Thursday, 11 February 2010

How to reform the IPCC

The Guardian asks experts around the world what needs to change to enable the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to continue to play a central and positive role in enabling the world's governments to take the right action against climate change

David Adam and Suzanne Goldenberg, Wednesday 10 February 2010 11.18 GMT
The IPCC and its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, have come under unprecedented pressure following a false claim that all Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 and the controversy over the hacked climate science emails at the University of East Anglia. Yet before that, the IPCC was credited with having settled the debate over whether human activity was causing global warming, sharing the 2007 Nobel peace prize with Al Gore. Here, the Guardian asks experts around the world what needs to change to enable the IPCC to continue to play a central and positive role in enabling the world's governments to take the right action against climate change
Political oversight
The IPCC says its reports are policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive. Perhaps unknown to many people, the process is started and finished not by scientists but by political officials, who steer the way the information is presented in so-called summary for policymakers [SPM] chapters. Is that right, the Guardian asked?
"The Nobel prize was for peace not science ... government employees will use it to negotiate changes and a redistribution of resources. It is not a scientific analysis of climate change," said Anton Imeson, a former IPCC lead author from the Netherlands. "For the media, the IPCC assessments have become an icon for something they are not. To make sure that it does not happen again, the IPCC should change its name and become part of something else. The IPCC should have never allowed itself to be branded as a scientific organisation. It provides a review of published scientific papers but none of this is much controlled by independent scientists."
William Connolley, a former climate modeller with the British Antarctic Survey, said: "I think it is inevitable that there will be enormous and pointless fighting over the exact wording of the SPM. And [that is] to some extent, desirable. The science is done by the scientists. The SPM headlines, that the politicians are going to have to act on, will have some political spin, and before the sceptics run wild, let me add that the spin so far has always been in the toning-things-down direction. [It would be better] written just by scientists, but too hard to manage to be worth wasting much time about."
StaffThe city of Southampton spends more than twice as much each year on street cleaning - £8m - than the world does on the IPCC - £3.6m. The reports rely on the unpaid work of thousands of researchers, but is there a case to make the process more professional? Pachauri, IPCC chair, told the Guardian last week that the IPCC was already moving to beef up the organisation with full-time staff, such as in communications. Chris Field, new head of one of the IPCC's working groups, said: "I do think that the 2035 [glacier melting] error could potentially have come out, just by having a stronger editorial component that was part of a professional staff. We need to really be training the authors. There is a huge emphasis on engaging authors from all over the world who have different scientific backgrounds and different training experience."
Joel Smith, of Stratus Consulting, a lead author on the 2007 report, said: "The questions IPCC will address should come from governments. However, once those questions are settled, the IPCC needs to run the process independent of the governments. This may require a larger permanent professional [staff] for the IPCC, as the US National Academy of Science has."
The IPCC was set up in 1988 to advise governments on the emerging problem of climate change. It produced its first report in 1990, and three more since. It is made up of three working groups (WG) which assess the science (WG1), impacts (WG2) and response to global warming (WG3) respectively. In yesterday's Guardian, scientists from WG1 blamed the mistake over the Himalayan glaciers, on "sloppy" researchers from other disciplines from WG2.
Connolley said: "While some of the WG2 is fine, it is clear that some sections have been edited by people who should not have been trusted with the job.It should be done more on merit. At the very least, get someone competent to review the edit comments for their sections."
Field, the new head of WG2, believed ensuring existing rules are implemented is key: "The IPCC needs to make 100% sure that the procedures that have served well in the past are applied."
A more radical suggestion came from John Robinson, professor of resources, environment and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. He said: "The IPCC should continue to improve its elaborate quality control processes, but perhaps make them more transparent. Few people know anything at all about the process works, or what the checks and balances are. Perhaps there should be journalists embedded in the process."
Others argue that the science report, which relies almost exclusively on peer-reviewed research, should be separated from the other reports which researchers say necessarily rely more on "grey" literature, ie, reports that have not been peer-reviewed.
Reports and timing
The IPCC reports are mammoth productions, taking up to six years to complete. The last one contained 900 pages. Is it still relevant for experts to produce such weighty volumes that wait several years to be updated? And should the emphasis of the reports be changed, given that the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming has been firmly established?
Robert Muir Wood, head of the research group at Risk Management Solutions, said the current IPCC report system was "fossilised" and that the organisation needed to move into the 21st century by setting up Wikipedia-style rolling publishing, that could be updated each month. Others suggested changes almost as radical. Connolley said the "useless" synthesis reports should be ditched, while Robinson said: "There needs to be continuous review of what the timing and topics should be."
But significant changes may have to wait until after the next assessment report, expected in 2013, said Mike Hulme, climate scientist at the University of East Anglia. "We can do lots of little tweaks but I can't see governments willingly going back to the drawing board."
Hulme wanted to see the social and cultural aspects of the impacts and response to climate change reflected in different ways in future reports, such as by drawing more on local knowledge, and distinguishing more between the way different societies may react.