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Walker's World: Climate facts and doubts

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- With the capital city of the United States immobilized by the kind of snow that Moscow takes in stride, the phrase "global warming" is becoming a bad joke. But "climate change," the preferred alternative of the scientists that allows them to blame hurricanes, floods and blizzards on carbon emissions, is also at increasing risk of mockery.

The climate scientists have only themselves to blame. The latest embarrassment to hit the no-longer-authoritative reports of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a complaint from the Dutch government. They noted that the IPCC report claimed that more than half of their country lay below sea level.

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No so. Only 26 percent of Holland lies below sea level. What the IPCC meant to say was that another 29 percent was at risk from river flooding, which is a rather different matter.

But after the IPCC had to backtrack on its claim that the glaciers of the Himalayas were likely to disappear within 30 years, its credibility was already wearing thin. Governments still say that they have faith in the overall thrust of the IPCC report, and in its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri.

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But even Britain's Greenpeace has now suggested that the cause of battling climate change might best be served by Pachauri's resignation. Pachauri's own Indian government may have given him a public endorsement. But India's environment minister has made the significant announcement that it will now launch its own assessment and research effort on the state of the Himalayan glaciers and on climate change in general.

Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister, noted last year that some glaciers were actually advancing despite global warming. Such concerns had been dismissed as "voodoo science" by Pachauri, who has also complained that newspapers have run a "vendetta" against him. But the environment minister has made his own position clear.

"I respect the IPCC but India is a very large country and cannot depend only on IPCC and so we have launched the Indian Network on Comprehensive Climate Change Assessment," Ramesh said. "There is a fine line between climate science and climate evangelism. I am for climate science. I think people misused IPCC report."

In short, despite its Nobel Prize, the IPCC is no longer the gold standard for environmental data.

And now the formal inquiry is about to open into Climategate, the scandal that erupted over the leaked e-mails from the highly regarded environmental research unit of Britain's University of East Anglia. Those emails, which boasted of "tricks" in manipulating data and blocking Freedom of Information requests, have now thrown up new concerns about the reliability of some of the Chinese weather data that were used.

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As a result, serious scientists, including some of those who contributed to the IPCC's 2007 report, are suggesting that it is time for Pachauri to go and for a thorough overhaul and rechecking of the data on which the report relied. The problem, says Canada's Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria who helped write the last three IPCC reports, is that the IPCC has confused its mission and risks being seen as a partisan advocate rather than an objective scientific body.

"There's been some dangerous crossing of that line," Weaver told Canadian reporters. "The problem we have is that the IPCC process has taken on a life of its own. Some might argue we need a change in some of the upper leadership of the IPCC, who are perceived as becoming advocates."

In Germany, the magazine Der Spiegel published an op-ed by three climate researchers that argued: "Climate politics is important. The IPCC is also important. This importance requires a reform -- before the reputation of climate science is irreparably damaged."

What makes all this desperately serious is the world is confronted by serious demands -- apparently backed up by the objective science of the IPCC -- that it had better start soon on a hugely expensive re-engineering of its energy, manufacturing and transport systems in order to slash its carbon emissions and fend off disastrous environmental consequences.

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Most scientists and many governments still fervently believe that to be true, despite the failure of the Copenhagen conference in December to agree on a mandatory international regime for reducing carbon emissions. But to achieve such a regime they will need the kind of public support and international agreement that will depend on incontrovertible evidence.

But the evidence is now in question, and so is the competence and authority of the IPCC, the body that was supposed not only to provide that evidence, but to police, monitor and ratify it so that it was beyond question.

Maybe that was too high a bar. Scientists, however capable, are human and capable of error. Absolute proof is elusive. But the reality of modern politics is that the U.S. Congress, the Chinese state council, the Indian Cabinet and a growing number of members of the European Parliament are going to want a lot better evidence than the IPCC looks to be providing.

Unless the IPCC changes its priorities and procedures and resolves the damaging controversies now swirling around it, it could become the worst enemy of the climate-change movement. And since the bulk of the evidence still says that the world faces a desperate threat and needs to change its ways, that would be a disastrous tragedy.

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