By Jonathan Leake | The Australian | January 25, 2010 12:00AM
THE UN climate science panel faces new controversy for wrongly linking global warming to a rise in natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change based the claims on an unpublished report that had not been subjected to routine scientific scrutiny – and ignored warnings from scientific advisers. The report’s author later withdrew the claim because the evidence was too weak.
The link was central to demands at last month’s Copenhagen climate summit by African nations for compensation of $US100 billion from the rich nations.
However, the IPCC knew in 2008 that the link could not be proved but did not alert world leaders, who have used weather extremes to bolster the case for action on climate change.
Kevin Rudd last November linked weather extremes to the debate over the government’s emissions trading scheme.
“We will feel the effects of climate change fastest and hardest, and therefore we must act this week, and the government will be doing everything possible to make sure that can occur,” the Prime Minister said at the time.
British Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband has suggested floods – such as those in Bangladesh in 2007 – could be linked to global warming.
US President Barack Obama said last year: “More powerful storms and floods threaten every continent.”
Last month British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament that the financial agreement at Copenhagen “must address the great injustice that . . . those hit first and hardest by
climate change are those that have done least harm”.
The IPCC has now been forced to reassess its report linking extreme weather to climate change.
The UN body’s about-face comes less than a week after it was forced to retract claims that the Himalayan glaciers would be largely melted by 2035. The claim was sourced to an environmental group’s report of an interview in New Scientist magazine.
The Indian glaciologist who made the quote said a week ago the claim was “speculation” and had not been used in a peer-reviewed scientific paper.
It also comes as the British parliament launches an inquiry into leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit that raised questions about the legitimacy of some data published by the IPCC about global warming.
The latest controversy goes back to the IPCC’s benchmark 2007 report on climate change, which warned that the world had “suffered rapidly rising costs due to extreme weather-related events since the 1970s”. It suggested part of the increase was because of global warming.
However, the scientific paper on which the IPCC based its claim had not been peer reviewed, nor published, by the time the climate body issued its report. When the paper was published, in 2008, it had a new caveat. It said: “We find insufficient evidence to claim a statistical relationship between global temperature increase and catastrophic losses.”
The IPCC failed to issue a clarification before the Copenhagen climate summit last month. Two scientific reviewers who checked drafts of the IPCC report urged greater caution in proposing a link between climate change and disaster impacts, but were ignored.
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a climatologist at the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, who is vice-chairman of the IPCC, said the UN body was now “reassessing the evidence” and it would publish a report on natural disasters and extreme weather with the latest findings.
The opposition used the latest revelations to savage Mr Rudd over his handling of climate change. Tony Abbott pointed to Mr Rudd’s reluctance to mention climate change in the series of speeches he had delivered around the nation in the lead-up to Australia Day.
“This is yet another case of the Prime Minister raising expectations and not acting on them,” the Opposition Leader said. “The challenge for the Prime Minister is to say now whether he really will reintroduce the ETS given the failure of Copenhagen.”
Opposition climate change spokesman Greg Hunt backed the British parliamentary inquiry into the so-called Climategate emails, established on Friday. “The key to community consensus on climate change is confidence in the science,” he said.
Climate Change Minister Penny Wong last week endorsed the IPCC report that contained the glacier claim. “It has been intensely scrutinised with very few errors being identified, and none that challenge the central conclusions of the report,” she said. “The Fourth Assessment Report represents the international consensus on climate change science. All reports of the IPCC are subjected to extensive expert and government review.”
The paper at the centre of the latest questions was written in 2006 by Robert Muir-Wood, head of research at Risk Management Solutions, a London consultancy, who became a contributing author on the IPCC report on climate change impacts.
He wanted to find out if the eight year-on-year increase in losses caused by weather-related disasters since the 1960s was larger than could be explained by the impact of social changes such as growth in population. Such an increase, coinciding with rising temperatures, would suggest global warming was to blame.
In the research, Mr Muir-Wood looked at a range of hazards, including tropical cyclones, floods and hurricanes. He found from 1950 to 2005 there was no increase in the impact of disasters once growth was accounted for. For 1970 to 2005 he found a 2 per cent annual increase that “corresponded with a period of rising global temperatures”, but said almost all of it was because of strong hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005. Despite such caveats, the IPCC report cited only the 1970-2005 results.
Roger Pielke, professor of environmental studies at Colorado University, who commissioned Mr Muir-Wood’s paper, has told the IPCC that citing one section in preference to the rest was wrong.
“The idea that catastrophes are rising in cost because of climate change is completely misleading,” Mr Muir-Wood said.
Additional reporting: Christian Kerr
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