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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Boiling over

Environment | Climate-gate, IPCC errors prompt a reconsideration of global warming policy

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

Scientific scandal, media intrigue, and legal action: So go exhibits A, B, and C to prove "Climate-gate"-the name attached to the leak of emails between influential climate scientists late last year-was not just a passing headline. Investigations into the emails have since triggered a series of alarming revelations, ultimately prompting demands for a review of the Environmental Protection Agency's greenhouse-gas policy.

The email correspondence came from Britain's influential Climatic Research Unit (CRU). In some emails, former CRU director Phil Jones asked colleagues to delete certain messages in order to avoid freedom of information requests by global warming skeptics. A subsequent investigation by the U.K.'s Information Commissioner's Office determined in January that the CRU and its affiliated university violated Britain's Freedom of Information Act-but because of a quirk in the law, it was too late to impose a fine.

Under the ensuing media scrutiny, Jones has qualified his position on climate change: While maintaining a firm belief that recent warming is human-caused, he admitted the debate isn't settled, and that it's possible the warming of the 20th century's last three decades may not be unprecedented. Jones also admitted his group's temperature station data wasn't as organized as it should be.

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The email scandal has turned attention to a 2007 global warming report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which environmentalists cite as an authority on the facts for man-made warming. But media inquiries of recent weeks show the panel's facts need to be double-checked:

• A statement that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 was based on a study by WWF, an environmental advocacy group. The WWF, in turn, referenced an interview with an Indian glaciologist, who now says he never made such a prediction (see "Ice capades," Feb. 13). The IPCC has apologized for the unsubstantiated claim.

• Another claim of receding mountain ice was based on anecdotal evidence and a mountaineering magazine article.

• The report mistakenly stated that 55 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level. The correct figure is 26 percent.

Other dubious claims were found to be based on studies from advocacy groups or other "gray literature"-writings that are not scientifically peer-reviewed.

Defenders of the IPCC say a few errors don't challenge the overall robustness of the 3,000-page report. But the IPCC authors' reliance on gray literature casts doubt on the objectivity of the UN body, whose reports have been employed to pressure Western governments to cut carbon dioxide emissions at great costs.

The revelations surrounding the IPCC and CRU have prompted some scientists to call for more transparency and dialogue. John Beddington, the chief science advisor to the U.K. government, said there was a "fundamental uncertainty" about climate change predictions, and, "I don't think it's healthy to dismiss proper skepticism."

Although American mainstream media have been slow to criticize the IPCC and CRU, British mainstream media have led aggressive inquiries into both groups' claims following Climate-gate. "My impression . . . is that a lot of the British journalists are now realizing, 'We were suckered,'" said Cal Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance, an evangelical environmental group.

Last December, without waiting for congressional action, the EPA announced it would begin regulating greenhouse gases. Now, armed with the IPCC report flaws and the leaked emails, the states of Texas and Virginia, 17 House Republicans, and an assortment of businesses and policy groups have filed legal petitions with the EPA, asking it to reconsider its decision. The EPA relied heavily on IPCC research in reaching its conclusion that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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