Global Warming’s Glacial Blunder

By Rusty Wright

“World misled over Himalayan glacier meltdown,” declared the disturbing headline in The Sunday Times of London.

Apparently a distressing 2007 prediction by a major UN climate change panel – that many Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035 – was a huge goof based on sources not thoroughly vetted.

The UN panel recently admitted its mistake.

It’s a significant embarrassment for the panel, which exists to provide quality scientific information on climate change and its implications.  This tragicomedy of errors can get confusing.  Here’s a Cliffs Notes version.

Speculation or Fact?

The UN panel’s prediction referenced an environmental NGO (non-governmental organization) report, which in turn cited a popular science magazine’s news article, which used remarks from an Indian scientist who, the magazine now asserts, now calls his comment speculation.

Sound like tales spreading through your neighborhood or office?  These are big players with significant stakes.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.  In lauding the IPCC’s mobilization of scientific knowledge about climate change, the Nobel presenter said, “Similar procedures to the IPCC’s should be considered as ways of approaching problems also in other fields.”

The NGO, global environmental group WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund—the panda people), now has issued a major retraction of their 2005 warning about Himalayan glacier melting projections, saying they failed to double-check the primary source. 

The secondary source WWF cited was a 1999 New Scientist magazine news article featuring an Indian scientist’s views that many Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 because of global warming.  New Scientist now says the Indian scientist “has never repeated the prediction in a peer-reviewed journal” and that he now calls his own statement “speculative.”  The scientist says he was “misquoted.”

Some scientists also suggest that “2035” may represent inaccurate copying of “2350” from another report.  Sound like a mess?

Controversial Warning

Himalayan glaciers supply fresh water to rivers that impact millions of people in South Asia.  The IPCC’s 2007 glacier statement warned:

“Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world … 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.”

A prominent Indian glaciologist disputed the IPCC 2007 statement in a 2009 Indian government report.  IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri shot back, calling the report “voodoo science” that lacked peer review.

Voodoo Science?


The IPCC glacier prediction itself lacked peer review, something central to IPCC’s mission

The Times notes that the WWF report which the IPCC cited “was a campaigning report rather than an academic paper so it was not subjected to any formal scientific review.”

After the prediction recently unraveled, the IPCC, while still concerned about glacier melting, called the prediction “poorly substantiated” and said “clear and well-established standards of evidence … were not applied properly” in this case.

Getting to the Truth

Getting to the truth can require persistent, discerning questions and multiple critiquers.  I’m reminded of a biblical proverb: “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out.”  Another says, “There is safety in having many advisers.”

Trent University (Ontario, Canada) geographer Graham Cogley, who helped uncover the mistake, laments that “nobody who studied this material bothered chasing the trail back to the original point when the claim first arose.”

All this comes on the heels of another controversy, variously dubbed “ClimateGate” and “SwiftHack, in which hacked emails suggest some scientists may have sought to conceal data that did not support their climate change views.

This global warming debate is getting curiouser and curiouser.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2010 Rusty Wright