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Statement on the IPCC, WWF and climate change

WWF-UK's chief executive David Nussbaum responds to recent media coverage on climate change data published by WWF.

1 February, 2010

You may well be aware that the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – has been the focus of quite a bit of media coverage over the past couple of weeks. Much of the coverage focuses on the role and processes of the IPCC. As one of a large number of organisations whose information has been used by the panel, WWF has also come under scrutiny.

Two particular instances where our work has been used by the IPCC have recently been criticised. In one case, predictions we made in a 2005 report about the possible future of Himalayan glaciers relied on a source which proved to be incorrect. We have been transparent in our response to this criticism, have acknowledged the error and expressed our regret. More recently, our 2000 report on forest fires in the Amazon has been labelled as "unsubstantiated". We dispute this allegation and stand by our report.

Some commentators are taking this opportunity to try to discredit climate science as a whole and criticise the work of organisations such as ours. We entirely refute any suggestion that these recent incidents give us cause to doubt the basic science that underpins the case for climate change. The overwhelming mass of findings on the reality and causes of climate change is sound and the scientific consensus remains.

The main activity of the IPCC is to provide, at regular intervals, Assessment Reports of the state of knowledge on climate change. The latest one is Climate Change 2007, the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report.

The preparation of all IPCC reports adheres to procedures agreed by the Panel. The work is guided by the IPCC Chair and the Working Group and Task Force Co-chairs. Hundreds of experts from all over the world contribute to the preparation of IPCC reports as authors, contributors and reviewers. The composition of author teams reflects a range of views, expertise and geographical representation. Review by governments and experts is an essential element of the preparation of IPCC reports.

WWF reports
As part of this process, the IPCC has referenced information from several WWF reports and studies. In particular:

• We recently became aware that a WWF report contained erroneous information about the rate at which glaciers are melting in the Himalayas. The report, An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China, was published in 2005 and quoted an article published by New Scientist in 1999 which reported a prediction of a high likelihood of Himalayan glaciers disappearing entirely by 2035 due to climate change. Although scientists remain deeply concerned about glacier retreat in that and other regions, this particular prediction has proved to be incorrect.

At the time the WWF report was issued, we believed the source of the statement to be reliable but it has since proved to be incorrect. As soon as we were made aware of this error, we acknowledged this and published our correction.

• The WWF/IUCN Global Review of Forest Fires (2000) report has also been the subject of comment in the media. In particular, some commentators have questioned its use as a source for the IPCC and the credibility of some of its claims. We refute this and stand by the credibility of this report.

Some inaccurate coverage cites our report as saying 40% of the Amazon forest is at risk from climate change. The Global Review of Forest Fires says that “up to 40% of the Brazilian forest is extremely sensitive to small reductions in the amount of rainfall.”

A more recent WWF report looks at this subject in further depth: The Amazon’s Vicious Cycles (WWF 2007). This report supports the view that the Amazon is at risk from factors which include, and are complicated by, climate change.

As a global conservation organisation, we do our best to ensure the information we provide to the public meets high standards of accuracy. If we are alerted to an error in one of our reports, we research the matter and make corrections where appropriate. We regret the Himalayan glacier prediction and have stated so publicly.

These recent controversies have largely concerned scientific standards employed in the assessment of projected impacts of climate change in a very small proportion of regions and cases studied. The overwhelming mass of findings on the reality and causes of climate change lead us to believe it is vital that we continue to tackle climate change to safeguard the natural world and protect human lives and livelihoods so that people and nature thrive.

David Nussbaum