Jan. 21, 2010 -- A sloppy mistake in one paragraph of a 938-page U.N. climate report issued in 2007 has alerted the panel responsible for it to the high standard the world now demands of them.
Not surprising, since the U.N. climate reports, due every four years, are the most comprehensive and authoritative texts for understanding the human-induced global warming which, if left unchecked, scientists say, will become a global catastrophe.
The faulty paragraph stated that Himalayan glaciers providing water to hundreds of millions of people could "disappear" in the rising heat as soon as the year 2035.
Indian government scientists and others have shown this estimate to be based at best on flimsy evidence and at worst on a misread Internet article -- possibly even involving a typo confusing the year 2350 with 2035.
Attention to this blunder by the IPCC has grown in recent days after complaints by the Indian scientists were reported first in the London Times and then picked up by other news organizations around the world.
At the end of a new brief statement responding to the discovery of its mistake, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now says, "The Chairs, Vice-Chairs, and Co-Chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance."
The new IPCC statement opens by re-asserting that the 2007 report's general warning about disappearing glaciers is "robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with underlying science."
Nor does the mistake's discovery appear to do anything to diminish the overall gravity of the climate crisis.
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"Even Hall of Fame quarterbacks fumble the snap a few times a year," Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider told ABC News. "You don't trade your Pro Bowl quarterback because of it; it's part of the game."
"The key is how few of these (mistakes) actually happen relative to the junk in blogs and op-eds where it is more likely than not to be deliberately spun," Schneider said. "This was not deliberate, but was a failure of process by not properly following guidance on uncertainties.
Climate Report Mistake 'a Rare Mistake'
"But even so, what is the batting average of IPCC on such things? Way over what it takes to get into the hall of fame," he said.
Princeton University climatologist Michael Oppenheimer also said he sees this as an isolated mistake.
"Frankly, this is a rare instance -- and the first case I know of when something (in the IPCC report) appears to be out and out wrong," he told ABC News. "The proper thing is for IPCC to open an investigation and take a close look."
"I noticed that the faulty statement is incoherent," he added. "A good basic editing might have alerted them to the problem of the bad sourcing, but even that didn't happen."
Oppenheimer told ABC that, given the vast size of the report, it is not entirely surprising, however regrettable, that a mistake slipped through. The sloppiness of the editing in the paragraph is readily apparent. Here it is in its entirety:
"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."
It is unclear what the reference is for the "Its" at the start of the second sentence.
And the statement that "The likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 ... is very high," seems at odds with estimate in the next sentence that the "total area" will shrink to 100,000 square kilometers by the same year, 2035.
"Nobody does this business perfectly. It's a pity this slipped through -- and it's such a politically salient part of the problem," said Oppenheimer, referring to the widely recognized potential for vanishing glaciers to produce hundreds of millions of climate refugees both around the Himalayas in Asia and along the Andes in south America.
Climate Report Mistake 'Unfortunate'
"Is the mistake unfortunate? Yes," he said. "Does it mean there's a major problem with the IPCC process? No."
Oppenheimer added that though the immense IPCC process, unprecedented in the history of global science, may have isolated problems like this again in the future, "the IPCC is an institution constantly changing and improving itself and making itself more transparent."
Widely respected climate science policy expert Rick Piltz has posted a detailed analysis of the IPCC blunder at his Web site, www.climatesciencewatch.org.
Not only has Piltz dug out what appears to be the extremely sloppy sourcing of the offending IPCC paragraph, he even unearths some documents that, while not proving it, raise the distinct possibility that a writer confused the year 2350 with 2035, possibly through a typo.
The mistake has been picked up by some climate change "skeptics" as evidence for their claims that the review process is like the game of "Telephone" played at children's parties.