IPCC Red Faced Over Glacier Statement
I’m extremely angry with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their job is to assess the state of the science across a wide range of aspects and provide a digest for policy makers and others. In general their analysis errs on the conservative side. Both the loss of sea ice and the rise in sea levels are happening much more quickly than the IPCC prediction. So it came as a great shock that a statement buried in their last report that the Himalayan glacier system could all but disappear by 2035, depriving 40% of the world’s population of drinking and irrigation water, turns out to be very unlikely to be correct.
The actual mistake appears to have arisen in the World Wildlife Fund report which was being quoted by the IPCC – they accidentally attributed this to an expert group of glacier scientists when the 2035 date comes from a New Scientist interview with a single scientist. What makes me cross is:
1. why a statement of such impact was not sourced directly from a peer reviewed scientific paper? The WWF may have messed up, but they’re a pressure group not a scientific body. I actually wonder if it was left in by mistake during drafting – if it had been reliable, the statement would surely have been a headline fact, not an obscure comment buried in the text.
2. why did the IPCC chairman dismissed the representations of the Indian Govt on this matter as ‘voodoo science’ rather than checking the facts first? I suggest he should seriously consider his position.
3. Of course the denial industry is having a field day, blowing it out of proportion, and trying to bring down the science as a whole. But for the rest of us, we should be able to trust the IPCC to get these things right and, as with the rest of their work, err on the side of caution where there is uncertainty.
4. While I’ve never personally quoted 2035, I’ve used the wider Himalayan case as an example in my talks and courses as it is a human story rather than one featuring polar bears. Given the resulting hoohah, I’m going to have to use other examples as I don’t want to get bogged down in debunking myths and splitting hairs.
So what is the true situation? I’ve had a quick rummage through various documents, books and official websites and what I can gather is:
1. The Himalayan glaciers do appear to be retreating as temperatures have risen by 1°C in the region. This is in line with a serious reduction in glacier mass around the world, but, strangely given their importance, the Himalayan glacier system has not been well studied.
2. This melting is already impacting on the surrounding populations through flood risks and reduced flows in rivers – this is likely to get worse if temperatures continue to rise.
3. The ice sheet is so huge it probably won’t disappear for a couple of hundred years.
I’ve updated the climate change FAQs on the resources page to substitute other, peer reviewed, impacts to avoid confusion. Looking on the bright side, if the 2035 prediction had been correct, it would probably have been game over.