New mistake found in UN climate report
2010-02-05 0:00


The UN climate change panel IPCC not only wrongly predicted Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, it also put more than half of the Netherlands below sea level.

The Dutch environment minister, Jaqueline Cramer, on Wednesday demanded a thorough investigation into the 2007 report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change after a Dutch magazine uncovered it incorrectly states 55 percent of the country lies below sea level. The the Dutch national bureau for environmental analysis has taken responsibility for the incorrect figure cited by the IPCC. Only 26 percent of the Netherlands is really below sea level.

The error surfaced at a time when the IPCC is already under fire for another false claim that revealed earlier this week. The 2007 report states glaciers in the Himalayas will disappear by 2035, while the underlying research claims the mountain ice would last until 2350, British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph discovered.

When Cramer heard of that blunder she wrote a letter to the IPCC, saying she was "not amused" there were mistakes in the scientific report she bases the Dutch environmental policies on. Now she is confronted with errors in the data about her own country. "This can't happen again," the minister told reporters in The Hague on Wednesday. "The public trust in science and politics has been badly damaged."

The IPCC based its claim about Dutch vulnerability to rising sea level on data it received from the Netherlands environmental assessment agency PBL. "The Netherlands is an example of a country highly susceptible to both sea-level rise and river flooding because 55% of its territory is below sea level where 60% of its population lives and 65% of its Gross National Product (GNP) is produced," according to the report.”

But the Dutch agency now admits it delivered incomplete wording to the panel. "It should have said 55 percent of the Netherlands is vulnerable to floods; 26 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level and another 29 percent can suffer when rivers flood," the PBL said in a statement after the mistake was uncovered by Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland on Wednesday.

The error features in chapter 12.2.3 of the “Impact, adaptation and vulnerability” section of the IPPC report. This part of the analysis was drafted by the so-called working group II, a different group than the one that wrote the part about the scientific basis of climate change and its causes.

One of the reasons the document is error-prone is in the width of its scope, experts say. A description of consequences of climate change all over the world is bound to touch on areas few people know anything about. In its report, the IPCC draws on publications assessed by outside scientists, reports from organisations like the World Bank and management consulting firm McKinsey, and even descriptions from tourist guides and observations from volunteers. Those sources have to be supported by others and are scrutinised through "qualitative analysis". But a problem in the analysis is there are few scientists in the world who know a lot about regional effects. Few people have enough knowledge and insight to predict longtime trends in ice development in the Himalaya, for example.

The Dutch mistake, however, is of a different order. Scientists missed the incorrect wording of the claim that they received from the PBL. Maarten Hajer, the director of that agency argued the conclusions of the IPPC are still solid: climate is changing, the earth is warming up and human behaviour is to blame for a large part of that. He did acknowledge damage had been done to the reputation of climate scientists. "But I prefer to call it a scratch in the finish rather than a dent," he said.

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