Readers of The New York Times learned something this morning that millions of people in the UK have known for some time, not to mention of the millions of Americans following the story on the web. But they didn’t learn much about it, or learn enough to begin to think through the consequences for American politics and global policy.
A page one story by Elisabeth Rosenthal under the headline “U.N. Climate Panel and Its Chief Face a Siege on Their Credibility” gently informed the sensitive readers of The New York Times that all is not well in the world of the climate change movement. The IPCC and its chair, we learn are now under “intense scrutiny” from “climate skeptics, right-wing leaning politicians and even some mainstream scientists.” She could have added that some of that scrutiny also comes from prominent environmentalists, like the head of UK Greenpeace, quoted in this February 4 article in the London Times as expressing the view that Pachauri and the IPCC have made serious mistakes. Rosenthal identified the press critics as the ‘right-leaning’ Times and Daily Telegraph; she omitted to note that the center-left, environmentalist Guardian has also been publishing serious criticism of the IPCC.
Most of the article is devoted to the controversy over allegations about Dr. Pachauri’s ties to various business groups. These have always struck me as the least important elements in the controversy, and I tend to agree with the views expressed by New York Times reporter John Tierney on his blog that the quality of the science matters a lot more than any potential or perceived conflicts of interest of the scientist.
More to the point, these allegations have only a limited bearing on the big story going on here. Allegations that Dr. Pachauri has shown poor judgment in his business dealings at worst discredit Dr. Pachauri. Allegations that the IPCC climate change report is rife with high profile errors and that Pachauri has handled his portfolio there matter much more.
On the science, the Times piece is really quite poor. It mentions only two alleged errors: the ‘glaciergate’ claim that the Himalayan ice pack would disappear by 2035 and an estimate of the financial damage associated with extreme weather between 1970 and 2005. The first error, as just about everyone with an interest in the subject now knows, has been acknowledged by the IPCC. The second was trivial; as Rosenthal notes, the allegation wasn’t that the damage estimates were wrong, but that the source wasn’t peer-reviewed. It has been peer reviewed since. The total score: one acknowledged and embarrassing error; one trivial slip.
This is limp reportage and does a grave disservice to the Times readership. In the first place, a number of additional allegations have surfaced — some trivial, some more substantial. Rosenthal’s readers come away from this piece with no understanding of why the Guardian ran a commentary headlined “The Case for Climate Change Must Be Remade From the Ground Upwards” or another entitled “The IPCC’s Problems Have Been Exacerbated By Its Imperious Attitude“. They will not understand why in this Guardian report of Monday February 8 (“Climate Scientists Hit Out at ‘Sloppy’ Glacier Error“) climate scientists who worked on the IPCC report are said to be calling on Pachauri to step down.
In case any New York Times readers are reading this post, here’s a quick summary of what the real story is and what it means–and remember, anyone who follows the British press either directly or through the blogs has known this for some time.
1. A series of embarrassing allegations about high profile errors in the IPCC report have recently emerged. The most notorious is the prediction that the Himalayan ice pack would disappear by 2035. There are others — that, for example, food production in North Africa could fall by 50 percent within the next ten years. The errors are not only troubling in themselves; they raise questions about the care and intent behind the IPCC report — lending credence to critics who say that the report’s authors intentionally went beyond the science to scare up support for their policy agenda.
2. The two errors mentioned above were not just small errors in a long report. Dr. Pachauri in particular has made use of both ‘factoids’ in his speeches, and critics charge, the 2035 glacier claim features prominently in the fundraising and publicity of the climate institute in India which he leads. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has also used the North African food claim in a speech advocating action against climate change. This suggests to say the least a sloppy culture of fact checking around these leaders, and it is bound to reduce public confidence in their other statements.
3. Dr. Pachauri long defended the bogus glacier claim, denouncing a prominent Indian glacier scientist as a practitioner of voodoo science when he cast doubt on the claim. It was not an isolated error that somehow slipped into a long report: it was an important component of Pachauri’s own advocacy and work. Yet it had no scientific basis and no serious glacier scientists accepts it. What was his basis for defending the claim and attacking the scientists who criticized it? Pachauri’s close association with the bogus claim dramatically undercuts his credibility when he claims that the error was an insignificant if regrettable slip in a long report and indeed undermines his credibility as a spokesperson for climate science and as the leader of its most visible international organization.
4. During the same period that these charges came out, the British government determined that the climate researchers at East Anglia University had indeed broken the relevant British freedom of information law.
5. All this in combination with the shift in American politics since the Massachusetts Senate election means that climate skeptics now have the ability to stop cap and trade legislation in Congress this year. Think of what Fox News, the tea parties and the talk radio hosts can do with the material unearthed in the last few weeks. Dr. Pachauri and the East Anglia scientists have given the climate skeptics all the ammunition they need to win the contest for American public opinion. With Democrats now expected to lose seats in November, it seems unlikely that any serious legislation will pass the US Congress during President Obama’s first term. If so, the prospect for an effective and binding global treaty on climate change before 2013 now seems dim indeed.
6. All this means that the ‘climate change community’ urgently needs to begin debating what to do next. If Plan A has failed, what would Plan B look like?
The dwindling band who depend on The New York Times for their news don’t know that their world has changed in some important ways. They deserve to know and they need to know; I hope that the paper will find a way to tell them.