Good news for the world: bad news for official climate science body

Geoffrey Lean is Britain's longest-serving environmental correspondent, having pioneered reporting on the subject almost 40 years ago.

January 17th 2010

It’s the best news of the decade so far, but not for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the official ultimate authority on climate science, for it poses a much greater threat to its credibility than the much-hyped “Climategate”  emails and puts further questionmarks over its embattled chairman, Dr Rajendra Pachauri.

Reports today suggest that the IPCC may soon retract one of the more alarming predictions in its latest massive review of climate science, that the glaciers of the Himalayas are very likely to disappear by 2035, after it was found to be unjustified. That is emphatically good news for the  world. At least three quarters of a million people in the most populous part of the planet depend on the glaciers for water: their rapid disappearance would be an unimaginable catastrophe.

Leading glaciologist  Prof Graham Cogley of Ontario’s Trent University – who says that, at current rates,  the melting might  take ten times longer – has been worried for some time about the prediction. At one stage he thought IPCC had wrongly transposed two figures in the date from a 1996 scientific paper that forecast the glaciers’ disappearance by 2350. But the truth is even more embarrassing. It goes back to a story published in New Scientist in 1999 by its excellent environment specialist, Fred Pearce, which reported an Indian glaciologist Syed Husnain as saying they could be gone by 2035.  This was mentioned six years later in a campaigning document by the environment group, WWF, and the IPCC then picked it up.

This is serious,  as the authority of the IPCC rests on meticulously basing its reports on peer-reviewed literature and, indeed, on taking a conservative view. Traditionally it has erred on the side of caution, sometimes excessively so. In the same report, for example, it grossly underestimated future sea-level rise, by excluding contributions form melting ice from the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets, though these would be major factors: last December a highly authoritative report suggested that its forecast level should be doubled.

Dr Pachauri may be even more damaged, thanks to his reported  reaction to an Indian paper late last year which suggested that the glaciers were not disappearing rapidly, leading the country’s environment minister, Jairem Ramesh to accuse the IPCC of being “alarmist”. Pachauri was widely reported as dismissing the paper as “voodoo science”, adding: “We have a very clear idea of what is happening” in the Himalayas.

Pachauri’s judgment has been questioned, and the finances of the Energy and Resources Institute, which he heads, have come under critical scrutiny not least in The Sunday Telegraph. As it happens, he became chairman largely as a result of lobbying for him by the Bush administration, which was determined to get rid of his predecessor – the highly respected Dr Robert Watson, now chief scientist at Defra – after Exxon complained that Dr Watson was “too aggressive” and sent a memorandum to the White House specifically asking for him to be “replaced at the request of the US”.

The affair has much more potential to undermine IPCC than the “Climategate” e-mails. A definitive view on them must await the inquiries now being carried out, but the most quoted -  in which Prof. Phil Jones, of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, described using a “trick” to “hide the decline” – has been widely misinterpreted to suggest that he was trying to cover up a much-touted fall in world temperatures since 1998, an abnormally hot year. In fact it was written in 1999 and referred to anomalous data from tree rings in Siberia in the 1960s which suggested that the world was cooling when the thermometer accurately showed it to be warming.

The saving grace for climate science is that the sloppiness of the IPCC’s treatment of the Himalayan glaciers has been exposed from within the community. Prof Cogley, moreover,  confirms that the glaciers are melting as the world warms up, if not as fast, and says that the mistake does not in any way invalidate the case for global warming. He says that, “in its totality” the evidence for climate change “is compelling”, adding: “There is no room for reasonable doubt that glaciers in the Himalayas and Karakoram are losing mass, and it is quite probable that the rate of loss has accelerated recently.”

If he is right, ironically, his correction may  strengthen the case for action. If the glaciers indeed had indeed been due to disappear by 2035, the world might have found that next to impossible to prevent in time. A much slower melting  gives a chance for realistic timetables for reducing carbon emissions to take effect.