New Documents Show IPCC Ignored Doubts About Himalayan Glacier Scare

  • Date: 24/01/10

The Global Warming Policy Foundation today rejected as baseless claims by Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that the IPCC’s erroneous doomsday prediction about the fate of Himalayan glaciers was an isolated and wholly uncharacteristic mistake.

According to the GWPF, and contrary to Dr Pachauri’s claims, there is already ample evidence to show that the IPCC review process is neither robust nor transparent.

In this latest instance, the GWPF has just released, for the first time, details of the defective process by which the 2035 Himalayas date got into an IPCC report. Inherent and serious flaws in the review process clearly emerge from this new evidence.

As a result of a Freedom of Information request, David Holland, a GWPF researcher, gained access to the responses by the IPCC’s lead authors. The documents show that most doubts and questions that were raised about the 2035 date were ignored and that the Review Editors failed to take any note of it. Since their reports, which were only signed statements, were never sent to Governments who commissioned the IPCC report, no one would have known had they recorded the contentious nature of the chapter anyway.

“Clearly questions were raised about the 2035 predictions, but they were not properly dealt with. Had the IPCC been open and transparent and published online to the world the drafts, Expert Reviewers’ comments, Lead Authors’ responses and Review Editors’ reports, this and the many other flaws would not have made it into to the finally published IPCC text,” said David Holland who wrote the GWPF report.

During the drafting process, doubts were raised by Government and Expert Reviewers who submitted comments to the Lead Authors. Until now, however, neither the IPCC nor the working groups have put these internal documents into the public domain. Up till now, Lead Authors could be confident that neither the Expert Reviewers nor anyone else would find out if their views had been accepted, rejected or ignored.

“Not just in this case, but on other contentious climate issues, the IPCC has consistently promoted alarmist predictions. Research and data that questions the IPCC’s assertion of looming catastrophe are routinely ignored, uncertainties are disregarded and highly unlikely disaster scenarios exaggerated. The time has come to completely overhaul the structure and workings of the IPCC,” said Dr Benny Peiser, the director of the GWPF.

2035 and all that

By David Holland

In Chapter 10 of the Working Group II contribution to the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report this short section of text has become very controversial:

“Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) 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. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

The receding and thinning of Himalayan glaciers can be attributed primarily to the global warming due to increase in anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases.”

On 20 January 2010 the World Wildlife Fund issued a correction to their 2005 paper in which they claimed the likelihood of the Himalayan glaciers disappearing by the year 2035 is very high. They now state:

“This statement was used in good faith but it is now clear that this was erroneous and should be disregarded.”

On the same day the IPCC issued a statement. Dr Pachauri, his Vice Chairs and the two TSU Co-Chairs – wrote:

“In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”

“This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of “the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report”. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.”

Readers might recall Dr Pachauri telling an Australian TV audience:

“Every stage of the drafting of our report is peer reviewed, and whatever comments we get from the peer review process are posted on the website of the IPCC, and the reasons why we accept or reject those comments are clearly specified. Where we accept a comment we say, “Yes. Accepted.” Where we don’t, we have to adduce very clear reasons why the authors don’t agree with the comment. So it’s a very transparent process.”

I will discuss this “transparent process” and these “IPCC standards” and consider whether this is another case of Dr Pachauri’s claims not matching reality. But first It might be noted that one of the four Coordinating Lead Authors for the Chapter was Indian scientist Dr Murari Lal, who wrote on 22 January:

“This is more about a systematic failure of the (IPCC) review process. The… conclusions were sent to hundreds of scientists and governments… and no one raised any doubts… then.”

As will be shown he is right to say that it is a systematic failure of the IPCC review process, but entirely wrong to say no one raised any doubts at the time.  Doubts were raised, as I will detail, by Government, Expert Reviewers and the Deputy Head of WGII TSU (Science), Clair Hanson, who all submitted comments to the Lead Authors, but were ignored.

That such a basic error could be ignored, is because the IPCC review process is not as Dr Pachauri suggested in Australia and nothing like the “strong interactive peer review process”, which the American delegation stressed the need for at the first meeting of the IPCC in 1988. Despite being promoted as the guarantor of the quality of IPCC Reports, the current review process is its Achilles’ heel.

The Government and Expert Reviewers are asked to read the draft text and, by email, send comments on each line should they wish. In the first, second and third IPCC assessments, that was the last the Reviewers saw of their comments unless they made a trip to an “open archive” at some location designated by the IPCC Secretariat. In May 2008 I asked the IPCC Secretary where these archives are but received no reply. However the curator of the Littauer Library at Harvard has confirmed he does have the Working Group I “open archive” for the Third Assessment Report in paper form in eight unindexed boxes.

This is how the IPCC planned to archive the drafts, comments and responses of the last assessment until freedom of information requests forced their online disclosure.   The archives are now available for the public despite the IPCC and not because of them. They are not at, and have never been at, the “the website of the IPCC” as Dr Pachauri claims.

Accordingly up till now Lead Authors could be confident that the Expert Reviewers would not find out if their views had been accepted until they read the revised text months later when they could do nothing about it.   The Lead Authors could also be fairly certain that no one would look to see if there had been an appropriate response to Reviewers’ comments.

In 1990 to overcome what was thought by many to be a poor balance between Lead Authors and Expert Reviewers, ‘Review Editors’ were introduced into the IPCC assessment process. Although, in 2008, Dr Pachauri “co-authorised” a complaint to Ofcom, which stated that these Review Editors have the “final say” on the IPCC text, this is not what is stated in the “the IPCC standards” as he calls them.

The procedures in Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work make it clear that the Lead Authors have sole responsibility for the text. They are free to accept or reject comments as they wish.  Review Editors are only required to:

“ensure that all substantive expert and government review comments are afforded appropriate consideration, advise lead authors on how to handle contentious/controversial issues and ensure genuine controversies are reflected adequately in the text of the Report.”

Review Editors must also ensure that non-peer-reviewed sources such as the WWF papers are “selected and used in a consistent manner across the Report”. They are given no powers to ensure compliance but they must submit a written report to the Working Group Sessions or the Panel”. Review Editors, so far, have mostly if not entirely been drawn from the cadre of earlier author teams and cannot be thought of as independent auditors.

Neither the IPCC nor the working groups have put these reports – the nearest thing in the IPCC process to a quality control report – into the public domain. I have been given the reports for Working Group I and II, but WGIII refuses to release any. For the Chapter being discussed here, the two Review Editors simply signed pro formas that were sent to them saying:

“The review process for the development of the Chapter in the Working Group II Fourth Assessment, as laid out in the Principles Governing IPCC Work, has been properly followed.

My reading of the Final Government Draft of the Chapter confirms the satisfactory completion of this process.

My reading of the Final Government Draft of the Chapter confirms that it properly reflects scientific controversies.”

Now I will show what Reviewers said and Lead Authors responded. While the Reviewers are named we are not told who actually wrote the responses.

The contentious 2035 date appears in the paragraph from lines 13 to 17 on page 46 of the second order draft of Working Group II. The only changes to the draft text in the finally published text are the removal of a short redundant sentence and the addition the reference to (WWF, 2005).

David Saltz, of the Desert Research Institute, Ben Gurion University made three comments on this short paragraph including one upon the obvious inconsistency of saying first that the likelihood is very high that Himalayan glaciers will “disappear” by 2035 if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate, and then stating “Its total area will shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035”. The Lead Author’s response to the comment on inconsistency was:

“Missed to clarify this one”.

The Government of Japan commented rather more critically:

“This seems to be a very important statement, possibly should be in the SPM, but is buried in the middle of this chapter. What is the confidence level/certainty? (i.e.“the likelihood of the glaciers disappearing is very high” is at which level of likelihood? (ref. to Box TS-1, “Description of Likelihood”). Also in this paragraph, the use of “will” is ambiguous and should be replaced with appropriate likelihood/confidence level terminology.”

The Lead Authors’ response to Government of Japan was:

“Appropriate revisions and editing made”.

From what I can see the Lead Authors found none appropriate.

The paragraph, following the 2035 claim and table 10.10, begins:

“The receding and thinning of Himalayan glaciers can be attributed primarily to the global warming due to increase in anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases.”

Hayley Fowler from Newcastle University commented with citations:

“I am not sure that this is true for the very large Karakoram glaciers in the western Himalaya. Hewitt (2005) suggests from measurements that these are expanding – and this would certainly be explained by climatic change in preciptiation and temperature trends seen in the Karakoram region (Fowler and Archer, J Climate in press; Archer and Fowler, 2004) You need to quote Barnett et al.’s 2005 Nature paper here – this seems very similar to what they said.”

The Lead Authors responded:

“Was unable to get hold of the suggested references will consider in the final version”

The Government of Japan again noted the lack of any reference and commented rather critically:

“This statement lacks any reference. Also, the reader wonders, are “global warming” and “climate change” interchangeable? Are we still using “global warming”? Clarification of this would be appreciated.”

“The use of “will” (again) is ambiguous. The confidence level using IPCC terminology should be stated.”

The Lead Author’s response to Government of Japan was once again:

“Appropriate revisions and editing made”.

But once again none were made either in response to Hayley Fowler or the Government of Japan.

For the IPCC TSU, Clare Hanson commented that there was only one reference for the whole section. This was Hasnain, 2002. To Clare Hanson the Lead Authors’ response was:

“More references added”.

So far as I can tell only Shen et al., 2002 and WWF, 2005 were added.


Clearly questions were raised and were not properly dealt with, so it is true that the “IPCC standards” are either inadequate or were not followed or, as I believe, both.   The ultimate fault lies with the Panel of Government representatives that jet off every year to exotic locations supposedly to oversee the work they have commissioned, and on our behalf paid for. On the last assessment it is certain that no Government saw any of the Review Editors’ reports. They never asked for them and they were never given them.

The fundamental breach of the “IPCC standards” is far more basic. The assessment and review process is required by the Principles Governing IPCC Work to be undertaken on a comprehensive, objective open and transparent basis. Eight unindexed boxes of paper never met the requirement to be open and transparent.

Murari Lal tells us “the conclusions were sent to hundreds of scientists and governments”. If the drafts – all in electronic form – can be sent to so many people why can they not be put up on public Internet servers at the same time? And why not have the Reviewers and Lead Authors engage on line with the strong interactive peer-review that was originally called for? This way the public can see for themselves that the process not only works but is also open and transparent.

We now know that at the next plenary meeting of the IPCC, later this year, the important “environmental matter” of IPCC information disclosure is to be discussed. Most European counties are parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the Aarhus Convention). It requires the parties to promote the objectives of the Convention within the IPCC and to hold public consultations on important environmental matters. Now is the time to press for the rights guaranteed by this Convention.

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