The revelation that at least one group of authors working for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would rely on grey literature or even popular media sources for their reporting could end up being a real blow to the Nobel prize-winning organization.
If you haven’t heard by now, a section of the Fourth IPCC report, which came out in 2007, cited a prediction for the complete disappearance of all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas by 2035. This alone would be sufficient justification for describing the consequences of climate change as catastrophic, as something like 40% of the world relies on annual meltwater from the area.
But now we learn that the authors in questions took the prediction from a 2005 WWF publication, which wasn’t peer-reviewed. And the WWF paper took it’s warning from a 1999 New Scientist story by Fred Pearce, who reported that Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi wrote that “all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.”
Now, New Scientist is a fine publication (and one in which my byline has appeared from time to time), but it’s not peer-reviewed. Neither was the WWF paper. And yet we’re told time after time that the IPCC based its reports on the best peer-reviewed science available.
Fred Pearce now reports on the fallout:
However, the lead author of the IPCC chapter, Indian glaciologist Murari Lal, told New Scientist he “outright rejected” the notion that the IPCC was off the mark on Himalayan glaciers. “The IPCC authors did exactly what was expected from them,” he says.
“We relied rather heavily on grey [not peer-reviewed] literature, including the WWF report,” Lal says. “The error, if any, lies with Dr Hasnain’s assertion and not with the IPCC authors.”
One could argue that the IPCC authors were specifically expected not to rely on the grey literature. Even worse, the WWF paper qualified Hasnain’s prediction:
As apocalyptic as it may sound, it needs to be underlined that glaciers need to be studied for a variety of purposes including hazard assessment, effects on hydrology, sea level rise and to track climatic variations. There are several problems associated with retreating glaciers that need to be understood in order to proceed to the next stage of quantifying research and mitigating disaster.
UPDATE: RIck Piltz points out at Climate Science Watch that the IPCC report in question lifts entire phrases not from the WWF report supplied as a source, but from “Glaciers Beating Retreat,” in the online publication Down to Earth published two months before the New Scientist piece.
This only makes the IPCC authors look even more more careless than before. Not only is Down to Earth not peer-reviewed, but the authors couldn’t even get their attribution right. Even worse, the problems with the reference were pointed out by reviewers, but those comments were ignored. You can bet that future IPCC reports (if any) will be more carefully edited.