Thursday, February 11, 2010

A steady drip of unsettling errors is exposing what scientists are calling “the weaker link” in the Nobel Peace Prize-winning series of international reports on global warming.

The flaws - and the erosion they’ve caused in public confidence - have some scientists calling for drastic changes in how future United Nations climate reports are done. A push for reform being published in Thursday’s issue of a prestigious scientific journal comes on top of a growing clamor for the resignation of the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The work of the climate change panel, or IPCC, is often portrayed as one massive tome. But it really is four separate reports on different aspects of global warming written months apart by distinct groups of scientists.

No errors have surfaced in the first and most well-known of the reports, which said the physics of a warming atmosphere and rising seas is man-made and incontrovertible. So far, four mistakes have been discovered in the second report, which attempts to translate what global warming might mean to daily living around the world.

“A lot of stuff in there was just not very good,” said Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a lead author of the first report. “A chronic problem is that on the whole area of impacts, getting into the realm of social science, it is a softer science. The facts are not as good.”

The problems found in the IPCC 2007 reports so far are:

c In the Asian chapter, five errors in a single entry on glaciers in Himalayas say those glaciers would disappear by 2035 hundreds of years earlier than other information suggests with no research backing it up. It used an advocacy group as a source. It also erroneously said the Himalayan glaciers were melting faster than other glaciers.

c A sentence in the chapter on Europe says 55 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level, when it’s really about half that amount.

c A section in the Africa chapter that talks about northern African agriculture says climate change and normal variability could reduce crop yields. But it gets oversimplified in later summaries so that lower projected crop yields are blamed solely on climate change.

c There’s been a longstanding dispute about weather extremes and economics. The second report says there are more weather disasters now because of climate change and that it is costing more. The debate continues over whether it is fair to say increased disaster costs are due to global warming or other societal factors such as increased development in hurricane-prone areas.

In Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature, four IPCC authors call for reform, such as the outright dumping of the panel itself in favor of an effort modeled after Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. A fifth author, writing in Nature, argues the IPCC rules are fine but need to be better enforced.

In response, Chris Field of Stanford University, the new head of the second report team, said that he welcomes the scrutiny and vows stricter enforcement of rules to check sources to eliminate errors in future reports; those are to be produced by the IPCC starting in 2013.

That second report - which examines current effects of global warming and forecasts future ones on people, plants, animals and society - at times relied on government reports or even advocacy group reports instead of peer-reviewed research. Scientists say that’s because there is less hard data on global warming’s effects.

Nine experts told the Associated Press that the second report - because of the nature of what it examines - doesn’t rely on standards as high or literature as deep as the more quoted first report. And they cite communication problems between lead authors of different reports, making it harder to spot errors.

The result is that the document on the effects of climate change promotes the worst of nightmares and engages in purposeful hyping, said longtime skeptic John Christy of the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

David King, Britain’s former chief scientific adviser who once lectured at the University of East Anglia, home to the climate center where scientists’ e-mails were hacked, said that scandal laid bare the weaknesses in the IPCC. In a telephone interview, he said those who challenged the IPCC’s assessment “are seen to be rocking the boat, and this in my view is extremely unfortunate.”

Scientists - including top U.S. government officials - argue that the bulk of the reports are sound.

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