I have watched with interest the coverage of the IPCC’s screw-up over the Himalayan glaciers.

“Screw-up” is really the best way to describe it. It really shouldn’t have happened. WG2 cited a secondary source that cited something else that cited something else that turned out to be an erroneous New Scientist article. The reviewers of WG2 did realize that something was wrong with the citation, but the editor didn’t bother to take the statement out while they investigated it, and then their deadline passed. Long story short, the Himalayan glaciers are definitely not going to disappear by 2035.

However, what the mainstream media considers “the IPCC report” is generally only WG1, and more specifically the WG1 Summary for Policymakers. This Himalayan glacier claim was in the lower-profile WG2, and it didn’t even make it into any of the WG2 summaries. If it had, the chances of it slipping through would have decreased dramatically. As it was, the mistake was present in one paragraph of the 938-page WG2 which is one of three sections of the fourth edition of the IPCC report. Not very high-profile, as these things go.

It’s strange, though, to watch the media coverage of this screw-up. It ended up in my BBC News feed, and according to one of my teachers, in the Globe and Mail as well as the local newspaper I just gave up on. That’s fine, as I didn’t see the kind of blatant misquotes and jumps in logic as during the CRU reporting. However, it makes me wonder – why weren’t all the other IPCC mistakes reported?

The IPCC tries to be centrist, and to report the median opinion of the climate science community. The more extreme claims on either end of the spectrum are given minimal attention. Therefore, the IPCC is bound to make some mistakes. However, with the exception of this screw-up, virtually all the mistakes have been on the side of “oops, it’s going to be worse than we thought”.

Take the Copenhagen Diagnosis, a 2009 report written by a dozen or so top climate scientists around the world. Its purpose was to update policymakers, in time for Copenhagen, on what had been learned since the AR4. Here are the major discrepancies they found:

  • From 2007-2009, there was about 40% less Arctic summer sea ice than the IPCC predicted, far exceeding its worst-case scenarios.
  • Recent global average sea-level rise is about 80% more than the IPCC predicted.
  • By 2100, global sea level is expected to rise at least twice as much as the IPCC predicted.
  • Global CO2 emissions are around the highest scenarios considered by the IPCC.

Hmmm, these areas of discrepancy – emissions, Arctic ice, sea level rise – are a lot higher-profile than one paragraph about the Himalayan glaciers in WG2. But I don’t remember reading about the Copenhagen Diagnosis anywhere other than the climate science blogs I follow. None of the mainstream media outlets I follow covered it. Did anyone else see it somewhere?

I encourage the reporting of scientific mistakes, as long as the journalism is accurate. Doesn’t it seem strange, though, that the findings of the Copenhagen Diagnosis went virtually unnoticed – while the Himalayan glacier screw-up was covered in every major newspaper in the world? Who is choosing to frame the IPCC as alarmist – rather than its true centrist position – and why?


36 thoughts on “Mistakes

  1. But how did the mistake get in to begin with? Anthony Watts found this:

    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.

    In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Dr Lal, the co-ordinating lead author of the report’s chapter on Asia, said: ‘It related to several countries in this region and their water sources. We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.

    Dr Lal said: ‘We knew the WWF report with the 2035 date was “grey literature” [material not published in a peer-reviewed journal]. But it was never picked up by any of the authors in our working group, nor by any of the more than 500 external reviewers, by the governments to which it was sent, or by the final IPCC review editors.’

    That last paragraph seems to be contradicting itself. So perhaps there is some time frame being left out, like we missed it, and caught the error in 2009.

    This whole hubbub is more because Pachauri decided to bash some Indian scientists who wrote a paper on glaciers. It put the focus on him. The error with the glaciers has been known for some time.

  2. The glacier issue is of a different nature than the four other items you list. Three of them are empirical and the fourth (sea level rise in 2100) is a revised prediction. But no scientific model ever said “Himalayan glaciers gone by 2035”.

    I seem to remember some coverage of that “Copenhagen Diagnosis” report, but that it was drowned out by Climategate and by the political aspects of the Copenhagen summit.

    The glacier story is being covered because it continues the story of “mistakes by climate scientists”, which is a new theme since Climategate. Since Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, and the shrinking Arctic, we had several years of doomsday predictions. They aren’t news any more, or rather, they aren’t interesting and new. It’s like news of bombings in Iraq; they still get reported, but it’s not a new phenomenon. Similarly, ‘scientist says disaster due in 2050’ is no longer news. Whereas the idea of there being interesting, newsworthy problems about the IPCC’s scientific reliability *is* still new. Of course the skeptics have been on about it for years, but it only got mainstream traction after the email hack.

  3. Although the New Scientist gets mentioned a lot, I don’t think it’s the source. The WWf document has two errors that can be found in the IPCC report: 2035/2350 and giving the Himalayan glaciers an area of 500,000 sq. Km; reducing to 100,000. A 1996 report has 2350 and extrapolar glacier area of 500,000 reducing to 100, 000. Compare

    IPCC WG2 “”Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other
    part of the world (see Table 10.9) 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 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).


    “The degradation of the extrapolar glaciation of the Earth will be apparent in rising ocean level already by the year 2050, and there will be a drastic rise of the ocean thereafter caused by the deglaciation-derived runoff (see Table 11 ). This period will last from 200 to 300 years. The extrapolar glaciation of the Earth will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates— its total area will shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2350. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0010/001065/106523e.pdf

  4. I think it’s very interesting that people trying to frame the IPCC as alarmist cannot find as many errors as we “alarmists” can. The difference is that, as you point out, most of the mistakes indicate that the IPCC reports were not alarming enough.

  5. This whole type issue about glacier melting makes me just more convinced that the math/physics education is in bad state regardless of political views. Which is nice, since politics has nothing to do with the rate of melt.

    [That’s almost the same quote that Peter Sinclair used in this video. -Kate]

  6. MikeN wrote:

    In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Dr Lal, the co-ordinating lead author of the report’s chapter on Asia, said: ‘It related to several countries in this region and their water sources. We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.

    Climateprogress.org has a good post on this Mail article in which Joe Romm actually rang Dr Lal up and got this comment

    “Dr. Lal asserts that the “most vilest allegations” in the Daily Mail story are utterly false.”.

    He also said “I didn’t put it [the 2035 claim] in to impress policymakers…. We reported the facts about science as we knew them and as was available in the literature.”

  7. I was just about to write in about Lal, only to see Palmer scooped that.

    So instead, I’ll call attention to the long history of misinformation from that article’s author, David Rose.

    MikeN, perhaps this should be a lesson to you: Anthony Watts is not a credible source. When he posts about a big news story, it’s often worth fact-checking it.

    Likewise for the analyses he publishes, though it’s sometimes harder to replicate those. He’s promoted analyses that correlate time with time, prove global warming causes sunspots, and flip the temperature record upside down to demonstrate a cooling trend. These aren’t ideologically-motivated criticisms of him – they highlight the abject dishonesty and utter incompetence that should shred any last remnants of credibility he has.

    But he says what you want to hear, so that’s OK, amirite?

  8. RE Brian D January 27, 2010 @ 12:54 pm:
    **He’s promoted analyses that correlate time with time, prove global warming causes sunspots, and flip the temperature record upside down to demonstrate a cooling trend.**
    Citations as to where these are posted?

    [Umm, follow the links he gave. -Kate]

  9. Gerald:

    I linked to counterexamples that demonstrate the flaws in analyses Watts has linked to; linking to the originals can be found there. Had I omitted the criticism, I wouldn’t have been citing the primary source (like talking about a rebuttal but linking to the original instead of the rebuttal).

    That said, I would like to amend my “global warming causes sunspots” summary – a better description would be “considers straight lines to be bent”, since, in all charity, the earlier summary was unfair. (It’s implied but not confirmed by this “analysis”.)

    By the way, interestingly, each one of those posts contains replies from their authors. Search for “D’Aleo //”, “Watts //” and “Basil //” (no quotes, but the // are needed) and you’ll go right to their responses. Look at how they defend themselves and you might be stunned.

  10. Not sure how Anthony Watts is responsible for a newspaper article.
    I noted that the article didn’t make complete sense.
    The issue is whether Lal gave the quote he was attributed. It is in contradiction to the statement given to Joe Romm.
    I think it is more the article gives a different slant to his quote than Lal intended.

    He highlighted the section to influence policymakers. That doesn’t mean he thinks it was wrong.

    [Revkin posted an email from Lal claiming that he never made the offending statements, scroll down to the bottom of this post to read it: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/19/heat-over-faulty-un-view-of-asian-ice/ -Kate]

  11. RE; Mann and the Bristlecone Pine.
    Hockey sticks, principal components, and spurious significance
    Stephen McIntyre
    Northwest Exploration Co., Ltd., Toronto, Ontario, Canada
    Ross McKitrick
    Department of Economics, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
    Received 14 October 2004; revised 22 December 2004; accepted 17 January 2005; published 12 February 2005.
    [1] The ‘‘hockey stick’’ shaped temperature reconstruction
    of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) has been widely applied.
    However it has not been previously noted in print that, prior
    to their principal components (PCs) analysis on tree ring
    networks, they carried out an unusual data transformation
    which strongly affects the resulting PCs. Their method, when
    tested on persistent red noise, nearly always produces a
    hockey stick shaped first principal component (PC1) and
    overstates the first eigenvalue. In the controversial 15th
    century period, the MBH98 method effectively selects only
    one species (bristlecone pine) into the critical North
    American PC1, making it implausible to describe it as the
    ‘‘dominant pattern of variance’’. Through Monte Carlo
    analysis, we show that MBH98 benchmarks for significance
    of the Reduction of Error (RE) statistic are substantially
    under-stated and, using a range of cross-validation statistics,
    we show that the MBH98 15th century reconstruction
    lacks statistical significance. Citation: McIntyre, S., and
    R. McKitrick (2005), Hockey sticks, principal components, and
    spurious significance, Geophys. Res. Lett., 32, L03710,

  12. This gets more interesting. In another update at Revkin, David Rose insists these are the verbatim quotes, so one is probably lying.

    “More specifically, I never said during my conversation with Rose the following statements being attributed to me:

    (a) ‘it was included purely to put political pressure on world leaders.’

    (b) ‘It related to several countries in this region and their water sources. We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.’

    (c) ‘It had importance for the region, so we thought we should put it in.’, and

    (d) ‘We as authors followed them to the letter,’ he said. ‘Had we received information that undermined the claim, we would have included it.’.

    Contrary to the claim by Rose that “Hayley Fowler of Newcastle University, suggested that their draft did not mention that Himalayan glaciers in the Karakoram range are growing rapidly,” the Asia Chapter does include this finding under section on page 477.

    What I said was “As authors, we had to report only the best available science (inclusive of a select few grey literatures as per the rules of procedure) which is “policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral” and that’s what we collectively did while writing the Asia Chapter. None of the authors in Asia Chapter were Glaciologist and we entirely trusted the findings reported in the WWF 2005 Report and the underlying references as scientifically sound and relevant in the context of climate change impacts in the region.


    Dr. Murari Lal

    A is not a direct quote in the article, so that part is OK.
    There is no reason for Lal to retract statement D, yet it is included anyway, suggesting Rose is lying.
    Doesn’t Britain have libel laws that would create a court case?

  13. I find the sceptics fascination with “The Hockey Stick” interesting in a train wreck sort of way. IIUC they claim that Mann’s analysis gave a false positive for the HS due to an inappropriate method. Now I don’t know enough about statistics to argue that either way. But I do know about common sense: and if someone told me that test could give a false positive, I would try a different test. So why hasn’t it been done… Oh but of course it has and there is still a Hockey Stick. Now why am I not surprised that the sceptics don’t mention that?

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Hockey-stick-without-tree-rings.html (referring to Huang 2000, Smith 2006, Oerlemans 2005, and Mann 2008)

    [They have all kinds of objections with the more recent hockey sticks, which is fair because paleo is a very new field that is continually evolving. However, it’s strange when people continue to focus on Mann 98, because it’s 12 years old, and there are many more recent papers of similar nature. It’s also strange when people assume that any mistakes in a trailblazing scientific paper were deliberate. -Kate]

  14. Mistakes don’t have to be deliberate. Not acknowledging the mistaes after they are pointed out, that is deliberate.

    [Having legitimate reasons as to why a “mistake” is not actually a mistake, is not the same as refusing to acknowledge it. -Kate]

  15. MikeN: Britain’s libel laws are something else. They almost have a “guilty until proven innocent” form, and there’s a reasonably high-profile case building up right now that may result in libel law reform. (Wiki Simon Singh for more information. By a strange coincidence, it’s another science-vs-pseudoscience argument (here, against the more kooky wing of chiropractic), and rather than defend their ideas with peer-reviewed research, the chiropractors have threatened legal action. Where have we seen that before?)

    (Unrelated: Still waiting for your link to the Munich Re report you mentioned in the comment thread on the Manufacturing Doubt essay thread. It’s been ten days; last I checked Google wasn’t that slow.)


    I’d also like to link the readers here to this report on a debate with Ian Plimer and Christopher Monckton, vs. Barry Brook and Graham Readfearn. What’s particularly fascinating is that Plimer and Monckton made mutually contradictory arguments (Plimer argues the current change is within natural variability (i.e. high sensitivity to CO2) while Monckton’s written pages upon pages of gibberish on how that sensitivity is too low to matter) – and neither called the other on it. All that mattered to them (and, apparently, most of the audience) is that they opposed AGW.

    (This was discussed in more detail by Dan Gilbert, who’s been mentioned here a few times, practically from the very beginning. Until recently I was unaware he was blogging.)

  16. The HS plot in IPCC TAR goes back to 1000 AD, so do some of the plots in the link I gave. Hence they are appropriate.

    However, what do you make of the sceptics’ reluctence to carry out a “proper” test? Aren’t you even a little bit puzzled by it? I mean it’s been 12 years now, why haven’t they thought of it?

    [The MWP actually started a little earlier than that, 800 AD according to Wikipedia.

    There are no “perfect” reconstructions out there, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not totally invalidated. Like models – all are wrong, some are useful. -Kate]/em

  17. Huh? I already posted about Munich Re, I had it wrong, and that was an error in the Third Assessment Report, not the Fourth. It may have been in the post that got censored. The Fourth Assessment had a similar problem with Muir-Wood, that Roger Pielke has highlighted.

  18. Turboblocke, are you intentionally being misleading? You referred to Huang 2000, Smith 2006, Oerlemans 2005, and Mann 2008 in the post above. Huang 2000, Smith 2006, and Oerlemans 2005 do not extend back to 1000 AD. That leaves only Mann 2008 to defend Mann 1998. Not great. There are others papers out there in support, I just don’t find the link you posted particularly persuasive.

    There are significant difficulties in doing a reconstruction, as you can well imagine. Dendroclimatology suffers most from the divergence problem. Loehle did make one reconstruction but it was published in E&E and hence was largely ignored. There are efforts to refine the process, as Loehle has highlighted in his Climatic Change paper:

    Click to access Loehle_Divergence_CC.pdf

    This whole line of argument about sceptics not carrying out a proper test is disingenuous. Here is the conclusion from a 2009 paper in Climatic Change:

    “Given the wide acceptance of the AR4 and the notion of a more chaotic climate towards the Dark Ages, it thus seems relevant to recall that we currently do not have sufficient widespread, high-resolution proxy data to soundly conclude on the spatial extent of warmth during MWP.”

    Click to access Esper_2009_CC_IPCC.pdf

    How you expect the sceptics to construct a proper test when many experts in the field hold the above view is beyond me.

  19. How odd that you dismiss Mann 2008, because that is the one that contains references to all the proxy analyses that go back to about 1000AD.

    And you’re changing the subject: I asked why the sceptics don’t do another statisitical test that doesn’t have a risk of false positives, the link in your reply just says that there aren’t enough proxies to conclude that the MWP was global. It doesn’t conclude that there are no valid statisitical tests.

    In fact the NRC report http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11676&page=R5 has done tests and found that “The Hockey Stick” is supported:
    “Large-scale surface temperature reconstructions yield a generally consistent picture of temperature trends during the preceding millennium, including relatively warm conditions centered around A.D. 1000 (identified by some as the “Medieval Warm Period”) and a relatively cold period (or “Little Ice Age”) centered around 1700.” Page 2

    See also the whole of chapter 9 for a discussion of the statistics;

    [Mann 2008 is certainly not perfect, and I’m still muddling through all the reasons and explanations and pros and cons. Paleoclimatology in general is so new that its results hold less confidence than other facets of climate science. It’s difficult to know for sure whether or not today is warmer than the MWP – the literature generally supports that it is, but nothing is for certain…..except the sure knowledge that it will certainly get warmer than the MWP sooner or later if we keep on the track that we’re going.

    I think I’m going to write a post about this soon, spurred by something Stephen Schneider wrote about in his latest book regarding the differences in rates of warming between land and ocean and polar ocean. Great stuff. -Kate]

  20. >Mann 2008 is certainly not perfect, and I’m still muddling through all the reasons and explanations and pros and cons.
    climatesanity.wordpress.com appears to be doing the same thing. Just three posts so far.
    I don’t know what level of math ability you have, so I don’t know if you would be able to determine for yourself whether Tiljander is used upside-down.

  21. So now IPCC deadlines are a scientific claim requiring citation?

    Here is UCAR headlining Dec 2005 as a deadline.

    Click to access wg1_timetable_2006-08-14.pdf

    Here is the revised guideline, which Wikipedia referenced while discusing the change in deadlines http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intergovernmental_Panel_on_Climate_Change#IPCC_Fourth_Assessment_Report:_Climate_Change_2007

    Click to access PublicationDeadlines_2006-07-01.pdf

    The Wahl and Ammann paper ended up being Wahl and Ammann 2007 and Ammann and Wahl 2007.

  22. Gee, that was a fairly large comment, and only one section dealt with best paleo practices. Several other links posted. Too hard.

  23. Of note: The Calgary Herald did not include the full story. Whenever you see a story from a CanWest source, look at *all* of the CanWest papers and you might find the complete story between them. Each edits the originals differently (understandable in print, because they have limited and differing space needs, but inexcusable online, where it happens anyway).

    In this case, the whole story happens to be intact on The Ottawa Citizen. Note the Herald didn’t include about a third of the narrative.

    • Then Brian, if I may ask, what is the whole story? Canadian government officials are corrupt?

      According to Article 41 of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, visiting diplomats in a receiving state “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.”

      When asked if the tactics used by the Canadian diplomats were accepted practices, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade defended the oilsands industry and said that meetings with decision-makers, those who influence them and stakeholders on Canadian priorities are a regular aspect of Canada’s engagement abroad.

      “Canada does not consider oil from oil sands to be an alternative fuel,” wrote Laura Markle in an e-mail.

      “Oil sands production is commercial and, like other oil, is processed in conventional facilities. The government will continue the promotion of a strategic resource that will contribute to energy security for Canada, North America and the world for decades to come.”

      The government will continue the promotion of a strategic resource that will contribute to energy security for Canada, North America and the world for decades to come? Energy security? The way I see it, the Canadian government doesn’t give a damn about the well-being of Canadian citizens, American citizens, or citizens of the world when it comes to global climate change in the coming decades. Neither does the American government for that matter. That’s the message I got from this report.

      Canada asked firms to help kill U.S. green policies

  24. Himalayan glaciers? Check the Pontifical report
    Last two sentences:
    “But time is short. Warming and associated effects in the Earth System caused by the cumulative CO2 emissions that remain in the atmosphere for millennia may soon become unmanageable.”

    A comment above brings up the denier fetish with hockey sticks and even brazenly quotes from McIntyre & McKitrick (known as M&M). M&M purport to refute the hockey stick, but their methods are unsound at best. Upon closer examination stemming from examination of the infamous Wegman report, M&M is a complete crock:

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