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Confidence In Climate Science Eroding Over Errors

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Confidence In Climate Science Eroding Over Errors

Confidence In Climate Science Eroding Over Errors

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The world's top climate science institution has conceded that it published errors in its reports. That follows a separate controversy over hacked emails from prominent climate scientists that cast doubt on their objectivity. Most scientists say the evidence for a warming world is still as strong as ever.

But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, some now acknowledge they may need to do some housecleaning and improve their public relations skills.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Scientists don't like to make mistakes, so it was with much embarrassment that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admitted that it published a real laugher in its latest report on climate science.

The IPCC quoted a study that said Himalayan glaciers could completely melt by 2035. Two numbers were transposed. It should have said by the year 2350.

As climate skeptics pounced on the mistake, other errors in IPCC report surfaced. Climate scientists insist that these are minor and that climate change is still a fact, so did the top climate negotiator at the State Department, Todd Stern.

Mr. TODD STERN (Special Envoy for Climate Change, Department of State): What should not happen is that any individual mistakes, typos, whatever they might be, taken to undermine the very fundamental record from scientists all over the world, that this is a serious and growing problem.

JOYCE: But Robert Watson, who ran the IPCC for six years, worries that public confidence in climate science has been shaken.

Professor ROBERT WATSON: Only four or five sentences in 3,000 pages is a very small number of mistakes. However, I think, given the importance of IPCC, given the importance of the climate change issue, one always has to find the way now not to allow any mistakes to be propagated.

JOYCE: Watson says that means running every bit of research the IPCC collects -that's thousands of studies from around the world - through even more reviews. Now, reports by the IPCC already go through two rounds of outside review.

Steven Hamburg is an ecologist with the Environmental Defense Fund, who has worked within IPCC. He says mistakes are just part of doing science.

Dr. STEVEN HAMBURG (Chief Scientist, Environmental Defense Fund): We have to be careful that we don't hold the consensus on climate change that the IPCC represents to a significantly higher standard than we hold all of science that we herald as the basis of modern society.

JOYCE: But most new science goes through journals before the public sees it, that journals have a way to correct mistakes quickly.

Dr. HAMBURG: Every journal has a place in the back for corrections. Note, when you make mistake, you correct it. If it's not of significance affecting the fundamental conclusions, we move on.

JOYCE: The IPCC does not have a place for public corrections. Its reports come out every six years or so, too slow for corrections, as well as new research.

Watson and Hamburg say the organization could fix that by publishing corrections and updates on its Web site.

But then there's the politicking. The United Nations set up the IPCC and member nations must sign off on every word in the reports.

Former IPCC head Robert Watson recalls one nightmarish attempt to get bureaucrats to agree on a shorter, more public-friendly version of one report.

Prof. WATSON: Oh, I mean, after a day of argument, they gave up on the idea, because some countries took out 10 sentences or 20 sentences and some would say, ah, no. I wouldn't have any of those sentences. I'd pick the following 20 sentences.

JOYCE: That's the kind of squabbling that derailed the big U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen last December. Those deliberations failed and now the U.N.'s top climate diplomat Yvo de Boer is resigning.

Some climate scientists say all of this has put them on a defensive. EDF's Steven Hamburg says it also shows that they need to communicate a lot better about how climate scientists reach their conclusions.

Dr. HAMBURG: We've done a poor job of explaining how these things are done. So, how do we make predictions about the future? How do we understand impacts? How much of it is empirical, so it's direct measurement? How much of it is modeled, how much of it is theoretical?

JOYCE: And what it does and doesn't mean when scientists make mistakes.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, we'll hear about research that suggests, right or wrong, more facts may not be enough to convince people about the validity of climate science.

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