An expert's point of view on a current event.

Inside the Climate Bunker

How global-warming deniers are running circles around the U.N.'s top climate body.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Three years ago, Rajendra K. Pachauri was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.’s climate science panel. Now the IPCC head is under fire from critics for a catalogue of recent embarrassments: his initial kneejerk defense of the "Climategate" emails (Pachauri first questioned the motives of those who had hacked into the University of East Anglia’s email system, then said there was "virtually no possibility" that IPCC findings were impacted), the fight he picked with the Indian environmental minister when the latter questioned certain data on glacier melt within India (Pachauri called  the government report’s "voodoo science"), and the steamy soft-core novel, Return to Almora, he released last month (somewhere between memoir and fantasy, it features the sexual exploits of a 60-something globetrotting climate expert, and has scandalized an Indian public not accustomed to its masturbating scenes and erotic explicitness).

Few stars have risen and fallen so quickly as Pachauri’s, who has gone from being an international climate hero to subject of increasing ridicule at home and abroad. Pachauri, an economist and former railroad engineer from a small town in the Himalayan foothills of north India, assumed his position at the helm of the IPCC in 2002. At the time, he had the enthusiastic backing of the Bush administration, which had grown tired of fielding industry complaints about his predecessor Robert Watson and hoped (wrongly, it turned out) that Pachauri would prove less vocal in his calls for carbon-reduction efforts.

But even as his credentials and honors stacked up — from the government of France anointing him an "Officier de la legion d’honneur" to GQ India naming him 2009’s "Global Indian of the Year" (FP even named him a "top global thinker" last year) — Pachauri couldn’t quite discipline his tongue. Or perhaps he didn’t care what impression his verbal zingers left. In 2008, he told the Chicago Tribune: "I tell people I was born a Hindu who believes in reincarnation. It will take me the next six lives to neutralize my carbon footprint. There’s no way I can do it in one lifetime."

But he attracted the most attention for barbs directed at his critics, calling those who’ve questioned IPCC reports "flat-earthers" — "they are indulging in is skulduggery of the worst kind," he told the Financial Times — and generally bristling at the prospect of unwanted scrutiny, without providing clear answers to valid questions about his stewardship.  ("My conscience is clear," he announced to the New York Times this week.) But while Pachauri’s larger-than-life persona and propensity for conducting himself as though beyond reproach catches attention, these characteristics don’t in and of themselves defame the organization he heads — as much as global-warming deniers are happy to seize upon any opportunity to poke holes in climate science in general.

There is, however, at least one item in the recent round of Pachauri-bashing that does the U.N. panel no credit: a glaring error in an IPCC report about the date by which Himalayan glaciers are likely to have disappeared entirely. The underlying technical report of the panel’s 2007 climate assessment  erroneously stated that by 2035 the glaciers would be gone entirely, when scientific consensus places the date much later (studies cited by the BBC project a date closer to 2350 — more than 300 years later).

The 2035 date was an alarming, attention-grabbing finding — and many journalists, including Stephan Faris last year in Foreign Policy, cited it as evidence that global warming is an urgent crisis. But, after the Indian government released its own report with conflicting glacier-melt data last fall, glacier scientists went back to the IPCC report and began to raise questions about the 2035 date. The chatter among experts was picked up in Science magazine last year, before spilling into the mainstream media, which has already been primed by the "Climategate" saga and a disappointing outcome in Copenhagen to turn climate-science disputes into heightened political narratives. (The initial error may have come because the IPCC cited a decade-old interview in The New Scientist which quoted a scientist mentioning the date 2035, as opposed to sourcing peer-reviewed scientific literature.)

With all the attention, one might think the IPCC would by now have a precise and consistent explanation — or point to an ongoing investigation — for how this error crept in. Alas.

It is telling that when I wanted to inquire about just how such an eye-popping error had made its way into the report, I was able to speak with the very the scientist responsible for coordinating that section, as opposed to a well-rehearsed communications officer. (Media savvy does not come naturally to the IPCC, a two-decade-old body charged with identifying points of scientific consensus among the growing body of expert literature on climate change. And even as the weight of the world rests on its shoulders, the panel still relies largely on unpaid scientists who volunteer their time.)

That scientist, Christopher Field, is director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology. His own work focuses on the carbon cycle, and he cochairs the working group responsible for the section of the IPCC assessment that deals with impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, including glacier melt.

If anyone has the wherewithal to identify precisely how the error survived the panel’s extensive review process — which involved soliciting more than 2,500 reviewers and experts, and more than 9,000 review comments — it would be him.

Here is what he told me:

"That statement [about Himalayan glacier melting by 2035] is in the literature that the report cites, but it’s not a statement consistent with other scientific information available … It should not have made it into final report."

In other words, an outlier source was picked up by the chapter’s authors. But what of the vaunted review process? With all the input and reactions from some so many scientific experts, did no one flag that item as questionable?

"No … In principle, [our process] should have turned over every rock and leaf in the forest."

Interestingly, the error did come to light last fall, nearly two years after the report’s initial publication, when competing glacier-melt data was released by India’s ministry of environment and forests. That discrepancy quickly focused the attention of international glaciologists on both sets of data, and questions about the particulars of IPCC glacier data soon surfaced. (This, of course, raises the question of whether the IPCC’s process for soliciting peer comments is targeting the right people.)

So when it became clear that a storm was brewing, how did the IPCC respond? Sloooowly.

The first rule of political damage control is to admit mistakes quickly and control the narrative, but the IPCC is still not accustomed to operating in the news cycle as opposed to on a more academic timetable. Field says that the brewing controversy was clearly on the IPCC’s radar screen by Jan. 1, but that it then took until Jan. 20 for the panel to meet and put a press statement online.

"The IPCC is kind of slow responding," Field says. "It took two weeks to analyze the situation and get the statement on the website."

And now that the IPCC has acknowledged an error, what comes next?

"The IPCC does not have a formal error correction policy in place … Historically the approach is to address [any errors] in the next assessment [due out in 2014], but in the current environment, where there is now a lot of connection to the news cycle, waiting for next assessment is not good option." He adds that it is a "high priority" to develop one.

David Victor of Stanford’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies says: "They [the IPCC] have kind of a bunker mentality — it’s not excusable but understandable."

In the time since the U.N. created the IPCC in 1988, global interest in climate change has risen dramatically, and so, too, the spotlight on and expectations for the scientific panel.  "The stakes and the pressure have both gotten higher," says Andrew Revkin, the longtime New York Times climate reporter and author of the DotEarth blog. "The IPCC was an experiment from the get-go — there’s never been anything like it … it’s still more of a 20th-century process than a 21stcentury process."

The ambition and global importance of the IPCC is growing, while its methods and resources are struggling to keep up. Confusion, not orchestrated bias or, as some have asserted, greed, seems the most likely cause of recent slipups. But with the fate of the planet in the balance, that’s not good enough.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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