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Climate panel: Time for a refit?

Richard Black | 18:01 UK time, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

In the past few weeks, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has received a vast amount of advice on how it should be reformed, ranging from minor structural tinkering to immediate self-immolation.

So it must inevitably be when powerful political interests come to blows over what is supposed to be a body dealing with science independently and impartially.

R K PachauriThis week's edition of the journal Nature publishes five short and varied recipes for a new and better IPCC - or some other set of organisations set up to do the same basic jobs, but better.

The writers are all working scientists, and have all contributed - some heavily - to IPCC reports down the years.

None of them concludes that the job does not need doing at all, even though Nature's chosen title - The IPCC: cherish, tweak it or scrap it - appears to allow for that option.

The most conservative analysis comes from Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern in Switzerland, a co-ordinating lead author on the third and fourth assessment reports and co-chair of the climate science working group for the fifth (AR5), due out in 2013.

Dr Stocker falls firmly into the "cherish it" camp. An "honest broker" is needed, he argues, in such a turbulent field as climate change; and "From my perspective, the IPCC has fulfilled this role with remarkable rigour and integrity."

His prescription is, basically, more of the same: "Only with strict adherence to procedures and to scientific rigour at all stages will the IPCC continue to provide the best and most robust information that is needed so much."

But, argues Jeff Price from the environmental group WWF, more frequent and more pointed reports are what the world needs now. Reports could even be annual, he says; and the principals should always be the best available people, forgetting the current proviso that authors are also selected so the panel encompasses "a range of views, expertise, gender and geographical representation".

Eduardo Zorita, from the GKSS Research Centre in Geesthacht, Germany, advocates a little more reform by turning the IPCC into an international agency somewhat akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Its reports should emerge every couple of years, and should only concern peer-reviewed studies - not the "grey" literature such as the now (in)famous WWF report on Himalayan glaciers.

The University of East Anglia's Mike Hulme - a prolific commentator on the troubles of climate science recently, not least on these pages - advocates disbanding the IPCC after the fifth report.

Instead, he proposes establishing a global panel to evaluate and produce frequent reports on tightly-defined scientific issues of interest.

A series of regional "evaluation panels" would then sift the basic scientific messages and sort out what they imply for various parts of the world. A further body - something akin to a global science academy, if I interpret correctly - would examine policy options.

And John Christy from the University of Alabama in Huntsville - who despite long-standing reservations about the IPCC has consistently chosen to contribute his expertise to the organisation - suggests removing the panel from UN oversight altogether.

A "Wikipedia-IPCC" could be set up, he suggests, with leaders being selected by learned societies, serving on a rolling basis as the organisation grapples with a series of specific science and policy questions.

All food for thought; and though it appears likely that the IPCC will remain working roughly in the way it has done until the fifth assessment report (AR5) is complete, with minor tweaks to take account of Himalayan and other issues, it is entirely within the gift of governments to make whatever changes they see fit once that process is over.

But there are several other factors to throw into the mix, as politicians and scientists and concerned observers debate the organisation's future.

Firstly, the IPCC speaks directly to governments. They endorse its reports - and all members, including the climate-sceptical US under George W Bush, have endorsed them - basically because they own the process.

One lead author observed to me in 2007, as the fourth assessment report (AR4) came out, that without such direct involvement, the reports would carry much less weight in the corridors of power; and that caveat is surely as correct now as it was then.

Secondly, there is the question of resources.

Virtually all of those contributing to the assessment reports do so voluntarily. They may be "volunteered" by their home government, they may receive some logistical support, but essentially they give their time and expertise for free; and the process is so gruelling that many of the leading lights will do it once and once only.

Himalayan mountainsAre the financial and logistical resources sufficient?

According to one academic with a long knowledge of the organisation, sometimes they're not; with adequate backing, he said, issues such as a debatable date for Himalayan glacier melt or the correct figures for the costs of sea level rise in the Netherlands would have been checked and double-checked, and would not have made it to the final report, with the embarrassment that has now followed their publicisation.

Would the resource issue improve if the IPCC's tasks were split between different bodies, perhaps some working on a wiki-basis, or perhaps under the aegis of science academies? It is hard to envisage.

Would funding have to come from a few governments, providing even more opportunity for the perception that findings were being tweaked to suit certain agendas?

A third issue is the relationship between developed and developing worlds. Clearly, most expert scientists work in rich countries, and that's also where climate-relevant data (such as temperature records) is most abundant.

Yet if scientists from developing countries are marginalised, if Western scientific academies (or other organisations) take control, if the evidence there is of climatic changes from poor countries is neglected because it comes in a form other than peer-reviewed literature, how can this process achieve a global balance, and why should developing countries buy into it?

It's perhaps unfortunate, in retrospect, that none of Nature's chosen five contributors dealt with these very real developing world concerns.

On the one hand, apologies for devoting a whole post to this somewhat technical issue; I know how much the whole IPCC-gates thing and all the vitriol that goes with it bores and frustrates some regular readers.

On the other hand, no apologies - there's a strong case, I feel, for arguing that IPCC occupies an absolutely pivotal role, and it's well worth taking time to get the form and structure right so that it, or some other arrangement, can play the role as effectively as humanity needs it to.

If its projected ranges of temperature rise, sea level rise, rainfall change and so on do map out our planet's immediate future, then we need the best interpretations of impacts, costs and benefits - that's what the IPCC is for, and however it's constituted or whatever replaces it, it's vital that the organisation(s) performing that role must inspire trust among not only governments but the wider public.

What's your prescription?

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