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Green Smoke and Mirrors? Vatican Weighs in on Climate Change

Koettlitz Glacier

A satellite image of the Koettlitz Glacer in Antarctica.NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

A scientific branch of the Vatican is touting a climate-change report that fears for the fate of the world's glaciers, appearing to support an erroneous conclusion from the United Nations' climate panel that skeptics have loudly debunked.

But the Vatican's authors are some of the same people responsible for the U.N. error, even including Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the U.N.'s climate group and the man behind the 2007 report that feared "the likelihood of [the Himalayan glaciers] disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner."

The facts behind that assertion quickly melted away, with Pachauri himself admitting that "poorly substantiated estimates" had made it into print. But like his 2007 U.N. study, Pachauri's 2011 Vatican report, titled "Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene," again frets over the fate of the glaciers -- and it cites his U.N. report as evidence.

The new report, commissioned by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, notes that "thousands of small glaciers in the Hindukush-Himalayan-Tibetan region continue to disintegrate," and states that "robust scenario calculations clearly indicate that many mountain ranges worldwide could lose major parts of their glaciers within the coming decades."

Noted climate skeptic Don Easterbrook, an emeritus professor of geology at Western Washington University, is one vocal critic of these and other conclusions on the fate of the world's glaciers.

"The [U.N.]-predicted warming of 1 degree between 2000 and the present has not happened -- instead it's gotten cooler!" he told FoxNews.com. "As a result, some glaciers in the Himalayas have begun advancing, and glaciers in Alaska, Norway, and South America have also begun to re-advance."

"Pachauri is very intolerant of any point on climate change that isn't his," Patrick J. Michaels, a contributing author on the U.N. report and a senior fellow with the conservative CATO Institute, told FoxNews.com. "He makes statements that are just wrong, because he's not a climate scientist," he said.

Pachauri did not respond to FoxNews.com requests for more information, sent through his U.N. climate group. Neither did the climate group itself nor the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences return FoxNews.com requests. But a Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, did tell the Associated Press that the document was "important," although it was not a piece of the church's key teachings.

Other climate scientists agreed with the new report. Graham Cogley, geography professor with Trent University, agreed that the 2007 prediction that Himalayan glaciers might disappear by 2035 was flat wrong -- but not the current claims.

"It is a dire prediction to say that mountain glaciers are 'lethally vulnerable' to climatic change, but it is literally and unquestionably correct," he told FoxNews.com. Michaels was more skeptical.

"Why resources collected from parishioners were used for this is beyond me," Michaels told FoxNews.com. "There has been an increasing tendency over the years for churches to insert themselves into the global warming thing," he added.

Well-known climate scientist Michael Mann thought the report may indicate shifting beliefs within the church.

I actually attended a meeting of the Pontifical Academy (World Federation of Scientists) in Erice, Sicily, back in late August 2003," Mann told FoxNews.com. "At the time, the president of the organization, Antonio Zichichi, was a climate-change skeptic."

"Zichichi has the ear of the Vatican on all matters of science and science policy. So I interpret this as, perhaps, a change of heart on his part," Mann told FoxNews.com. "In any case, this is indeed a significant (and in my view auspicious) development."

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a Vatican advisory panel, was founded under a different name in Rome in 1603, and claims to be the first exclusively scientific academy in the world. The Pontifical Academicians are eighty women and men from various countries nominated by the Supreme Pontiff. (The exact relation between the World Federation of Scientists and the Pontifical Academy was unclear.)

The Academy hosted the conference last month on the causes and consequences of retreating mountain glaciers. Its final report, dated May 5 and signed by a group of climate scientists, hydrologists, chemists, lawyers and mountaineers, was posted on the Vatican website Tuesday.

The group also noted that another major risk to glaciers is the threat of nuclear war, and advocated a reduction in nuclear arsenals.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.