‘Glaciergate’ all hot air

Climate scientists insist that climate change is as much a reality as ever, despite the storm that has erupted over a United Nations climb-down over the rate of glacier melt in the Himalayas.

Last week the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change apologised for including untested research in its 2007 report claiming the Himalayan glaciers could melt completely by 2035. Climate sceptics have pounced on the admission.

The panel won the Nobel peace prize in 2007 for its four reports assessing global warming.

Climate scientists pointed to a release by the United States space agency, Nasa, last week saying that the past decade had been the warmest on record. In addition, The Guardian reports that according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), annual results from monitoring in nine mountain ranges on four continents have confirmed that most glaciers are continuing to melt at historically high rates.

The director of the WGMS, Wilfried Haeberli, said: “It’s less extreme [than in previous years] but what’s really important is the trend of 10 years or so, and that shows an unbroken acceleration in melting.”

The most vulnerable glaciers were those in lower ranges such as the Alps and the Pyrenees in Europe, in Africa, in parts of the Andes in South and Central America, and in the Rockies in North America.

Glacier melt is viewed as a major gauge of global warming.

The UN panel came in for more stick at the weekend when Britain’s Sunday Times criticised it for including an unpublished scientific paper linking natural disasters to climate change. The paper had not been peer reviewed at the time, the newspaper said.

And this week it was again hauled over the coals by a conservative British daily, The Telegraph, which reported that the panel’s predictions regarding the depletion of the Amazon rainforest were based on Worldwide Fund for Nature reports that had not been peer reviewed.

Panel spokesperson Brenda Abrar-Milani hit back at the Sunday Times, insisting that the paper had incorrectly assumed “that the [research paper in question] is everything the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007) has to say about changes in extremes and disasters.”

“In fact, the fourth assessment report reaches many important conclusions, at many locations, about the role of climate change in extreme events,” Abrar-Milani said.

Guy Midgley, a South African scientist on the panel, conceded that in drafting the paragraph on Himalayan glaciers, “the clear and well-established standards of evidence required by the IPCC procedures were not applied properly”.

However, the glacier claims appeared in only one of the 1000-page working-group reports, and not in the “summary for policy­makers” documents that are the most heavily scrutinised of all the panel’s products.

All four of the summary documents pass through an additional intensive plenary review.

“It is almost impossible that this statement would have survived this final scrutiny if it had been included,” Midgley said. “The error is a serious one in the context of the Himalayan region, but a minor one in the global context.

“In fact, one could argue that the IPCC report is far more seriously underestimating some risks, such as sea-level rise, because findings became available on this issue after the deadline for including them in the last assessment report.”

He believed the controversy would sharpen the focus of the IPCC team for the fifth assessment report, due in 2013.

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Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

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