Climate panel signs off reforms - but how ambitious?

Cyclists by factory Image copyright AFP

As discussed in my previous post, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Friday signed off most of the reform proposals under discussion at its plenary meeting in Abu Dhabi.

According to the panel itself, the measures agreed will ensure "a stronger governance structure and a set of forward-looking policies across a range of management issues".

Revised procedures for dealing with errors after the publication of reports and with scientific uncertainty have been adopted, and a policy on conflicts of interest has also been agreed.

The need for the first was starkly flagged up by the furore in 2009 that followed allegations of an error over the likely melting date for Himalayan glaciers - allegations that turned out to be true, despite the early strenuous denials of IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

The new uncertainty guidelines should unify procedures across all of the IPCC's output.

And while the adoption of a policy can never completely rule out the possibility that conflicts of interest (or the appearance thereof) will arise, the fact of having established procedures based on best practice for international institutions may make it less likely, and will certainly protect the panel against allegations that it doesn't care about the issue.

So, the rules under which IPCC experts will work as they compile the next global climate assessment are now in place.

To put the reforms in some sort of perspective, I re-read just now five think-pieces published in the journal Nature just over a year ago, before the InterAcademy Council (IAC) started its review of the IPCC, which led to the current reforms.

Those articles were written by people who all had first-hand experience of working with the panel; yet they produced very different blueprints for the future.

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Image caption The Brisbane floods are among the extreme weather events to visit Australia recently

At one end, Thomas Stocker, current co-chair of the IPCC working group on climate science, contended that little was wrong with the existing basic model.

At the other, global temperature specialist John Christy argued for a new model of assessment based on the wiki approach, Mike Hulme called for the panel to split into three separate expert organisations, and Eduardo Zorita proposed a major upgrade to transform the institutionally slim IPCC into a fully-fledged expert UN agency.

We can see clearly now that these more radical ideas were not on the table for long, if at all.

Although its assessments are compiled by academics in fields such as physical sciences and economics, the IPCC is fundamentally shaped by governments.

They fund it, they endorse its headline conclusions - and they get to decide how the assessments should be run. And changes must be approved by consensus.

So it's perhaps not surprising that government delegates have decided to tidy up the existing processes rather than re-shape the organisation along the lines suggested by Drs Hulme, Christy and Zorita.

As things stand, the existing comprehensive five-yearly global assessments give governments baselines on which to seat their climate policies.

More frequent, less formal, wiki-style processes would undoubtedly produce more up-to-date snapshots; but with the science base perceived to be changing annually, how much more difficult would it be for governments to set national policies, never mind to agree on aims for the UN climate negotiations?

In principle, the tri-partite structure of three working groups encompassing basic science, adaptation and economics should produce a relatively coherent whole - more so, and with a more impressive imprimatur, than if each were assessed on its own, perhaps against the backdrop of turf wars.

And in the current economic climate, an upgrading of the IPCC's institutional scale and a concomitantly greater cost was never politically attractive - just as the idea, mooted last year, of upgrading the UN climate convention to the status of a separate agency did not, in the end, receive political approval.

So, we have what we have - which will be disappointing to some, but re-assuring to others.

And the work goes on, with Dr Pachauri among those leaving Abu Dhabi for Australia and a workshop on extreme weather events - a topic of real interest to many Australians, but with implications in many corners of the globe.

"We are sure that the kinds of events that we've seen recently are likely to become much more frequent and much more severe," he told the ABC's Sarah Clarke.

But as to estimating how big the changes in intensity and frequency might be: "That's precisely what we're going to try and come up with to the extent possible based on existing knowledge."

...which is what the IPCC will be about for the foreseeable future, just as it has been since its inception - but now, perhaps, with more rigour.