Statement from WWF Regarding the IPCC and the Strength of our Science

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For nearly five decades, WWF has been a leader in conducting robust, peer-reviewed conservation research and analysis.  Today, WWF scientists are working in more than 100 countries around the world, conducting leading edge research that continues to expand our knowledge and understanding of our planet and the species which inhabit it. 

In recent weeks, the accuracy of two statements attributed to WWF in a 2007 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] have been called into question.   

As a science-based organization, we are strongly committed to the integrity of our research.  When we became aware of the questions that were being raised about WWF’s role in the IPCC report, we immediately launched a full-scale inquiry involving WWF offices from several countries.

Outlined below are the results of our internal inquiry and the steps we are taking to ensure our scientific publications continue to meet the highest standards for accuracy, including a review of our scientific procedures to determine if changes in our current protocol are warranted.

Additionally, we are working to institute a system to ensure that the scientific community and the public can more easily distinguish between WWF’s peer-reviewed scientific reports and our general communications products.

IPCC Report Citing of WWF for Source on Climate Change in Himalayas and Amazon

The 2007 IPCC climate change study cited WWF reports as the source for the following claims regarding climate change:

  • The Himalayan glaciers could melt completely by the year 2035
  • Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation

Upon further review, we have determined that the information about the Himalayas was inaccurate and that we erred by including it in one of our reports.  In regards to the Amazon, we have determined that our statements were accurate and fully supported by several published studies.  In both instances, however, WWF fell short in including sufficient citations for the source of the information.   

Specific details about the role played by WWF as a source for the IPCC report are provided below. 

Loss of Himalayan Glaciers

The 2007 IPCC climate change report includes the claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt completely by the year 2035 – “and perhaps sooner” – due to climate change, a statement disputed within the scientific community.  As the source for that statement and another, the IPCC cites a 2005 WWF report, “An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China [PDF].”  However, the language in the IPCC report was drawn not from our report, but rather a 1999 article in the online publication, Down to Earth.  WWF was not the source of the statement attributed to us.

However, WWF still erred.  The 2005 WWF report drew from the same Down to Earth article the IPCC relied upon, though we failed to cite Down to Earth, leading readers to believe that we drew the statement from New Scientist, the next citation in the text.  Furthermore, the indirect quote WWF drew from Down to Earth was factually incorrect. Down to Earth quoted a 1999 report by the International Commission for Snow and Ice [PDF] (ICSI) as saying that “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high.” WWF repeated this quote without checking the original ICSI report. Had we done so, we would have found that the report did not make that claim. We greatly regret this error, which was not in keeping with our standard procedures.

Climate Change Threat in the Amazon

Another contested statement in the IPCC report is this claim: “Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation.”  As its source, the IPCC cites a joint report by WWF and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) entitled, “Global Review of Forest Fires [PDF],” published in 2000. 

The WWF/IUCN study said: “Up to 40% of the Brazilian forest is extremely sensitive to small reductions in the amount of rainfall,” but failed to include the correct citation – a 1999 report titled Fire in the Amazon,” by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).  That report said: “Probably 30 to 40% of the forests of the Brazilian Amazon are sensitive to small reductions in the amount of rainfall.”   Absent the reference to the IPAM report, readers assumed incorrectly that the source was a 1999 Nature article cited two sentences later.

However, unlike the statement about Himalayan glaciers, the reference was drawn from an authoritative source, was factually correct and is supported by the peer-reviewed literature. 

The Broader Context

Both the Himalayan and Amazon references illustrate lapses in the writing and review process and are more a reflection of improper citation of sources than an indication of any fundamental issues with the accuracy of the science.  In the case of the Himalayan glaciers, the essential point is that their mass is decreasing as are most other glaciers around the world. In regards to the Amazon case, the fact is that a very large portion of the Amazonian forest is at risk from the drier conditions that are likely to be more common as climate rapidly changes – and if deforestation continues.  

It is important to keep in mind that our current understanding of climate science is based on decades of research by thousands of scientists and volumes of peer-reviewed studies. These errors, while regrettable, are relatively minor in scope in comparison to the strong scientific basis for our understanding of climate change, which is recognized by virtually every country on the planet.

WWF’s Strong Science and the Steps we are Taking to Ensured its Continued Rigor

As the world’s leading science-based conservation organization, WWF is widely recognized for its leadership in conducting, analyzing and reporting the latest research around the world.  Many of our scientists are internationally recognized leaders in their fields of expertise. 

WWF has scores of scientists working around the world, publishing their research in international peer-reviewed journals, advising governments and other partners, and putting science to work for conservation.  Just within our central Conservation Science Program, based in the U.S., there are 20 practicing scientists, 10 with PhDs, who produce an average of 20 peer-reviewed papers each year in journals such as Science, Nature, PNAS, Bioscience, PLoS Biology, Ecology Letters, Conservation Biology.  On average, our research is cited by other scientists more than 600 times per year.  WWF scientists also sit on editorial boards of several top journals and are trusted as reviewers of papers for Science, Nature and PNAS.

To ensure the continued rigor of our scientific publications, we have begun an assessment of our publication procedures to reaffirm our standards for evidence, citation, and peer-review.  We will institute a system for communicating those standards clearly, so that our work can be cited appropriately.  Additionally, we are exploring ways to ensure the general public and others in the scientific community are able to easily distinguish between our peer-reviewed scientific reports and our other communications materials.

Conclusion

The controversy surrounding the two improper IPCC references is not an indication that the scientific process is broken or that the underlying climate science should be questioned.  Rather, it’s an illustration of the scientific process at work.  By continually reviewing and reevaluating claims, our estimates improve over time, errors are corrected, and consensus builds. It is through precisely this process of publishing, review, scrutiny and reevaluation that we are able to refine and hone our understanding of the natural world. 

Additional Online Information

Attacks on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Obscure Real Science.  From the Union of Concerned Scientists, 10 February 2010.

IPCC

WWF

Ensuring Integrity in Science.  Editorial by Ralph J. Cicerone is president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, in Science, 5 February 2010.

IPCC slips on the ice with statement about Himalayan glaciers. By Rick Piltz in Climate Science Watch, 19 January 2010

Anatomy of IPCC's Mistake on Himalayan Glaciers and the year 2035.  By Bidisha Banerjee and George Collins in Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, 4 February 2010.

Senior Scientist Daniel Nepstad endorses the correctness of the IPCC’s (AR4) statement on Amazon forest susceptibility to rainfall reduction.  From Woods Hole Research Center, February 2010.

 

 

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