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‘Scientists confess’? The attack on the IPCC that went terribly wrong

Natural caution from the IPCC means that extreme weather events linked to climate change - such as floods in the Kedarnath Valley in the Himalayas - aren’t predicted. EPA/STR

When an error was found in the IPCC Assessment Report Number 4 - that mountain glaciers were likely to melt by 2035 - climate change deniers obsessed about this for several years, endlessly returning to it as proof that the IPCC was thoroughly flawed in its findings and the science could not be trusted.

Even with all the caution that the IPCC is famous for, it still managed to make a few errors in its almost 3000 page report. The caution also meant that the IPCC report in 2007 would have been loath to predict the unprecedented glacial lake outburst flood in the Himalayas that killed 6000 people in June. The ice around 20,000 large glacial lakes throughout the Himalayas is melting very fast, and when combined with monsoon rains, the ice gives way releasing billions of cubic metres of water - which happened at Kedarnath on June 16 this year.

The IPCC reports are never going to be able to warn people from these individual events, but only provide probabilities of them occurring. This makes the caution that we will see in the Assessment Report Number 5 - due out on Friday - as reassuring as it is disturbing.

But the question of evidence, facts, methodology - indeed of caution that newspapers had been scrutinising the IPCC over - came back to haunt several of them last week, when the UK’s Mail on Sunday made its splash story: “World’s top climate scientists confess: Global warming is just HALF what we said”, by climate denier journalist David Rose.

The UK’s Telegraph mirrored this headline with “Top climate scientists admit global warming forecasts were wrong”, which was also parroted by The Australian the next day with “We got it wrong on warming, says IPCC”, and in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.

However, Rose’s central claim is that climate scientists have halved their assessment of warming since 1951.

The Daily Mail’s original story from September 15.

Rose claimed in the original article of September 15, which has since had to be corrected in the online version, that the IPCC claimed in 2007 that the planet was warming by .2 degrees Celsius per decade, but the new report says that the “true figure since 1951 has been only .12 degrees Celsius per decade – a rate far below even the lowest computer prediction”.

The error in Rose’s article is that the 2007 IPCC report only claimed the rate of warming since 1951 to be .13 degrees Celsius, not .2 degrees Celsius. So, if the new report does say .12 degrees Celsius warming since 1951 when it does come out, this revision is like saying that with updated data, global warming is only around 90% of what IPCC scientists said it was.

Yet the Daily Mail revision has dropped its claims about the long term trend to focus on the so-called warming hiatus of the past 15 years to produce an even bolder headline: “World’s top climate scientists confess: Global warming is just QUARTER what we thought”.

The Daily Mail does not seem to be fussed by the scale of its changing headline blunders. It may as well just put out another revision to say global warming does not exist at all. But the revised article again cherrypicks the leak of the unfinalised IPCC Report number 5, to produce a headline that is even more disparaging of the IPCC. Rose’s story does not look at ocean heat content as Dana Nuccitelli and John Abraham do in a demolition of Rose’s piece. Nor does it look at the fact that the last ten years have been the warmest on record in the past 150 years.

Correction in The Australian, September 21. @MeddlesomPriest

Nevertheless, the frenzy of journalism dismissive of global warming that blindly followed the Daily Mail’s lead has led to publications having to issue corrections. First the UK Telegraph, and now The Australian and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on September 21.

The Daily Telegraph’s September 21 correction of its story that appeared on the 17th

A correction? Well you’d think these papers had just misspelt a name, or had someone’s title wrong, rather than bludgeoned its readers into thinking that global warming had halved - and that the last IPCC Assessment Report had it all wrong.

Newspapers have a responsibility to report all issues as accurately as possible, as they have much influence on public understanding - especially of science. That such a monumental blunder about something as serious as global warming could be pardoned by a tiny and feeble “correction” is a breathtaking betrayal of journalistic standards themselves.

Did the Australian newspapers think to ask Australian climate scientists what they thought of the story? Well if they did, as I have of a number of climatologists, they would have been told that there is no point commenting until the actual report is released. You see, sometimes it’s better to be cautious, even if we may be running out of time to be so.