January 25, 2010

Climate Change's Latest Storm

Good news for the Earth, bad news for the IPCC.


It's been a good week for the future of Life as We Know It. First the keepers of the climate-science consensus admitted that the Himalayan glaciers are not on the verge of disappearing, as these columns pointed out last month. Now we've learned that there wasn't much science behind the claim, also trumpeted in the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 report, that rising temperatures were leading to more-intense storms and more-expensive natural catastrophes.

This is good news for everyone, except perhaps the IPCC itself.

The IPCC's latest headache involves the section on global warming and natural disasters in its 2007 report. There, it cites "Muir-Wood et al., 2006" as claiming that "a small statistically significant trend was found for an increase in annual catastrophe loss since 1970 of 2% per year." That detailed and caveat-laden section was then translated in the IPCC's synthesis report as saying that more "heavy precipitation" is "very likely" and that an "increase in tropical cyclone intensity" is "likely" as temperatures rise. The IPCC's 2007 report was not the first star-turn for "Muir-Wood et al." The hugely influential 2006 Stern Review, commissioned by the British government, cited Muir-Wood to help support its dramatic predictions of the costs of unchecked global warming.

The idea that hotter temperatures will lead to apocalyptic storms has had a major policy impact. In October 2009, a court in New Orleans ruled that victims of Hurricane Katrina could sue oil and gas companies for their supposed contributions to the ferocity of the storm. In September 2009, U.S. President Obama told a climate conference that "More powerful storms and floods threaten every continent."

One hitch: "Muir-Wood et al" had not been published when it was selected for the IPCC report. It had not even been peer-reviewed. When the research in the paper was finally published in 2008, as part of a larger book called "Climate Extremes and Society," the authors concluded they had found "limited statistical evidence of an upward trend in normalized losses from 1970 through 2005 and insufficient evidence to claim a firm link between global warming and disaster losses." Indeed, most scientists studying the link between global temperatures and extreme weather agree, saying the relationship is far from established.

Yet at its Copenhagen conference in December, the IPCC did nothing to correct the record. Instead, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri reminded delegates in his opening speech that climate change would "in all likelihood" lead to an "increase in tropical cyclone intensity" and an "increase in frequency of hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation." And yesterday, in response to a London Times report on the reliability of the claim, the IPCC stood by the finding, saying its procedures "were carefully followed" without making any effort to justify its use of an unpublished paper that, when it finally did see the light of day, had substantially walked back the findings on which the IPCC's original projection was based.

We understand that a few errors or omissions do not alone suffice to demolish the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming. As for the credibility of the IPCC process, however, it is melting far faster than a Himalayan glacier these days.


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