Fiona Harvey Climategate, the Dutch report: Don’t believe everything you read

It is a big week for the “climategate” story - the revelations late last year of emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia and elsewhere, and of alleged flaws in the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most comprehensive body of work on climate science to date.

On Monday, the Netherlands Environment Agency (PBL) produced the result of its detailed investigation of the IPCC report. On Wednesday afternoon, the main inquiry into the UEA emails will publish its findings.

Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, the PBL report was not “damning” of the IPCC and it did not provide evidence of a long litany of mistakes in the IPCC report. Nor did it portray the IPCC as one-sided or “alarmist”.

In fact, the report was careful to point out that it found the IPCC methods and conclusions to be “robust” and “well-founded” and providing no reason to doubt the scientific consensus on global warming.

Read that again. Of the IPCC’s conclusions, “none were found to contain any significant errors”. Doesn’t that sound like a pretty clean bill of health?

In relation to possible errors in the IPCC report, the PBL found a total of 10 potential issues, but most of these were very minor – a simple typographical error, three misplaced references, an incorrect label on a table.

Of these issues, the IPCC accepts seven and has issued corrections. The others, however, the IPCC disputes.

Of the significant flaws, there is still only one of any great consequence – the claim that the glaciers of the Himalayas could have largely disappeared by 2035. This is wrong, and has long been admitted as such by the IPCC.

Another flaw that would be serious is the estimate of the area of Holland that is below sea level. This issue is why the Netherlands Environment Agency got involved in the first place – there was an acrimonious fight in the Dutch parliament over the IPCC’s claims in this regard.

The problem was this: the area of the Netherlands below sea level was presented in the IPCC report as 55 per cent. In fact, the real figure is that 26 per cent of the country lies below sea level and another 29 per cent of the Netherlands is susceptible to river flooding.

But it is important to note that this is not, contrary to what some have suggested, a mistake by the IPCC. Rather, the original data was supplied by the Dutch government and reproduced by the IPCC. You would expect the Dutch government to be able to supply reliable data on this – that they messed up cannot really be laid at the door of the climate scientists, as some have done.

A couple of other issues raised by PBL show just how minor some of these alleged problems are. In the IPCC report, says the PBL, “a 50 to 60 per cent decrease in productivity in anchovy fisheries on the African west coast was projected on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the literature references. It appeared to be about a 50 to 60 per cent decrease in extreme wind and seawater turbulence, with some effects on the anchovy population that were not quantified”. While that is indeed a mistake, and it might concern the unfortunate anchovy fishermen of the region, it’s hardly an attack on the foundations of climate science.

Nor is the suggestion by the PBL that instead of the IPCC’s estimate that 75m to 250m people would be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change in Africa by 2020, the IPCC should have said 90m to 220m people.

This is just astonishing. With such a broad range, these estimates are clearly very uncertain. So fiddling with the ranges in such a fashion is hair-splitting to an extraordinary – and pointless – degree.

Finally, the PBL also noted that the IPCC “tended to single out the most important negative impacts of climate change”. According to some reports, that shows the IPCC was biased and alarmist. In fact, the PBL makes it abundantly clear in its report that the reason for the IPCC highlighting negative impacts is down to the governments that commissioned the IPCC in the first place.

Don’t forget – every government that chooses can participate in the IPCC process, and about 100 do so. They have the right to comb through the report and the summaries for policymakers and they can insist that anything they don’t agree with is taken out or rephrased. That means that the IPCC summaries for policymakers are the result of a consensus not only among scientists but among the world’s governments – some of which have a strong vested interest in playing down the risks of climate change.

These governments have asked the IPCC, from the first report in 1988 onwards, to provide an assessment of the risks of climate change.

Risks: that means, negative impacts. So – and if you read the PBL report they make this very clear – if the IPCC was highlighting the risks rather than the positive impacts of climate change, it was just doing its job.

(But, beyond that, it should also be noted that the IPCC was taking a fair view in its assessments. IPCC scientists have taken great pains to show that they do note the positive impacts of climate change in their 2007 report, but that these are far outweighed by the negative impacts.)

To suggest from the PBL report that the IPCC is some kind of bunch of screaming hysterics with no sense of proportion, bent on peddling their own “alarmist” views and to hell with the science, is to leave aside any regard for the facts of this case in favour of irresponsible distortions.

Related links:

IPCC Amazon dispute bites the dust - FT Energy Source
Himalayas – another climategate? Not quite - FT Energy Source