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Climate change: At least science admits its errors

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 30, 2010 at 7:38 pm |
August 30, 2010 5:41 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

One of science’s great strengths is its tendency to self-correct. That strength is on display this year as climatologists respond to some tough attacks on the way they’ve presented global warming to the public.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got the world’s attention in 2007 when it concluded that the planet was indeed heating up and human industrial activity was indeed the chief cause. These findings reflected immense research and the combined authority of hundreds of leading scientists.

But winning over scientists can be a lot easier than winning over public opinion. Most citizens aren’t likely to pore through hundreds of studies and evaluate the credentials of their authors. Americans in particular are hard-wired to distrust official dictates and scientific orthodoxies.

So the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions has taken some devastating hits as skeptics have gleefully pounced on errors and overstatements in the 2007 report to the United Nations.

The most embarrassing was an assertion that the Himalayan glaciers could be entirely melted in 2035 – an unsubstantiated factoid that appears to have found its way to the IPCC by way of environmental zealots.

There were several more such blunders, including a claim that global warming threatened to cut harvests in Africa by 50 percent.

This kind of loose talk is common among advocates trying to build political support for climate legislation. Science – particularly climate science – doesn’t have the luxury of throwing claims around recklessly. The 2007 IPCC report may be 3,000 pages long and loaded with sound data and careful conclusions, but it’s easy to paint the whole thing as an exercise in scaremongering by pointing to a handful of indefensible statements.

Climate science was just as embarrassed last year when hackers ferreted out several scientists’ email exchanges about suppressing contrary scientific views. That, too, handed ammunition to non-scientists who’ve been arguing loudly that the whole business of global warming is a fraud – never mind the bulk of the data.

The mistakes in the 2007 report now threaten to force a shakeup in the IPCC. An organization representing the world’s academies of science has just published an independent review that points to serious organizational flaws in the international panel.

The InterAcademy Council called for more rigor in vetting and publishing the U.N. report and also for replacing the IPCC’s leadership on a regular basis. That could be construed as a scathing judgment. One complication, though: the InterAcademy probe was requested by the IPCC itself – as part of a critical self-assessment.

Inviting criticism from independent experts is a big part of scientific ethics. If only it were part of this country’s political ethics, too.

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