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Climate body seeks new wardrobe

Richard Black | 10:29 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

IPCC plenary meeting in Busan: The future of the world's climate science authority is being decided behind the glass and steel facade of a modern conference centre in South Korea's second city.

The BEXCO centre's principal event this week is the Busan International Footwear and Textile Fashion Show.

But the Intergovernemntal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is also in residence for its annual plenary meeting.

And while designers and seamstresses make last-minute adjustments to their creations in one part of the centre, in another, climate scientists and government delegates are deciding reforms aimed at re-clothing the IPCC in some of lustre that it flaunted at the time of its last assessment report in 2007, but which in some people's eyes has largely rubbed off over the last year.

Rajendra Pachauri


The erroneous melting date for Himalayan glaciers, allegations of conflict of interest against chairman Rajendra Pachauri, flawed and inconsistent treatment of scientific uncertainties... these and other issues were held by some to mean that the emperor was either clad in disreputable rags, or wore no clothes at all.

Successive reports, notably by the Dutch government, have found nothing to challenge the basic picture of a warming world that the IPCC and many other scientific bodies have painted in recent times - whatever the findings may have been about the behaviour of some individual scientists.

Yet this isn't enough; and IPCC chiefs know it.

As the body charged with assembling and collating data and projections for the international community, they know it has to be rigorous in its methodologies and beyond reproach in its governance - and seen to be so.

Governments know it too; after all, they're paying for it.

Hence the UN decision earlier this year to commission a review of the IPCC from the InterAcademy Council, an umbrella body joining many of world's science academies.

We've reported on the conclusions and recommendations before, so I won't go into them again in detail here.

In parallel, IPCC committees had also begun to consider some of the same issues - such as how to make the treatment of scientific uncertainty more consistent, and how to deal with potential conflicts of interest.

And Busan is where all of this comes out for debate. Internal and external recommendations alike are being discussed, with the aim of reaching at least some conclusions by the time the meeting wraps up on Thursday evening.

All the documents being discussed are on the IPCC site, and prominently so - perhaps one small sign of a desire to appear more open than in the past.
The key documents are the responses from governments to the IAC report. (They're in two documents because not all governments met the initial deadline.)

As with many other international organisations, national governments set the IPCC's agenda, make the decisions and hold the purse-strings; so they will get what they want out of this.

You can see that not everything the IAC recommends will necessarily sail through.

For example, the Czech Republic appears to be adamant in its response that the use of "grey literature" - studies and reports that do not appear in peer-reviewed journals - must be eliminated.

Other governments point out that much "grey literature" comes from sources that suggest it'll be thoroughly and properly done - reports from government agencies, UN institutions, academic institutions - and that in some areas, there is very little peer-reviewed material to use.

On the issue of IPCC management, too, there are different ideas.

The IAC recommended the introduction of an executive director - a senior figure who would effectively become the manager with day-to-day responsibility for running things properly - and an executive board empowered to make decisions when they had to be made quickly.

But some governments here are asking what the point is, and whether it's necessary to introduce a new layer of management.

It's perhaps extraordinary that in an issue where the stakes are so high, the establishment of a single management post in a tiny secretariat should become an object for wrangling over - but there we are.

There's clearly a lot to get through in the four days; and delegates I've spoken to are wondering just how much can be achieved.

There are many familiar faces here, diplomats who also represent their countries at UN climate convention (UNFCCC) meetings (and a lot more besides).

Some are hot-foot from Tianjin in China, where the last round of UNFCCC talks has just ended.

According to some accounts, they've brought the politics with them, and the industrialised-versus-developing-country and US-v-China rivalries that represent the past and present of the UNFCCC are playing out here as well.

We'll see. Others here talk of a constructive atmosphere, and a common belief that to leave here with nothing changed would be a serious dereliction.

Doubtless, not all of the seams will be stitched in Busan - some will require a good amount of detailed attention and a report back at a later date.

But everyone agrees that after 20 years, the original wardrobe is looking a bit dated, and something has to change.

The key question is how much of a revamp the politics will allow - and whether frustrations stemming from within the UN climate convention will yet deposit a nasty stain on the garment being put together here.


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