Published May 14, 2010
AMSTERDAM – AMSTERDAM (AP) — A dozen eminent scientists began reviewing the work of the Nobel-winning U.N. science body on climate change Friday, determined to eliminate errors that have bolstered skeptics who claim global warming is a hoax.
After undergoing withering attacks for sloppy work, the chairman of the U.N. panel, Rajendra Pachauri, defended the thousands of scientists who have contributed to the seminal reports issued every five or six years since 1990, but told the review committee he will welcome proposals to tighten the panel's checks and balances.
"We will be grateful for any suggestion to make this as foolproof as is humanly possible," he said.
Pachauri, who has headed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for eight years, said the IPCC has no mechanism to respond to errors or flaws once its reports are published. The scientific panels are then disbanded, clearing the way for new groups to begin working on the next report.
If a problem crops up "we don't know where to go," he said. The scientists who compiled the report "might be out fishing. How do you get in touch with them?" A delay of even a couple of days is unacceptable, he said.
"We need to develop an ability and a capacity to communicate better with the outside world," he said.
Harold Shapiro, a former Princeton University president who heads the review committee, said a preliminary report will be released by Sept. 1 on the IPCC's methods of gathering, synthesizing and reviewing data.
The prestigious 12-member committee will study specific errors in the latest report. "We will look at what happened and try to understand why," he told reporters. The committee intended to hear a broad range of opinion, including critics of the IPCC, and opened its web site for public submissions.
The IPCC's voluminous "Assessment Reports" are credited with raising the alarm that human emissions of greenhouse gases already have led to a gradual warming of the globe, and if unchecked could lead to catastrophic changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels and the extinction of about one-third of the species on Earth.
The reports are signed by governments, and inform both national policy and international negotiations on an agreement on fighting climate change. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
But its reports have been dismissed by climate skeptics who say the scientists overestimate the effect of the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mostly from industry and vehicles, and underplay the Earth's natural cycles of warming and cooling, which cannot be controlled. IPCC supporters say many of its critics are invested in the fossil fuel industry.
The IPCC also has been criticized for rejecting reports that appeared to offer evidence contradicting the underlying assumptions of climate change.
In an incident known as Climategate, a series of e-mails stolen last year from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in Britain showed climate scientists berating the skeptics and discussing ways to keep their research out of peer-reviewed journals. However, at least two independent reviews of the 1,000 leaked e-mails absolved the scientists of scientific malpractice.
Still, doubters were again bolstered this year by a series of errors uncovered in the IPCC's 2007 report.
Pachauri told the committee's first review meeting that the panel's conclusions are valid, even in areas where mistakes were discovered.
Pointing to the most glaring error, a claim that the world's glaciers will melt by 2035, Pachauri said glaciers are indeed melting, though not that fast. Nonetheless, glacial melt accounts for 28 percent of sea level rise, and the panel's assessment on glaciers contains "a lot of facts which we can ignore at our peril."
Shapiro declined to speculate how procedures may be tightened up, saying the committee had just begun its work.
IPCC reports already go through laborious vetting. Divided into three groups according to subject, more than 150 designated authors in each group recruit hundreds more experts and editors to sift through thousands of scientific papers. In 2007, some 2,500 scientists were involved — all are volunteers or working additionally in other jobs.
Each report goes through three drafts and reviews before it is submitted to governments, which negotiate the final text.
Though arduous, the process is subject to human error.
The 2007 chapter on Europe, for example, states 55 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level. In fact, only about half that is below sea level, but a total of 55 percent of Holland is vulnerable to flooding, including river basins. It was unclear whether the error was in the original paper or was inserted after it was submitted to the IPCC.
Nearly 20,000 papers were reviewed for the 2007 report, and Pachauri said he expected that figure to climb to 60,000 for the next report, to be issued in 2013-14. The next batch of lead authors will be chosen next month, and work will begin in earnest this year.