Science report: Low-down on the IPCC errors

A few months ago, we had "Climategate," the leak of climate scientists' emails.  And now, on the heels of Climategate, we get "Glaciergate," "Amazongate," "Seagate," and more...  Yikes!  What’s this all about!?!?

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the Nobel-prize winning UN body of thousands of scientists (as well as what we at ACE base most of our science content on) has come under attack.

This is definitely a matter of concern, because if the IPCC, as the foundation of the current best climate science out there, isn't right, then the whole argument that people are causing climate change and that we should DO SOMETHING about it gets called into question.

Okay – let’s take a look at what all the hype is about…


There have been a few errors found in the 2007 IPCC report (read on to find out what they are…), but they are pretty small, especially compared with the mountain of other data and evidence in the full report.  Most of the science in the IPCC comes from published science papers, which means it was independently checked out well before it became part of the IPCC.

Just for a sense of perspective, here are some stats:

-            2 errors found in the report

-            over 1000 pages in each section

-            18,000 scientific references / citations

-            450 lead authors

-            over 800 contributing authors

-            3 stages of review

-            more than 2,500 reviewers

-            submitted about 90,000 comments, all of which are in the public record (see here).

Wow!  This is a hefty bit of research.  It's probably one of the biggest synthesis efforts ever done, on any subject!

So, what's all the fuss about?

Here are the 2 actual errors found in the report:


One place in the report said that 80% of Himalayan glaciers could be gone by 2035.  This was cited to a report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), but was not true.  These glaciers should be around for a couple hundred more years – yay!

(Also worth noting that other sections of the report actually used more accurate numbers for things like calculating sea level rise, so this error didn’t impact any of the other conclusions of the report.)


This said that 55% of the Netherlands is below sea level, but it's actually 26%.  55% is below high-water level during a storm.  Oops!  Again, this mistake didn’t impact any other information in the report, though.

The revelation of these two mistakes has led to a big flurry in the media over several other IPCC "errors" - which have all turned out not to be errors after all.  The most publicized one is "Amazongate," where one reporter accused the IPCC of being wrong when they said, “Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation."

This fact was also cited to a WWF report that didn't contain that statistic.  Turns out that it is TRUE that this much of the Amazon is really sensitive to rainfall, but that the wrong papers were cited.  The authors who published the studies actually wrote to the reporter before he published his story about this, but it got published without the scientists’ comments anyway.  (You can read the full blow-by-blow here or here.)

Phew!  LOTS of smoke over a pretty tiny fire.

Ironically enough, what many IPCC scientists believe is the REAL problem with the IPCC is that it’s too conservative in its results and it underestimated some of its findings - particularly sea level rise.  (Read more about this at RealClimate here.)

Despite all this brouhaha (Wow!  I can't believe that just spell-checked!), these small errors really don’t at all undermine the big picture of whether people, by burning fossil fuels, are the ones responsible for climate change.

This primary conclusion of the IPCC, that it is very likely that people are the cause of most of climate change, still stands totally solid and intact and valid.

And, with that conclusion, comes the question that we still haven’t answered yet:

What are we going to do about it??

Rebecca Anderson

Rebecca Anderson is ACE’s Director of Education. She came to ACE in its inception in 2008. Rebecca develops ACE's science content, manages the online climate education resource Our Climate Our Future, oversees the ACE Teacher Network, and works with schools in the Reno-Tahoe area. Prior to ACE, she did paleoclimate research in the Arctic and Antarctica.