By Tina Perinotto

Leading Australian climate scientist Andy Pitman has slammed the misuse of an error in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the so-called “email scandal” to discredit the science on climate change, and the IPCC report in particular.

The IPCC error, revealed last week by New Scientist, related to forecasts that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035.

Professor Pitman, co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of NSW, said the forecasts contained in the IPCC report should not have been used because they emanated from a media conference, but that while the timing of the melting of the glaciers might be wrong, their melting was not.

“The forecast that the Himalayas would melt by 2035 was indeed an error and should have been omitted,” Professor Pitman said. “What was accurate to say was that the Himalayas would melt sometime in the future.”

The report should have stated something more like “the glaciers appear to be melting rapidly and are likely to disappear in the 21st century”, he said.

The revelations of the error “in no way undermines the accuracy and reliability of the IPCC”, Professor Pitman said, yet it had been seized upon by climate change sceptics to do exactly that.

“Of course there are some errors. In three years since it’s been published, a small number of errors, which rarely appear in the Summary for Policy Makers, have been identified. This phenomenal accuracy is a testament to the thoroughness and robustness of the report.”

Professor Pitman criticised the role of some media, which he said was happy to generously cover news of the IPCC’s error but not the scientific understanding that the Himalayan glaciers are expected to continue to melt.

The role of the national newspaper The Australian in fanning the flames of scepticism was particularly disturbing, he said. “It is absolutely The Australian undermining what remains of completely convincing evidence on climate change.”

The Australian ran several articles on the IPCC error but it was not until the end of its fifth article on the issue, published on Saturday, that it provided a counterpoint to the attacks.

The newspaper quoted Bob Ward, a geologist and former journalist who is now policy director at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change:

“People who have an axe to grind are trying to use this incident to undermine the credibility of the whole IPCC,” Mr Ward said, “but in order to do that you have to enormously exaggerate the significance of the paragraph about the Himalayas.

“We are talking about one error in a three-year-old 3,000-page report that was clearly a rather glaring mistake. Groups who don’t want to see any action on climate change are using anything like this they can get their hands on to try to undermine the science. It is happening particularly in Australia and the US where there are political debates going on about domestic legislation related to climate change.

“Cogley [Graham Cogley, the geographer from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada] exposed this 2035 date as inaccurate not because he disputes the fact that glaciers are receding – he doesn’t – but because he genuinely wants all the science to be as accurate as possible. But a lot of the people who are leaping on to it just want to raise as many doubts as possible to try to slow the whole process down,” Mr Ward said.

The Australian quoted Mr Ward as saying that the most concerted opposition to climate-change action “is coming from ideologically driven right-wing groups like the American think tanks that oppose any sort of restrictions on the market” and fossil fuel companies “that are trying to delay any new restrictions on their business for as long as possible.

“It is very similar to the way the tobacco industry managed to delay health regulations for years by playing up any element of doubt at all about the medical research on smoking. That is why it’s so dangerous and so stupid for the IPCC to let mistakes like this happen.”

Similar bias in reporting has emerged worldwide in response to the publication of a series of hacked emails from the University of East Anglia that Professor Pitman says were misrepresented and taken out of context.

For instance some of the evidence that the emails suggested had been “suppressed” was, in fact,  fully reported in the IPCC report, Professor Pitman said.

Another attack centred on the use of the word “trick”, which scientists often take to mean, not fraud but a shorthand way of achieving the same correct result, Professor Pitman said.

At the centre of the email controversy is Professor Phil Jones, the director of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, who has stepped down from his position, vehemently denying he had acted wrongly.