UN defends climate panel after Himalaya blunder

The United Nations on Friday defended its panel of climate scientists from criticisms that an error about the thaw of Himalayan glaciers undermined its wider findings that global warming is man-made.

The panel “remains without doubt the best and most solid foundation” for assessing climate change, said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme (Unep), which sponsors the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Steiner said criticisms of the IPCC and its chairperson, Rajendra Pachauri, had reached “almost witch-hunting proportions in some quarters” as some dismissed “climate change as a hoax on a par with the Y2K computer bug”.

“The time has really come for a reality check,” Steiner wrote in an opinion article after the IPCC last month regretted exaggerating the pace of thaw of Himalayan glaciers in a report that wrongly said they could all melt by 2035.

Steiner said it was right to expose errors and recheck sources and also right that the panel had acknowledged a need for tougher controls. The IPCC was set up in 1988 by Unep and the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation.

“But let us also put aside a myth that the science of climate change is holed below the water line and is sinking fast on a sea of falsehoods,” he wrote in the article, distributed by international non-profit group Project Syndicate.

Steiner said a “typographical error” was at the root of the glacier error. One original source had spoken of the world’s glaciers melting by 2350, not 2035. “The IPCC is as fallible as the human beings that comprise it,” he wrote.

Nobel prize
But the error — and exposure of poor checks and reliance on “grey literature” outside peer-reviewed journals — has damaged the IPCC, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former US Vice-President and climate campaigner Al Gore.

The IPCC concluded in 2007 that it is more than 90% certain that mankind is the main cause of global warming by burning fossil fuels. Climate change could cause more droughts, floods, disease, species extinctions and rising sea levels.

IPCC findings are far from merely academic — following up to shift towards cleaner energy such as wind or solar power would cost the world trillions of dollars.

Pachauri has said he will not quit.

A UN summit in Copenhagen in December agreed a plan to limit warming to below two degrees Celsius, with the prospect of $100-billion a year to help developing nations. It fell far short of many nations’ hopes for a binding treaty.

Steiner said the IPCC had been guided by “caution rather than sensation” over the years. He noted that the panel had been criticised since 2007 for being too conservative in projecting the likely rate of sea-level rise this century. — Reuters

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