that may have just made it worse – I need something an ADD 5 year old would listen to. Most of the folks I know, if they even care about this, would instantly quote something they saw on Fox news – which seems to always be on at least one the 4 TVs we have at my station.

  3. I’m concerned about climate change but this post… look what do you think would happen to a doctoral student defending a thesis with this kind of mistake?

  4. It also needs to be added that the error occurred in an annex at the end of the report; a section that is not peer reviewed, and not the main part of the report itself. Agree that the IPCC’s response has been disappointing though.

  5. I think this was an intentional misrepresentation by the IPCC, and as such I’m not sure it can so easily be dismissed as a “mistake”. And taken with the recent leaked emails, it shows long term willingness to deceive the public about the nature of climate change.

    It may be for our own good, but it’s a bad thing to do. It undermines their credibility and only adds fuel to those who deny mankind’s (negative) influence on the environment.

    Most people approach the members of the IPCC as a bunch of saints who can do no wrong. Well, I’ve got news for you – they’re human beings. And as such they are just like the humans who run the oil industry and other enemies of the environment. In other words they’re capable of greed, egoism and general corruption. The IPCC is in the business of climate change. It gets it funding and prestige from it. The worse climate change is, the more funding a prestige they’ll get. Hence, the temptation to fudge things to their own benefit.

    And don’t forget, there’s a lot of money at stake in green energy projects, regardless of how dubious the benefits are. And these projects get their funding because of predictions made by the IPCC. Just look at what was announced in the province of Ontario the other day.

    Unfortunately, all this focus on climate change and CO2 levels blinds us to a lot of local problems that should be addressed first. Problems that are having an immediate effect on the local climates around the world. Things like deforestation, or over development of urban areas (ie too much paving and concrete) have real effects on people today. If governments focused on fixing this stuff, just improving the environment in general, we would do a lot about climate change immediately.

    Ultimately it comes down to energy consumption. We have to stop using as much energy, or no amount of wind farms or solar panels will save us.

    I could rant on like this forever. But I won’t. However, I have one more point – Let’s call climate change for what it is – global warming. It’s what were all afraid of.

    Now I’m going to turn off my computer.

  6. While I agree with you Maggie, I think that the issue is larger… climate science is a science, but in the hands of some deep ecologists, some ngos, some politicians and bureaucrats it becomes gospel.

    I think the biggest failing of the IPCC is how it has allowed it’s work to be taken out of context, and abused to promote maligned agendas.

  7. So sad that this might give fuel to the There’s nothing to worry about” camp. Yes, glaciers come and go, but having watched the Columbia Ice-fields shrink over the last 5 decades, and knowing that the water for most of the Canadian prairies comes from there, I am no longer concerned about the ‘why’ or ‘if’, just “that”.

  8. Why is this just now news? And why is the worst part of this not being mentioned: that the referenced number may have originally been 2350, 2035! See here.

  9. Sorry, I see this was already mentioned above. But still, the BBC reported on this in early December so “recent weeks” is just a sad state of affairs.

  10. Frankly, this isn’t news. It’s not the first error found in the IPCC report. There’s dozens of points where it’s even inconsistent (says two different things in different places). I even spotted (and sent in) one or two of them myself. Most of them are simply misquoted figures like this one, with no consequential effects. This should surprise nobody. Sadly, they don’t maintain a full errata any more; instead they will simply incorporate all these corrections (where appropriate) into the next report in 2014.

    The IPCC report is more than a thousand pages of dense text, written by 620 authors. That’s a small encyclopedia. It’s way too much information for anybody to fit in their head all at once. A lot of the sources that it is based on do not precisely agree (if one piece of research puts a figure at 9-12 and another puts it at 11-14, then the report aggregates these and calls it 9-14, citing both; multiply this by a thousand research papers and you begin to see why they don’t find all these cases). It is completely unsurprising that a document like this is full of errors.

    The comparison to an encyclopedia is apt, because that’s exactly how you should handle it. The IPCC report is not an authoritative source; rather, it’s a text that gives a rough outline of current knowledge, and directs you to the primary sources. By all means read parts of it to learn about how stuff works, but for anything more than that, you need to study properly: follow the citations, check the facts, research other developments since the report plus any things they might have missed while compiling it.

    1. “Frankly, this isn’t news.”

      If this wasn’t from the panel attempting to set policy around the world, I would agree.

      When we’re talking about global changes with the potential of making a deep impact on the entire human race, we need to be careful.

  11. Oh, damn, just thought of something else. Not necessarily fit for Tom Hale’s 5-year-old, but useful for people who think that climate science is not a mature science:

    The most relevant part starts after the Cthulhu picture. It’s a pretty good blog in general, I find.

    (Bowing out of this now, because I just don’t have time today, nor tomorrow, for the kind of discussion that usually develops in threads like this.)

  12. The more I read on climate science and global warming, the more I’m reminded of Robert Anton Wilson’s “The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science.” It’s instructive.

  13. A scientist who pointed out the mistake after publication, in a report prepared for the Indian government, was publicly criticized as a practitioner of “voodoo science” by IPCC chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri.

    Somehow, after the events of the past week or two, this seems less politically correct than ever.

  14. So why does the BoingBoing article fail to mention that the problem was someone copying 2035 as a typo for 2350?

    BoingBoing writes:
    “And the IPCC report, itself, sources the claim to a position paper put out by the World Wildlife Fund, rather than any peer-reviewed research.”

    But this was a typographic error propagated from peer review research that said 2035.

    The BoingBoing aarticle is more intentionally misleading than the original error it is reporting.

  15. Anonymous #19, I follow climate science pretty closely. Where did you get the idea that a typo caused the problem?

    The problem was a New Scientist interview with the scientist Syed Hasnain in 1999. The article states that “Hasnain’s four-year study indicates that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.” This was repeated in a 2005 WWF report “An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China”. The IPCC report cited the non-peer reviewed WWF report. I have seen conflicting statements from Hasnain, but now he is saying he never said anything about 2035, he just said that they would decline in the next 40 years.

    Bottom line, the IPCC was using non peer reviewed stuff. And then calling anyone that questioned the science a name. Plus, the whole thing is ludicrous- how could a 300-500 foot thick glacier disappear that fast?

  16. Hmmm… Lets see, a population of over a billion people, a nuclear arsenal and a shortage of drinking water right now. 2035 or 2350? I think the difference is pretty trivial. Even an incremental reduction in the water supply could push things over the edge. Sadly, things are going to get horrifyingly bad waaaay before the glaciers disappear.

  17. AIUI “the Indian report pretty well ignores the IPCC”. “[T]his was not the report that identified the 2035-2350 error. That was Graham Cogley (who bothered to go the extra mile; pretty much all of glaciology knew there was some fishiness here, but not its pedigree).”
    Quotes from Stoat

    So to say this is a big problem, you have to show Rajendra K. Pachauri calling Graham Cogley a voodoo practictioner and not the Indian report voodoo science.

    1. Post Script: I’m sorry if that sounded a little insulting. I should have said “being more rational than so many other people”.

  18. I’ve been trying to dig up the best available facts, but it’s tough when the IPCC results have been repeated in so many scientific papers, and I don’t know which things have been rigorously checked and which have just been repeated.

    So to help the scientific community self-correct on this, I started a website (, where I’m collecting references to these mistakes in various peer-reviewed papers and other writings by scientists.

    I’m no climate skeptic, and I have faith in science. But still it’s got me thinking about how we can try to set the record straight, and keep mistakes from getting repeated longer than they should. Anyway, I’m looking for submissions at NotIn2035, if you’ve got papers to recommend I comment on there.

  19. “It’s also worth pointing out that the Himalayan glaciers really are retreating, just not so very fast.”

    Yes, and we’re all dying, but one gets more concerned when told one is dying 100 times faster than the normal aging process. Devil’s in the details, and all that…

  20. “The scientist behind the bogus claim in a Nobel Prize-winning UN report that Himalayan glaciers will have melted by 2035 last night admitted it was included purely to put political pressure on world leaders.

    Dr Murari Lal also said he was well aware the statement, in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), did not rest on peer-reviewed scientific research.”

    This wasn’t a simple mistake or typo, this was an intentional inclusion of erroneous data for political purposes.

    And that hits at the reliability of the IPCC much harder than some mistake and ignoring anyone who called them on it. The IPCC was set up to provide the best scientific information available, and it seems the claims its become more concerned with pushing a political agenda and influencing policy are being verified with things like this.

    Now more than ever we must head the words of Eisnhower, just as he warned of the growing “military industrial complex,” in the same speech even, he warned:

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

Comments are closed.