Inside the Climate Bunker

How global-warming deniers are running circles around the U.N.'s top climate body.

Three years ago, Rajendra K. Pachauri was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.'s climate science panel. Now the IPCC head is under fire from critics for a catalogue of recent embarrassments: his initial kneejerk defense of the "Climategate" emails (Pachauri first questioned the motives of those who had hacked into the University of East Anglia's email system, then said there was "virtually no possibility" that IPCC findings were impacted), the fight he picked with the Indian environmental minister when the latter questioned certain data on glacier melt within India (Pachauri called  the government report's "voodoo science"), and the steamy soft-core novel, Return to Almora, he released last month (somewhere between memoir and fantasy, it features the sexual exploits of a 60-something globetrotting climate expert, and has scandalized an Indian public not accustomed to its masturbating scenes and erotic explicitness).

Few stars have risen and fallen so quickly as Pachauri's, who has gone from being an international climate hero to subject of increasing ridicule at home and abroad. Pachauri, an economist and former railroad engineer from a small town in the Himalayan foothills of north India, assumed his position at the helm of the IPCC in 2002. At the time, he had the enthusiastic backing of the Bush administration, which had grown tired of fielding industry complaints about his predecessor Robert Watson and hoped (wrongly, it turned out) that Pachauri would prove less vocal in his calls for carbon-reduction efforts.

But even as his credentials and honors stacked up -- from the government of France anointing him an "Officier de la legion d'honneur" to GQ India naming him 2009's "Global Indian of the Year" (FP even named him a "top global thinker" last year) -- Pachauri couldn't quite discipline his tongue. Or perhaps he didn't care what impression his verbal zingers left. In 2008, he told the Chicago Tribune: "I tell people I was born a Hindu who believes in reincarnation. It will take me the next six lives to neutralize my carbon footprint. There's no way I can do it in one lifetime."

But he attracted the most attention for barbs directed at his critics, calling those who've questioned IPCC reports "flat-earthers" -- "they are indulging in is skulduggery of the worst kind," he told the Financial Times -- and generally bristling at the prospect of unwanted scrutiny, without providing clear answers to valid questions about his stewardship.  ("My conscience is clear," he announced to the New York Times this week.) But while Pachauri's larger-than-life persona and propensity for conducting himself as though beyond reproach catches attention, these characteristics don't in and of themselves defame the organization he heads -- as much as global-warming deniers are happy to seize upon any opportunity to poke holes in climate science in general.

There is, however, at least one item in the recent round of Pachauri-bashing that does the U.N. panel no credit: a glaring error in an IPCC report about the date by which Himalayan glaciers are likely to have disappeared entirely. The underlying technical report of the panel's 2007 climate assessment  erroneously stated that by 2035 the glaciers would be gone entirely, when scientific consensus places the date much later (studies cited by the BBC project a date closer to 2350 -- more than 300 years later).

The 2035 date was an alarming, attention-grabbing finding -- and many journalists, including Stephan Faris last year in Foreign Policy, cited it as evidence that global warming is an urgent crisis. But, after the Indian government released its own report with conflicting glacier-melt data last fall, glacier scientists went back to the IPCC report and began to raise questions about the 2035 date. The chatter among experts was picked up in Science magazine last year, before spilling into the mainstream media, which has already been primed by the "Climategate" saga and a disappointing outcome in Copenhagen to turn climate-science disputes into heightened political narratives. (The initial error may have come because the IPCC cited a decade-old interview in The New Scientist which quoted a scientist mentioning the date 2035, as opposed to sourcing peer-reviewed scientific literature.)

With all the attention, one might think the IPCC would by now have a precise and consistent explanation -- or point to an ongoing investigation -- for how this error crept in. Alas.

It is telling that when I wanted to inquire about just how such an eye-popping error had made its way into the report, I was able to speak with the very the scientist responsible for coordinating that section, as opposed to a well-rehearsed communications officer. (Media savvy does not come naturally to the IPCC, a two-decade-old body charged with identifying points of scientific consensus among the growing body of expert literature on climate change. And even as the weight of the world rests on its shoulders, the panel still relies largely on unpaid scientists who volunteer their time.)

That scientist, Christopher Field, is director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. His own work focuses on the carbon cycle, and he cochairs the working group responsible for the section of the IPCC assessment that deals with impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, including glacier melt.

If anyone has the wherewithal to identify precisely how the error survived the panel's extensive review process -- which involved soliciting more than 2,500 reviewers and experts, and more than 9,000 review comments -- it would be him.

Here is what he told me:

"That statement [about Himalayan glacier melting by 2035] is in the literature that the report cites, but it's not a statement consistent with other scientific information available ... It should not have made it into final report."

In other words, an outlier source was picked up by the chapter's authors. But what of the vaunted review process? With all the input and reactions from some so many scientific experts, did no one flag that item as questionable?

"No ... In principle, [our process] should have turned over every rock and leaf in the forest."

Interestingly, the error did come to light last fall, nearly two years after the report's initial publication, when competing glacier-melt data was released by India's ministry of environment and forests. That discrepancy quickly focused the attention of international glaciologists on both sets of data, and questions about the particulars of IPCC glacier data soon surfaced. (This, of course, raises the question of whether the IPCC's process for soliciting peer comments is targeting the right people.)

So when it became clear that a storm was brewing, how did the IPCC respond? Sloooowly.

The first rule of political damage control is to admit mistakes quickly and control the narrative, but the IPCC is still not accustomed to operating in the news cycle as opposed to on a more academic timetable. Field says that the brewing controversy was clearly on the IPCC's radar screen by Jan. 1, but that it then took until Jan. 20 for the panel to meet and put a press statement online.

"The IPCC is kind of slow responding," Field says. "It took two weeks to analyze the situation and get the statement on the website."

And now that the IPCC has acknowledged an error, what comes next?

"The IPCC does not have a formal error correction policy in place ... Historically the approach is to address [any errors] in the next assessment [due out in 2014], but in the current environment, where there is now a lot of connection to the news cycle, waiting for next assessment is not good option." He adds that it is a "high priority" to develop one.

David Victor of Stanford's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies says: "They [the IPCC] have kind of a bunker mentality -- it's not excusable but understandable."

In the time since the U.N. created the IPCC in 1988, global interest in climate change has risen dramatically, and so, too, the spotlight on and expectations for the scientific panel.  "The stakes and the pressure have both gotten higher," says Andrew Revkin, the longtime New York Times climate reporter and author of the DotEarth blog. "The IPCC was an experiment from the get-go -- there's never been anything like it ... it's still more of a 20th-century process than a 21st-century process."

The ambition and global importance of the IPCC is growing, while its methods and resources are struggling to keep up. Confusion, not orchestrated bias or, as some have asserted, greed, seems the most likely cause of recent slipups. But with the fate of the planet in the balance, that's not good enough.

AFP/Getty Images


Nanjing by the Numbers

A new report on the 1937-1938 massacre doesn't settle the contested issue of how many people died -- but it points to a much more significant new consensus between Japan and China.

The "Rape of Nanking," in which invading Japanese soldiers slaughtered and raped a massive number of Chinese civilians, has long been a flashpoint in formal relations between Beijing and Tokyo, as well as a subject capable of arousing strong feelings among the general population of both countries, particularly in China.

The debate was recently reopened by a joint report issued by the governments of China and Japan. But while most newspaper accounts have focused on the remaining points of disagreement -- including the still-disputed death toll -- they've tended to miss the larger significance of the report: that historians appointed by both countries did, for the first time, agree that the Japanese army committed atrocities during the war and that Japan's illegal acts of aggression were the main cause of hostilities.

Ever since the end of the Pacific War in 1945, characterizations of what happened in Nanjing have varied widely depending on whom you ask. At one end of the spectrum, the unfortunate historical episode that began with Japanese troops entering Nanjing in early December 1937 has been referred to as China's counterpart to the Holocaust. At the other end, it has been treated as a predictably bloody wartime effort to assert control over a captured city. Historians in Japan have typically estimated the number killed at between 20,000 and 200,000 Chinese citizens (with those on the far right tending to veer toward small casualty figures), while historians in China have often insisted that more than 300,000 people died, the great majority of them non-combatants. It is not a debate likely to be easily resolved. In the chaos of war (and the conflagration in question was especially chaotic), careful records of the murdered are seldom kept, and accounts of mass burials and burnings of bodies indicates that, in this case, we are likely never to know precisely how many civilian deaths occurred.

Given this background, it was unsurprising that the joint report, written by an officially convened group of China-based and Japan-based historians, failed to come to a consensus on the Nanjing Massacre's death toll.  It is also worth noting that this was apparently not the only issue on which the Chinese and Japanese language versions of the report that were released simultaneously diverged. Some news stories note that there was also a split, for example, on whether the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937, a famous battle between China's National Revolutionary Army and the Imperial Japanese Army, was triggered by an "accident"; the Japanese version insisted this had been the case, while the Chinese one left open the possibility that Japan had conspired to bring that conflict about, as China has long claimed. And the section of the report dealing with post-1945 history was withheld, apparently at the request of the Chinese delegation, whose members seemed to be concerned over discussions of more sensitive recent historical events. (A Japanese television clip on the report was even reportedly blacked out in China for its use of footage related to a very different massacre, the one that Chinese troops carried out in Beijing in June of 1989.)

It would be too much to hope that any joint report over the causes and events of the Pacific War would reach accord on every issue. But as partisan as the debate on the Nanjing massacre has often seemed, a close reading of the new report shows that the divide in it over the number killed in that city is not exclusively a political standoff. Instead, it largely reflects scholarly concern over the reliability of the numbers -- on both the Chinese and Japanese sides. And it would be unfortunate if the lack of agreement over death tolls obscured the significant new points of consensus.

The main points of agreement constitute a major step forward in Sino-Japanese relations. For years, there have been some historians in Japan moving toward a more moderate position on Nanjing, but there have also been periodic efforts by Japanese officials to sidestep or minimize the issue of Japanese culpability and misbehavior, their sentiments echoed by a small number of textbooks authorized for use in Japan's classrooms. Japanese leaders have historically ignored pleas to acknowledge fully the extent to which Japan was responsible for Pacific War-era devastation and violence not just in China but also in Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. So, all in all, the report has much to recommend it.

Unfortunately, coverage of its release in the United States has tended to focus on the continued disagreement over the massacre's death toll. The same has been true in much of the Japanese press. Chinese papers, by contrast, while taking note of the disagreement over numbers, have typically led with what is arguably the much bigger story -- Japan's acknowledgment, in an official report, that the war was due to Japanese aggression.

Still, the report could be a very welcome harbinger of movement away from the old fights about the Pacific War. The "textbook controversies" have unfolded over several decades, but the postmillennial years have been particularly fraught, with high-profile protests in China and South Korea over how the war is taught and memorialized in Japan (even while some Japanese historians and others in Japan have repeatedly called for a more forthright acknowledgment of Japanese wartime atrocities both at home and abroad).

There will probably never be full agreement on the Nanjing numbers. But precise death tolls are not, ultimately, the real issue at hand. The real issue is China's desire that Japan accept responsibility for a tragedy of such great scale and violence. The new report, then, gets to the heart of what has angered victims and their descendents -- Japan's past refusal to acknowledge unequivocally the extent of its historical violence and aggression. In an East Asia increasingly interconnected by economics, politics, and culture, Japan's subtle shift may well ease tensions enough that, in the end, the numbers will become a matter of scholarly discussion rather than the political and cultural flashpoint they have been for decades.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images