Sunday, January 17, 2010

Good news for the world; bad news for the IPCC

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.

(Potentially embarrassing news for the IPCC, which should have got this - glaring - error, but good news for people living in Asia - the rate of melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas seems to be considerably less than anticipated in the latest IPCC prediction - ultimately giving the world more time to do something about it). The rest of the article is here.

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