Andrew Revkin, who blogs about climate change for the New York Times, is doing what an experienced beat reporter is supposed to: he’s paying close attention. In a post filed from the Cancun climate summit, Revkin notes that a draft document currently being circulated by the United Nations contains a mistake.
The document lists some basic, agreed-upon climate change facts on page four. The third point, Revkin reports, currently says that the document
3. Recognizes that warming of the climate system, as a consequence of human activity, is unequivocal, as assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change [IPCC] in its Fourth Assessment Report;
Revkin correctly points out that this statement is false. In his words:
The only major conclusion of the climate panel that is described as “unequivocal is that the climate has warmed.
When the IPCC released its findings in early 2007, this is how the front page New York Times news story (co-authored by Revkin and another journalist) began:
PARIS, Feb. 2 In a grim and powerful assessment of the future of the planet, the leading international network of climate scientists has concluded for the first time that global warming is “unequivocal and that human activity is the main driver, “very likely causing most of the rise in temperatures since 1950.
Strip away the drama from that sentence, and what you’re actually left with is two ideas. First, the IPCC thinks “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” To illustrate this point it uses a temperature graph that begins in 1850 and demonstrates a total warming of less than one degree Celsius spread over a century-and-a-half.
What neither the IPCC nor Revkin mentioned at the time is that 1850 marks the end of the Little Ice Age. That the overall global temperature has been gently rebounding from that frigid period hardly seems worth getting excited about.
The second ideas is that, in the opinion of the IPCC:
Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. [italics added]
So despite the breathless manner in which the media reported these findings, there’s a more mundane way of stating them: After billions of dollars and decades of research, after all the shenanigans connected to the production of various versions of the climate bible, all the IPCC is able to say for certain is that the world has warmed slightly over the past 150 years.
In the opinion of the IPCC’s experts (and history tells us experts are frequently wrong) it’s very likely that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions caused most of the warming during the last third of that period.
That’s as good as it gets, folks. That’s the non-smoking-gun. This is where the claim that human activity is about to trigger a climate apocalypse comes from.
In his Cancun post, Revkin characterizes the draft document’s misstatement as “a glitch in the text”. He says the glitch needs to be corrected – and has admirably sent an e-mail to IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri calling his attention to this matter.
Revkin gives the UN the benefit of the doubt. He implies that this is a trivial concern, an inadvertent mistake. Since I began writing this blog post, he has since updated his. He now reports:
Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chariman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has confirmed the small error in the draft described below. On Sunday morning, he told me he was contacting relevant officials about “the need for correcting the wording that the statement uses.”
This is good news. This incident provides a concrete demonstration of the crucial role the media plays in free societies. Scrutiny on the part of the media helps keep the authorities honest. Revkin should take a bow.
I’m not persuaded, though, that this was an honest mistake. After all, this isn’t the first time the UN has made this “small error.” Back in 2007, when the IPCC findings were released with much fanfare, two different UN bodies issued press releases (see them here and here) that falsely claimed that human responsibility for global warming is unequivocal.
Nearly four years later these uncorrected press releases remain online.
Which makes one wonder where the Union of Concerned Scientists has been all this time. It claims to care about scientific integrity. Why has it not demanded that these UN bodies correct the record? Why has it not insisted that the UN stick to the scientific truth – rather than promulgating unsupported exaggeration?