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Tough love in a troubled climate

Richard Black | 14:05 UK time, Friday, 26 February 2010

Forget the Norfolk police's criminal investigation, reviews commissioned by universities in the UK and US, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) internal deliberations.

Governments have now demanded - and will get - an independent review into how the IPCC conducts its work and how well its conclusions stand up to scrutiny.

Rajendra_Pachauri<ul><br />
	<li></li><br />
</ul>The precise terms of reference are being decided even now.

But the decision - taken at the governing council meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Bali - potentially offers everyone a way out of the mire currently engulfing climate science, from top-name researchers to the Joe and Joanna Public whose taxes fund them and who expect them to get things right.

The review should be finished within about six months, and the results discussed - and changes instituted - at the IPCC's meeting in October.

This would allow the organisation to re-shape itself prior to major work beginning on the next big global assessment, due out in 2013.

In some quarters this is being touted as an investigation of IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri, who certainly annoyed some (not least in the Indian government) when he initially rebutted criticism of the Himalayan glacier date error in a manner lacking much diplomacy.

In fact, though, it is envisaged as a process that will be thorough and rigorous, but constructive; what you might summarise as "tough love".

There is no point in governments either soft-soaping or lambasting the organisation to the extent that it loses all its credibility. After all, its conclusions should in principle have a major role in determining what policy options those self-same governments pursue in the arenas of disaster preparedness and energy supply.

So yes, it is possible that Dr Pachauri will not survive the process; and indeed it is possible that he will not want to, if the job description gets so heavily amended that continuing would result in him having to give up all his other interests.

But there are more important questions to be addressed.

To what extent do conclusions of the IPCC's fourth assessment report (AR4) from 2007 stand up to scrutiny?

Should its processes for gathering and sifting information be amended - and in particular, is there a case for excluding "grey literature" (anything other than peer-reviewed science)?

Does it select its major contributors as objectively as it should? Does it communicate its conclusions effectively to policymakers and the public?

"Climate-sceptical" organisations may already be in ecstasy about a process that - they will argue - may bring down the IPCC, and by extension block political moves towards regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

And this, in turn, may prompt some people involved with the IPCC to put their heads in their hands and complain that the last thing they need is another process that will see lances levelled at the edifice of anthropogenic climate change.

That, I suggest, would be a mistake. Many commentators sympathetic to the organisation have insisted in recent months that it could do with a dose of reform; so why not have reforms recommended by a review that aims for a constructive outcome, rather than by a host of unsympathetic and unaccountable bloggers whose scientific or pseudo-scientific utterings are sometimes impelled by political theologies?

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, reform ideas for the IPCC produced by sympathetic academics so far include producing shorter, more focused and more intelligible reports; setting itself up as a wiki-form web-based platform; and farming out parts of its function to regional organisations or national science academies.

Boy_fishing_in_BaliThere are some who've argued that because the actual number of mistakes in the AR4 was triflingly small, there is no need for review or reform.

But in significant parts of politics, the media and the public, that argument has already been lost, and now it has been lost in reality as well; the review will happen.

What we can expect from it depends on its precise terms of reference. But conclusions we might expect, I suggest, would include:

  • unequivocal backing for the overall conclusion that anthropogenic greenhouse warming is happening and does present real dangers to some societies
  • "professionalisation" of the IPCC - ie having full-time staff dominating the process rather than a disparate grouping of academics, many of whom give their services gratis
  • tightening of rules for using "grey literature" - abandoning it entirely is not really feasible given that the IPCC's remit includes areas such as economics where data has to be drawn from government agencies
  • streamlining the process of disseminating conclusions. A partial example of how that might be done emerged last week with the publication of a "consensus" study into climate change and hurricanes, which observers with long memories will note saw academics previously opposed, Kerry Emanuel and Chris Landsea, joined in academic embrace. And the World Meteorological Organization has just signalled a push for much greater transparency and clarity in providing data.

Tantalising questions remain. Will long-time critics be invited on board, either for the review or during the compilation of future reports?

Is there a way to involve the Roger Pielkes and the Steve McIntyres more constructively, making use of their expertise while also ensuring that the conclusions of self-appointed climate auditors are subject to audit themselves?

Do we need all major scientific papers on climate to be available to all, rather than hidden from most behind the subscription-only business plans of journals such as Nature and Science?

Another reason for getting such a review up and running now is that in June, governments are due to decide whether they will establish an organisation loosely modelled on the IPCC that will collate and sift scientific evidence on biodiversity loss.

Proper assessment of the IPCC's qualities and faults should help build a strong foundation for that organisation, if it comes into existence. Continued doubts over the IPCC could, on the other hand, make governments less likely to sanction investment in a parallel body.

Although governments have decided the IPCC needs a review, they have also decided that the world needs an IPCC. And that should come as welcome news to those who feared that a tide of "denialism" was about to swamp the world's body politic.

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