Voodoo science?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had no option but to express regret over its claim, made in a report it released in 2007, that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, after it came to light recently that the claim was based on speculation. The retraction is fine but the controversy has done no credit to the IPCC, the premier UN agency which has an important role in climate change policy formulation. It has received the Nobel Prize for its work and advocacy. It is surprising that a body with such credentials would base its claim, by its own admission, on “poorly substantiated estimates” and forgo “clear and well-established standards” of evidence. It now turns out that a news story that appeared in the journal ‘New Scientist’, based on an interview with a researcher, was the source of the IPCC claim. The article had not been peer reviewed, nor its content verified against research findings.

The incident reflects poorly on the professionalism and scientific rigour of the IPCC and has done damage to its credibility. When India’s environment ministry had challenged the IPCC claim, the UN body’s chair, Rajendra Pachauri, had dubbed Indian glaciologists’ opinion as ‘voodoo science.’ The description unfortunately suits the IPCC’s claim. Doubts have now been raised about the IPCC’s claim on the rise of sea levels also. The IPCC has made good contribution to increasing global awareness on climate change issues. But when it makes alarmist and sensational claims, it is harming the cause it is campaigning for. Some months ago there were charges that scientists had cooked up data to make the impact of global warming look more serious than it is. Such controversies are used as weapons by those who deny or doubt the role of global warming in climate change. The threat to glaciers from global warming is real. Those who espouse and support corrective action for this should desist from cavalier and irresponsible ways.

The IPCC has also attracted adverse attention with some recent media reports questioning the business interests and financial dealings of its chief. Pachauri has denied any conflict of interest in his positions and the charge of any wrongdoing. It is for the UN body and its chief to ensure that it does not lower its moral and professional standing by any further lapses or errors. Its actions and processes should be guided by the best standards of scientific research and ethical conduct.

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