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Climate review seeks detachment

Richard Black | 23:41 UK time, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Venice_in_snowThere's little doubt, I think, that the forthcoming review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can make quite a lot of difference to the organisation itself.

(This is the review that was demanded last month by ministers, and whose terms of reference and operating agency the UN has just announced, entrusting the running of it to the Inter-Academy Council, an umbrella body for science academies independent of the UN.)

Many scientists who have served in the IPCC believe its 22-year-old shape is no longer fit for purpose, and have said so publically.

Its chief, Rajendra Pachauri, was talking about the need for an internal review before the UN announced this external one; and it is surely impossible that there is nothing that can be improved in the working practices of an organisation that was conceived before instantaneous electronic distribution of information became the norm and before climate science became the political battleground it is now.

A bigger question is whether the review can have much impact outside the organisation. Will governments be any keener to act on the recommendations of a reformed IPCC? Will the public find its currently rather impenetrable phraseology easier to decipher? Will it be more widely trusted?

It's possible to divide published opinions on the issue into three broad categories: those who are only concerned with getting the message across that man-made climate change is an over-riding threat requiring urgent action, those who are concerned about the issue but are more concerned by what they see as lack of rigour and transparency within the IPCC, and those who are convinced that global warming is a fraud anyway and the IPCC one of the lead swindlers.

Ban_Ki-moonThose in the first group are unlikely to be influenced by the review, even if it eventually contains damning passages.

Those in the third group are unlikely to be swayed by anything praiseworthy; in fact I have e-mails coming in right now that are already assuring me that the review will be a whitewash, which is I suppose a logical conclusion if your frame of reference is that everything about climate change is just a conspiracy.

It's the second group that intrigues me, including as it does some pretty smart and independent-minded people.

Most are yet to comment. One who has, Roger Pielke Jr, describes what we know about the review so far as a "good start", but has some words of caution as well. I'll be watching the blogosphere and the op-ed-o-sphere with interest over the next couple of days to see what other thoughts come up.

One issue that was raised at the UN news conference - who raised it I cannot tell, as I listened to the conference remotely in London - was how independent the scientists on the Inter-Academy Council's review panel will be from the scientists who contributed work to the IPCC in the first place.

It's a natural question to ask. There's clearly a chance that the first people you would think of to take part in such a panel would be the most eminent climate scientists of the day, and they're wholly likely to have been intimately involved with the IPCC at some juncture.

There's also the wider point that some of the institutions involved with the Inter-Academy Council, such as the UK's Royal Society, have taken a very public stance on climate change.

But to assume this will automatically cause problems for the review is, I think, to misunderstand its nature and purpose.

It is not a review of climate science - some would say it ought to be, but it isn't, it's a review of IPCC practice - and it will surely draw more interesting and meaningful conclusions through involving scientists working in completely different fields, with experiences of completely different collating organisations.

They do exist; medicine alone has many. One that provides an interesting comparison is the Cochrane Review process, which aims to provide something analogous to IPCC reports - regular assessments of the evidence base on its chosen subject - but works very differently.

Will the Inter-Academy Council choose to make use of expertise from fields apparently unrelated to climate science? We shall see - and that, perhaps, will be one of the factors that determines how meaningful and visionary the review turns out to be, and how it is eventually perceived.

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