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Series of missteps by climate scientists threatens climate-change agenda

The U.N. report said huge glaciers in the Himalayas may disappear by 2035. Glaciers are melting, but not that fast, one scientist said.
The U.N. report said huge glaciers in the Himalayas may disappear by 2035. Glaciers are melting, but not that fast, one scientist said. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/associated Press)

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"The underlying science is certainly there, but the citation process the IPCC went through is sloppy. There's no other word for it," said Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The IPCC did not respond to requests for comment.

Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist and environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, said that the U.N. panel could hurt its own public standing by not admitting how it exaggerated certain climate risks or connections, such as linking higher insurance payouts to rising temperatures when other factors are driving this trend.

"The idea that the IPCC can or should strive to be infallible is really not helpful," Pielke said. "When errors and mistakes are inevitably found, the fall is that much further. . . . There's a real risk that the public perception could swing [toward greater disbelief in climate science]. Even though the reality is that the science -- the underlying science -- hasn't changed."

The error about the Netherlands was in a background note in the 2007 report that said 55 percent of the country lay below sea level, but that figure included areas that were actually above sea level and prone to flooding.

U.N. Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth, whose nonprofit group has highlighted the work of the IPCC, said that the pirated e-mails gave "an opening" to attack climate science and that the scientific work "has to be defended just like evolution has to be defended."

It is unclear whether the controversy will hamper passage of a bill to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which has stalled in the Senate. Paul W. Bledsoe, of the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, said that if people want to know why the "bill is having a hard time in the Senate, I would rank [concern about climate science] lower than the economy and the financial meltdown."

Scientists are debating whether they need to revamp the IPCC process or scrap it. The journal Nature published an opinion section Thursday in which several researchers floated ideas on how to change the U.N. panel, along with a piece written by Moss and others showing how scientists could increase collaboration across disciplines to produce more accurate climate projections more quickly.

And Christopher Field -- co-chair of the second working group for the IPCC's next assessment -- said the panel needs to improve its fact-checking, even if it means enlisting report contributors' students to help do the job.

"My goal is to produce a report that's 100 percent error-free, to the maximum extent possible," he said. "The fact that the IPCC runs on volunteer labor makes it a challenge, but it's too important a challenge to ignore."


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