The controversy over errors in the IPCC's assessment of climate change have people asking whether it's all a beat-up. But where's the peer reviewed evidence that no risk exists, asks one of the IPCC's authors

As has been well reported recently by the media, several errors have emerged from the IPCC 4th Assessment Report (AR4) published in 2007. Since the three main volumes each contain around 600 pages of text based on a detailed analysis of thousands of scientific papers and reports, then it is perhaps not surprising that an occasional mistake has been made. After all, it was written and published by humans, and humans, whether doctors or pilots or IPCC authors, do occasionally make mistakes.

The IPCC writing process is unique. To illustrate this, let’s take the Energy Supply chapter of the “Mitigation” volume of the AR4 (for which I was the co-ordinating lead author). My team of 14 authors, (selected by the IPCC from numerous nominations as proposed by governments from around the world, and then approved at a plenary meeting attended by maybe 150 member countries), wrote the “zero-order-draft” of the chapter over several months. The text produced was a summary of the current knowledge taken from the literature and presented in an unbiased way.

Where there is uncertainty, or a scientific debate on a specific topic is in progress, then these are reported in the text. This draft, along with the other 10 chapter drafts, was circulated around the whole team of maybe 150 authors for them to look for gaps and overlaps. It was then rewritten and the “first-order-draft” sent out for review to hundreds of experts from around the world. Their comments were discussed by the author team, a response to each was recorded (e.g accepted; declined because….;  not relevant to the topic) and these responses were saved by the IPCC Technical Support Unit in case subsequent queries were made.

The “second-order-draft” was then prepared incorporating these review comments, and sent out again to more expert reviewers as well as to government officials. Their comments were again reviewed then incorporated into a revised text that became the final draft. My chapter alone received over 5000 comments that each needed a written response.

It was at this late stage of the writing process for the “Adaptation” volume of the AR4 that the “Glaciergate” comment – an erroneous claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 – was added to the text, possibly as a result of a reviewer’s suggestion.

The error made by the author of this section was to have not adequately checked that particular reference prior to amending the text and including it. But then he or she was human, and probably, like most authors, under tight deadlines and also with a full-time position to maintain.

An error has also recently been found in my Energy Supply chapter, as reported in the British Sunday Telegraph recently.  Somebody had gone to the trouble to find out that a figure of a map of the world showing the various average annual wave power density fluxes (kW/m2) along the coastlines of the continents, had three or four numbers differing from the original version that can be found on the referenced web site.

I have been through all the drafts of the chapter since then and the correct version of the map exists in all of them. Therefore, the only explanation for this error was that when the figures were redrawn by the publisher of the final report, the graphic artist, (also probably a human!), made some errors that were not subsequently picked up.

Interestingly, the incorrect numbers made absolutely no difference to the text which simply states, “The best wave-energy climates (Figure 4.16) have deep-water power densities of 60–70 kW/m but fall to about 20 kW/m at the foreshore. Around 2% of the world’s 800,000 km of coastline exceeds 30 kW/m, giving a technical potential of around 500 GW assuming offshore wave-energy devices have 40% efficiency.”

Hardly a headline grabbing statement, with or without the errors appearing on the revised figure – and certainly not critical enough to make it into the Synthesis Report (that brings the Climate Science, Adaptation and Mitigation volumes together) or into the “Summary for Policy Makers” (SPM) of the Mitigation volume.

The SPM process is worthy of note. The 600 pages of text was edited by lead authors down to a Technical Summary of around 70 pages and also to the SPM. These 28 paragraphs were then presented sentence by sentence to, in this example, 154 teams of national climate negotiators, some of up to ten people, others of only one. Unanimous approval needed to be sought on each sentence, which is why the operation took over four days to complete. The single sentence on nuclear power, for example , took over 6 hours to gain agreement, and even then at 2.30 in the morning, Austria could not agree, as was shown in the SPM footnote.

The key point relating to the SPM is that every statement has to be backed up by details reported in the main text. With over 1000 people in the room following proceedings, including representatives from NGOs, industry, civil society, etc. there was little chance to bias the scientifically-based summary findings as some people have claimed.

So the questions beg:  Who is digging very deeply into the AR4 looking for errors over three years after it was first published? What is their ambition? Are they trying to undermine the IPCC process? Who, if anyone, is paying them to do it?  Has the media now unjustly brought into question the whole of climate science as a result of these relatively minor errors?

There is no doubt that IPCC authors, like virtually all other authors, have made a few errors. There is no doubt the IPCC process, like any scientific analysis, must be totally transparent and open to critique and question by climate sceptics, the media, policy makers and the public at large. There is certainly a good case for reviewing the whole IPCC process to see if it can be improved and hence try and avoid such errors in the future as far as is humanly possible.

But surely the most critical question of all is whether the threat of climate change, as presented by the science, has been now shown to be lower than was originally thought. If we take out of the equation the East Anglia models (accepting that such e-mails as reported were somewhat bizarre); the erroneous glacier report; the poorly analysed African food paper; the ocean energy potential error; and any other errors maybe still to be uncovered out of the thousands of pages, then can someone now produce a scientific paper arguing that there is NO RISK to mankind from anthropogenic climate change?

Science, like medicine and insurance, is largely based on risks and probabilities. If the current knowledge of, say, bone cancer, informs a patient that there is only a 20% chance you will survive without having an operation but a 90% chance you will be bed-bound if you have one, it is not an easy choice to make. Do nothing might be the best option. If current scientific knowledge is telling us that there is “high agreement and much evidence” that the world is warming, most probably due to human influence, certainly we still need to question the science and gather more information as time goes on. But do we do nothing and just hope it all goes away?

For those who have uncovered the errors in the AR4, I for one am extremely grateful. We must always be willing to learn from our mistakes. The fact that they were not picked up earlier during the stringent IPCC review process makes it all the more important that they have been now.

I would be extremely grateful if those involved, obviously with enough time available to go through the report in such detail, would be willing to become reviewers of the 5th Assessment Report, or indeed the IPCC “Special Report on Renewable Energy” that is currently under review at its first-order-draft stage. Their input would be invaluable to help find any errors overlooked by us lesser humans so that corrections can be made prior to publication.

 

Prof. Ralph Sims is the director of Massey University's School Centre for Energy Research.

Comments (18)

by Claire Browning on February 19, 2010
Claire Browning

Ralph,

thank you.

by Tom Harris on February 19, 2010
Tom Harris

Ralph Sims asks, "can someone now produce a scientific paper arguing that there is NO RISK to mankind from anthropogenic climate change?"

 

This makes no sense and is not the way science works.  It is the proposers of a hypothesis that must be held to account to defend their hypothesis, not those of us who are skeptical about it.  After all, if what Mr. Sims says was the way science DID work then we should be preparing for alien invasion unless "someone can now produce a scientific paper arguing that there is NO RISK to mankind from alien invasion."

Tom Harris

International Climate Science Coalition

by Tom Harris on February 19, 2010
Tom Harris

Ralph Sims also writes, "There is no doubt the IPCC process, like any scientific analysis, must be totally transparent and open to critique and question by climate sceptics, the media, policy makers and the public at large."

Yes, he is quite correct which is why it is so disappointing that the UN has still not responded to, or even acknowledged, the International Climate Science Coalitions' Copenhagen Climate Challenge one can see at the following URL:

http://www.copenhagenclimatechallenge.org/

In this open letter, signed now by over 160 leaders in the field from many countries, we ask for the underlying data, the observational evidence, for the UN's claims of catastrophic human-caused climate change. The recent 'gates' (Climategate, Glaciergate, Pachurigate, Amazongate and now Weathergate) seem to tell us why they do not want to share much of the underlying data.

Tom Harris

Executive Director

International Climate Science Coalition http://www.climatescienceinternational.org

by Andrew Geddis on February 20, 2010
Andrew Geddis

"After all, if what Mr. Sims says was the way science DID work then we should be preparing for alien invasion unless "someone can now produce a scientific paper arguing that there is NO RISK to mankind from alien invasion.""

All due respect, Tom, but that is a completely facile analogy. Of course if someone were to claim we are at imminent risk of alien invasion, the rational response is "show me the evidence" - and in the absence of any such evidence, the rational response is to discount the claim. But with AGW there is both a hypothesis ("human activity is causing the globe to warm, which will cause climate change, which poses a catastrophic risk to life as we know it") and a large (and growing) body of corroborating evidence that has been published in peer reviewed scientific journals (which are the relevant testing ground for such hypothesis - not blogs, op-ed columns, or letters signed by "concerned persons").

Given this body of corroborating evidence, those who claim the AGW hypothesis is false must either:

(i) Demonstrate that this evidence is faulty/has been misread; or,

(ii) Propose an alternative hypothesis that accounts for this evidence without reference to AGW theories.

And what is more, they must do so in the pages of peer reviewed scientific journals - because (once again) this is the relevant testing ground for scientific hypothesis ... via the scrutiny and
(potential) replication by those engaged in the relevant discipline. If you can't achieve such peer reviewed publication, then you haven't met the relevant standards of the scientific community - which provides the best means we know of determining the truth about whether and why the climate is changing.

So with all due respect to your various "gates", these are simply attempts to score political points and an attempt to win in the field of public opinion a battle you apparently cannot win in the scientific realm. Or, to put it another way, if the data supporting AGW really is so flawed, where are all the eager young turk scientists publishing their papers in an effort to become known as the man/woman who changed scientific history? Because they exist in every other academic field ... or do you posit a conspiracy theory so deep that (virtually) every climate scientist is in on the game? And note - conflict over the IPCC process does NOT equate to disagreement over whether AGW is a supported hypothesis ... it simply is a disagreement over what bureaucratic form the investigation ought to take.

by Nathan Schmidt on February 20, 2010
Nathan Schmidt

Ralph Sims states that:

"It was at this late stage of the writing process for the “Adaptation” volume of the AR4 that the “Glaciergate” comment – an erroneous claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 – was added to the text, possibly as a result of a reviewer’s suggestion." 

Mr. Sims apparently did not make the effort to check his facts. Drafts and review comments of Working Group 2 chapters are available at:

http://www.ipcc-wg2.gov/publications/AR4/ar4review.html

The statement regarding Himalayan glacier melt by 2035 is present in the First Order Draft (Section 10.6.2) and was not added at a "late stage" or "as a result of a reviewer's suggestion".

Sloppy... but I guess we've come to expect that.

by Tom Harris on February 20, 2010
Tom Harris

Lots of obvious problems with lawyer Andrew Gibbs' post so I'll leave it to others to pick it apart.

Nathan Schmidt's post is interesting and a quick click on his link reveals the inner workings of how the IPCC handles reveiwers comments.  Here is one example:

Original statement in the First Order Draft and the Second Order Draft: “Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.10 below) and, if the present rate continues, the likihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. The glaciers will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates. Its total area will shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035."

Of course there are several mistakes here:

1 – the 2035 date

2 – the table 10.10 had the Pindari Glacier retreating by 135.2 m per year for the claimed 2840 meters between 1845 and 1966. It is really 23.5 m/year IF the 2840 m retreat is correct

3 – the total area of the Himalayan Glaciers are not 500,000 km2 – The approximate area of the Himalayan glaciers is 33,000 km2

4 - The first sentence predicts a 100% loss while the third sentence predicts an 80% loss.

Interestingly, no one commented on any of these mistakes in the First Order Draft comments. They even got through the expert comments in the SOR. It was not until the Government comments of the SOR that the Government of Japan commented:

“What is the confidence level/certainty? (i.e likelihood of the glaciers disappearing is very high” is at which level of likelihood? (ref. to Box TS-1, “Description of Likelihood”). Also in this paragraph, the use of “will” is ambiguous and should be replaced with appropriate likelihood/confidence level terminology.

The official IPCC response to this comment was: “the Appropriate revisions and editing made.”

After this editing:

1 – sentence 1 remained unchanged

2 – sentence 2 was removed

3 – the word “likely” was added to sentence 3 after “will”

4 – the reference “(WWF, 2005)” was added at the end of the paragraph.

So, the statement became: “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005)."

So, yes, indeed, Nathan is correct and the original article wrong - various mistakes showed up as early as the First Order draft and were let go even though the Japanese brought this whole section to the IPCC's attention (they brought up other problems with this section 10.6.2 of the Working Group 2 report as well that I'll detail later if I have time).

Tom Harris

http://www.climatescienceinternational.org/

 

 

by Tom Harris on February 20, 2010
Tom Harris

Correction to my first sentence of the last post - it should have been "Andrew Geddis, Associate Professor Faculty of Law University of Otago", not "lawyer Andrew Gibbs"

by Andrew Geddis on February 20, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Gosh, Tom ... see how easy it is to make a mistatement of fact, minor and inconsequential as it may be in the light of your overall thesis? Of course, one would NEVER seek to say that this single error invalidates every part of your argument that follows it, no matter what other evidence you can bring to bear. Because that would be, you know, a bit silly.

While we're on the subject of "mistakes", what's your view on climate change denialists who just make stuff up (including one Viscount Monckton, who is a member of the Policy Advisory Board of your own organisation)? Because if one single error means that all claims from that source are not to be believed (which appears to be the sole thrust of your argument above), then doesn't that mean both AGW and AGW-denial should be regarded as false? Which would seem to indicate there is a logical flaw in your entire method of argument - perhaps you need to reassess how we should weigh the truth of AGW claims?

But no doubt this comment also is full of "obvious problems" - let's just let others decide that.

by Tom Harris on February 20, 2010
Tom Harris

Hmm, lets see if I follow your logic:

The IPCC made serious mistakes in tax-payer funded critically important science information dissemination that has led governments and other entities to spend billions of dollars, mistakes that were not corrected for years even though experts had advised the head of the IPCC that they were indeed mistakes.  Mistakes that have been repeated ad nausium by main stream media sources all over the world as part of the justification for spending yet more billions trying to stop a supposed global catastrophe.

I made a mistake in the spelling of your name in a post to a relatively obscure discussion on a Web site, something I corrected within seconds.

You aren't seriously equating those two episodes, are you?

by Ralph Sims on February 20, 2010
Ralph Sims

Thanks Andrew and Tom for the debate.

What worries me is:

if Tom and his ICSC colleagues are utimately proved right (even against all the scientific evidence as I see it), then many of the mitigation solutions being proposed make good sense anyway in terms of energy security, improved health, sustainable development and growth, employment prospects etc etc. So we win regardless.

If Tom and ICSC are wrong, but we take no adaptation measures to combat the perceived risks until it is too late, then we lose.

Does ICSC really want to take that risk? I certainly am not prepared to. 

by Andrew Geddis on February 21, 2010
Andrew Geddis

As I said, Tom, "one would NEVER seek to say that this single error invalidates every part of your argument that follows it, no matter what other evidence you can bring to bear."

A position I'm sure you also follow. That being so, given that I accept you have identified flaws in how this one single piece of evidence was presented, I now await your similar debunking of the rest of the IPCC report. Because otherwise one might suspect you are overplaying a single incident (or, one of a small handful of incidents) far beyond its true significance.

And as we're being such sticklers for absolute honesty and accuracy in argument, when will you be demanding Lord Monckton resigns from your advisory board? Or are his inaccuracies forgivable as they are on the side of right?

by stuart munro on February 21, 2010
stuart munro

It would on the whole be nice to see a more pragmatic approach the whole issue of climate change. It is not the positioning of semicolons nor the number of peer reviewers on either side that ultimately determines the merit of the exercise, but the quality, efficiency and volume of actual mitigation measures.

To date, both sides seem determined to prove Jared Diamond's thesis about the inability of social elites to constructively engage with long term problems of their own making. Such problems might be better avoided.

by Tim Watkin on February 22, 2010
Tim Watkin

Tom, I'd love to hear your response to Andrew's challenges re sceptics who have been caught in error or simply making stuff up. Are you game to offer an answer?

Also, to return to your first point re the climate change scientists to prove their hypothesis, it lacks credibility. A vast international body of experts has been created to do just that, and has been doing it for many years. Sceptics have found handful of largely technical errors, but the body of proof you're demanding is much larger than any evidence to the contrary.

As for the claim you don't need to prove anything, well, how can you call yourself a scientist then? And how can I take your 'evidence' seriously? If there's no onus on you to make your case, then you're just a knocker.

In truth, you do have a hypothesis of sorts (climate change not being created by humans, but by nature, urbanisation etc). You're asking me to risk my planet, so on behalf of my son, I'd like some pretty good proof from you, please. Why don't you experiment, replicate and then publish your results? Why not be a scientist?

by Tim Watkin on February 22, 2010
Tim Watkin

Oh, and Nathan, same point... Rather than trying to make everyday human slips into 'gotcha' moments (and I've no idea whether Ralph has mis-remembered or you've misinterpreted in this instance), why not go away and test your hypothesis?

by Nathan Schmidt on February 22, 2010
Nathan Schmidt

Tim,

My assertion is verifiable at the link I provided. If you care to check it, you can change "I've no idea" to "I see". Perhaps you could also ask Ralph whether he misremembered, was told by someone else, or just stated it without checking (possibly because it sounded "plausible"). Ralph might be able to enlighten us, but for some reason he didn't care to do so when he posted his last response.

I also find the following bit of Ralph's article extremely offensive:

So the questions beg:  Who is digging very deeply into the AR4 looking for errors over three years after it was first published? What is their ambition? Are they trying to undermine the IPCC process? Who, if anyone, is paying them to do it?  Has the media now unjustly brought into question the whole of climate science as a result of these relatively minor errors?

Is it beyond comprehension that laymen might be curious about the facts behind proposed regulations and international treaties that could affect their lives? Or that a scientist or engineer might be concerned that information they rely on isn't quite up to snuff? The big oil bogeyman argument just doesn't cut it.

As for your suggestion of shifting responsibility for testing hypotheses to the critics, I find it quite ridiculous. There is no shortage of funding and infrastructure set up to examine the questions surrounding climate change. Clean up that cesspool first.   

by Tim Watkin on February 22, 2010
Tim Watkin

Nathan, that's a cop out. You've got a theory, so prove it. As you say, there's a lot of money being spent investigating climate change by a range of independent scientists all over the world...  I guess your problem is that the vast majority of what it finds disgarees with you.

But there's also a lot of money and effort going into these supposed 'gotchas'. Wouldn't you rather that was spent positively on testing your beliefs? Y'know, science?

For me, I assume some human error in even peer reviewed work. So there's no great conspiracy on display in these recent revelations. What convinces me at this point is evidence done by thousands of independent minds according to a global, scientific, peer reviewed standard. Where's yours?

by Nathan Schmidt on February 23, 2010
Nathan Schmidt

Tim (or is it Eleanor? for several hours the last statement was posted under your wife's name),

I don't recall stating here that I have an alternative theory. I've pointed out an error in the article that is consistent with errors present in the IPCC report. And I've stated that as a stakeholder, I have a right to question and criticize.

I observe that the ex-chairman of the IPCC agrees with me:

“We should always be challenged by sceptics,” he said. “The IPCC’s job is to weigh up the evidence. If it can’t be dismissed, it should be included in the report. Point out it’s in the minority and, if you can’t say why it’s wrong, just say it’s a different view.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article7026932.ece

The suggestion that I have a responsibility to undertake my own research program is nothing but a straw man argument to divert attention from the mistake in the article and from the biases and bad practices exhibited by the IPCC and its contributors.

by Ralph Sims on February 24, 2010
Ralph Sims

Sorry not to get back sooner - am in Europe on business (and before anybody asks, my air travel is offset).

Re Nathan's comment; my text should have stated (OK, yes another error made in my haste I accept):

It was at this late stage of the writing process for the “Adaptation” volume of the AR4 that the “Glaciergate” comment – an erroneous claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 – that the WWF 2005 reference was added to the text, possibly as a result of a reviewer’s suggestion."

My knowledge of this was taken from an internal IPCC presentation made soon after the issue first arose.

Re Tom's comment:

"I also find the following bit of Ralph's article extremely offensive:

So the questions beg:  Who is digging very deeply into the AR4 looking for errors over three years after it was first published? What is their ambition? Are they trying to undermine the IPCC process? Who, if anyone, is paying them to do it?  Has the media now unjustly brought into question the whole of climate science as a result of these relatively minor errors?"

Only a few basic queries being raised, so I can not see how that was being offensive to anyone.

But in response I'll return to the wave energy error (that has now been confirmed to be a publication error as I outlined and will soon be put right on the IPCC web site I understand). In order to find this error, somebody had the time to read through the AR4 report, to take the trouble to source the Wavegen web site, then spend some time comparing in detail around 100 numbers (I've not counted them before anyone corrects me!). To identify the differences between the two figures would have been like doing one of those newspaper "Spot the Difference" puzzles. "Voila!"

To turn that into a news worthy headline was simply amazing journalism!

And I agree fully with Bob Watson's comment quoted in the last posting. That is exactly what the role of the IPCC is all about – but entirely based on the literature (ideally peer-reviewed where feasible), not on the views of individuals or their organisations.

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