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Heat turned up on error-prone U.N. climate panel

| Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010

With its 2007 report declaring that the "warming of the climate system is unequivocal," the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won a Nobel Prize -- and a new degree of public trust in the controversial science of global warming.

But recent revelations about flaws in that seminal report, ranging from typos in key dates to sloppy sourcing, are undermining confidence not only in the panel's work but in projections about climate change. Scientists who have pointed out problems in the report say the panel's methods and mistakes -- including admitting Saturday that it had overstated how much of the Netherlands was below sea level -- give doubters an opening.

It wasn't the first one. A scientific consensus remains that humans are causing climate change. But in the past year, a cache of stolen e-mails, revealing that prominent climate scientists sought to keep their critics from publication, has sullied their image as impartial academics. The errors in the U.N. report -- a document intended to be the last nail in the coffin of climate doubt -- are a serious problem that could end up forcing environmentalists to focus more on the old question of proving climate change is a threat, instead of the new question of how to stop it.

"There is a sense that something's rotten in the state of the IPCC," said Richard Moss, a senior scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, who has worked with the panel since 1993. "It's just wildly exaggerated. But we need to take a look and see if something needs to be improved."

Climate researchers say the errors do not disprove the U.N. panel's central conclusion: Climate change is happening, and humans are causing it. Some researchers said the U.N. panel's attitude -- appearing to promise that its results were infallible, and reacting slowly to evidence that they were not -- could undermine the rest of its work.

"What's happened here is that there's an industry of climate-change denialists who are trying to make it seem as though you can't trust anything that is between the covers" of the panel's report, said Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies glaciers. "It's really heartbreaking to see this happen, and to see that the IPCC left themselves open" to being attacked.

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