Mistakes

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?