Guardian: Every five to seven years, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces a detailed and influential report summarising the science of climate change. The accuracy of these documents came under scrutiny in early 2010, after two highly publicised errors were discovered in the ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ part of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). One was the claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 – hundreds of years earlier than the accepted figure – and the other was an incorrect number for the percentage of land in the Netherlands that is below sea level. Both mistakes were acknowledged by the IPCC and corrected in statements and errata notes.
Some commentators who don’t accept the mainstream scientific view on global warming took these errors as evidence for low standards in climate science. But senior figures in the IPCC argued that a small number of errors is hard to avoid in a document of almost 3000 pages produced by more than 1000 authors.
Partly in response to the errors, a number of reviews of the IPCC’s work took place, including one by the InterAcademy Council (IAC), the umbrella group for the world’s scientific academies. The review found that the IPCC assessment process had been successful overall but made a series of recommendations on issues ranging from governance to communications that it said would enhance the IPCC’s ability to conduct authoritative assessments going forward. The IPCC introduced a number of changes as a result of the review and in May 2011 the IAC issued a statement saying that it was “pleased that so many of our report’s recommendations were adopted”.
Much of the debate around the glacier error centred around the use of so-called ‘grey’ literature – evidence that hasn’t undergone a formal peer-reviewed process. The 2035 melting claim was traced to report by charity WWF, which was in turn based on an interview with a glaciologist published in popular magazine New Scientist. The head of the IPCC subsequently defended the use of some grey literature – such as reports from international agencies – but said that it had to be closely examined to ensure that errors aren’t introduced.
The first part of AR4, which deals with existence of man-made climate change, relies less on grey literature and no substantive errors have been identified in it to date. You can read the errata list here.
This Q&A is part of the Guardian’s Ultimate climate change FAQ
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