EXCLUSIVE: UN scientist refutes Daily Mail claim he said Himalayan glacier error was politically motivated

“We reported the facts about science as we knew them…. We were not trying to oversell the science…. The fact is the IPCC has been very conservative.”

MEMO TO MEDIA: Please start doing some damn journalism — like placing a simple phone call to a primary source. A great many “newspapers” like the Daily Mail are no more reliable than the websites of the anti-science disinformers, like the thoroughly discredited ClimateDepot of Marc Morano.

In an exclusive interview — “exclusive” in the sense that many of the people smearing Dr. Murari Lal haven’t bothered to ask him whether the original story was accurate — Dr. Lal asserts that the “most vilest allegations” in the Daily Mail story are utterly false.

Sunday, the Daily Mail’s David Rose wrote a sensational piece supposedly based on direct quotes from Dr. Lal:

The scientist behind the bogus claim in a Nobel Prize-winning UN report that Himalayan glaciers will have melted by 2035 last night admitted it was included purely to put political pressure on world leaders.

Dr Murari Lal also said he was well aware the statement, in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), did not rest on peer-reviewed scientific research.

In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Dr Lal, the co-ordinating lead author of the report’s chapter on Asia, said: “It related to several countries in this region and their water sources. We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.”

As you’d expect, this was immediately trumpeted by Morano (a spreader of uber-disinformation since the days he helped launch the shameful Swift Boat smear against John Kerry). You’d think that science reporters and major media would know enough to treat claims from such sources with a grain of salt (see “FoxNews pushes falsehood-filled Daily Mail article on global cooling that utterly misquotes, misrepresents work of Mojib Latif and NSIDC”). But of course they don’t (see “Exclusive interview with Dr. Latif, the man who confused the NY Times and New Scientist, the man who moved George Will and Morano to extreme disinformation”).

At the very least, anyone who was going to repeat this inflammatory charge — let alone draw any conclusions from it — ought to have made a simple phone call to Dr. Lal, don’t you think? But not Science News and US News & World Report.

Science News has been viewed with a lot of credibility, and their stuff is widely reprinted (even at CP). But this piece of theirs is just not right:

Science & the Public: IPCC’s Himalayan glacier ‘mistake’ not an accident

Newspaper reports that unsubstantiated numbers were used intentionally.

A London newspaper reports today that the unsubstantiated Himalayan-glacier melt figures contained in a supposedly authoritative 2007 report on climate warming were used intentionally, despite the report’s lead author knowing there were no data to back them up.

Until now, the organization that published the report — the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — had argued the exaggerated figures in that report were an accident: due to insufficient fact checking of the source material.

Uh, no. It now appears the incident wasn’t quite that innocent.

The Sunday Mail’s David Rose reached Murari Lal, the coordinating lead author of the 2007 IPCC report’s chapter on Asia. Lal told Rose that he knew there were no solid data to support the report’s claim that Himalayan glaciers — the source of drinking and irrigation water for downstream areas throughout Asia — could dry up by 2035. Said Lal: “We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.” In other words, Rose says, Lal “last night admitted [the scary figure] was included purely to put political pressure on world leaders.”

A noble motive, perhaps, but totally inexcusable.

Yes, this is “only” a blog entry by one Janet Raloff, but it almost immediately was reposted by US News & World Report Science with their logo

and that of Science News:

Makes everything look very official and credible, when really the US News piece is just a reposting of an unverified blog post on an erroneous story! Yes, how ironic that the media is guilty of precisely what it has accused the IPCC of — running an unverified story!

If the piece contains a bombshell charge against an individual scientist, somebody has to confirm the original story. Instead, the piece merely states:

If Lal knowingly perpetuated unsubstantiated speculation in a purportedly authoritative document, that would constitute what we in journalism refer to as a “hanging offense” — the kind of action that gets you fired or at least heavily sanctioned….

The Rose article also charges that Lal’s committee didn’t investigate challenges to glacier data in its chapter — challenges made by climate scientists prior to the IPCC report’s publication.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I don’t know for certain what Lal and his team did or didn’t do. Journalism is not peer review. But our reporting can help policy makers and scientists know where further investigation is warranted. And it’s warranted here.If further investigation confirms that what Rose reported today is true, then Lal — and, through him, the IPCC — would have abrograted the public trust. And stupidly given ammunition to those who have made a sport of challenging solid climate science.

Totally inexcusable.

“Journalism is not peer review.” Apparently journalism isn’t much more than the children’s game of telephone these days. Certainly it doesn’t seem to involve the use of a real telephone.

Lal’s phone number is easy to find online, and I called him myself, even though it was after midnight in India (I hoped he was on travel), but he answered it immediately.

He said these were “the most vilest allegations” and denied that he ever made such assertions. He said “I didn’t put it [the 2035 claim] in to impress policymakers…. We reported the facts about science as we knew them and as was available in the literature.”

He told me:

Our role was to bring out the factual science. The fact is the IPCC has been very conservative.

Note that Science News repeats the charge “that Lal’s committee didn’t investigate challenges to glacier data” but does not bother to repeat Lal’s assertion in the Daily Mail piece — which he made again to me — that he never saw any challenges to the glacier data. Certainly enough charges and counter charges have been made on this specific point that it should be looked into, but simply asserting it doesn’t make it true.

One top climate scientist associated with the IPCC speaking to me off the record today said, “I know Murari Lal to be a straight-shooter. I take him at his word.”

Lal said to me, “I was a lead author for the second assessment, third assessment, and fourth assessment and this is the first time in my life that I’ve been attacked like this.”

Science News asserts:

The IPCC report was supposed to reflect only peer-reviewed science. Not the speculation of scientists, which the initial source of that 2035 figure (Indian glaciologist Syed Hasnain) recently acknowledged it was. Nor should magazine articles or gray literature reports — like the World Wildlife Fund document that repeated the speculative 2035 figure — become the foundation for IPCC conclusions. Which is why IPCC specifically prohibits reliance on such documents.

Interestingly, I thought that was true, too, but I decided to check with two top IPCC scientists, and they both confirmed to me that in fact, the IPCC does allow gray literature reports. And the IPCC explains this here (see Annex 2).

Lal told me:

We were allowed to cite gray literature provided that it looked to us to be good science.

One leading climate scientist said he had thought that in the Fourth Assessment, the IPCC was going to clamp down more on this.

To me, the peer-reviewed science contains more than enough to write reports on — see my summary of the literature in 2009, “The year climate science caught up with what top scientists have been saying privately for years.” I think the IPCC needs to stop this practice of using gray literature, especially for quantitative matters.

In any case, the 2035 figure was wrong — you can find the origin of the mistake here. And you can find the IPCC’s retraction here. And here’s what I think the IPCC should have done — “Memo to IPCC: Please reanalyze ALL of your conclusions about melting ice and sea level rise.” The IPCC messed this up big time, and I’ll have more to say on that Tuesday.

The bottom line here: Reporters and major media outlets must stop parroting everything they read. If that’s all you’re going to do, you deserve to continue losing readers.