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Do U.N. Climate Change Reports Need to Change?

After the latest round of IPCC climate reports, some scientists are calling for a more streamlined process
Rachendra Pachauri


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chairman Rachendra Pachauri.
Credit: IPCC

Every seven years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes three colossal reports about global warming.

The second of that set of three, focusing on impacts and adaptation, was just released (ClimateWire, March 31), and on its heels have come calls for the structure of those reports to change.

On Friday, David Griggs, a professor and director of the Monash Sustainability Institute at Australia's Monash University, who has been involved in the last three IPCC reports, was the latest to weigh in with a proposal for reconfiguring the IPCC.

The comment, published in the journal Nature, addresses the burden the IPCC places on scientists, who volunteer their time, and the frequency of the reports.

Griggs argues for publishing shorter, less frequent reports, every 10 years, pointing out that the past three science reports from Working Group I have lengthened from 410 pages to 881 pages to 1,535 pages with the report released late last year.

"Limiting reports to 1,000 pages or fewer would save time, reduce workloads and make the reports more readable and focused," he writes.

In between, the panel could release brief, targeted reports addressing "fast-moving areas of science," Griggs writes.

Former authors support changes
On that idea, Griggs appears to have widespread support from others in the community.

Other researchers have also called for shorter reports addressing pressing topics where science is rapidly evolving, such as the report the IPCC released on climate change impacts on extreme weather in 2012.

"I can see a process moving towards shorter, more targeted synthesis reports that cut across the targets of science and adaptation," said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Frumhoff, a former lead IPCC author, has also advocated for the IPCC to recognize that some high-emission climate futures are more likely than other, low-emission scenarios, and to reflect that in its reports.

Another past lead author, John Reilly, who is now co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has also written on some of his frustrations with the report.

Reilly, who wrote about the topic in MIT Technology Review, believes the report would be more powerful if it integrated science, adaptation and mitigation rather than producing three separate efforts.

Looking for more focus
"I think streamlining the IPCC process would be extremely important. It has gotten extremely burdensome in terms of these three separate working groups all doing a lot of work. If anything, reduce it down to a single volume that better integrates the three elements of the problem," Reilly said.

He pointed out that if someone wants to learn about how climate change is affecting tropical storms and hurricanes, he or she would have to find that information inside the publication produced by the IPCC's Working Group I, which is focused on science.

"Then if you want to figure out how to adapt to them, you have to go to Working Group II and dig into several chapters," Reilly added.

Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and an IPCC lead author on three past reports, has also called for similar changes.

"It no longer makes sense for the activities of Working Group 1 (which assesses the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change) and those of Working Group 2 (which looks at impacts, adaptation and options for coping with climate change) to be separated," Trenberth wrote in The Conversation in late September.

Trenberth also believes that more focused reports on cutting-edge issues will help the IPCC stay relevant to the governments that use its products.

Would compensation help?
Like Griggs, Trenberth sees scientist burnout as a problem.

But while Griggs suggests paying scientists as a way to compensate them for the effort, UCS's Frumhoff does not see that as a solution.

"I don't think compensation will matter. There won't be enough compensation to truly compensate for the time. There just won't. People won't do this for the money, nor should they," Frumhoff said.

However, if the body streamlined its process by combining reports and producing shorter topical assessments, workloads on scientists would naturally decline, Frumhoff pointed out.

As the IPCC prepares to release the last of its three reports, now is a good time to discuss the shape of future ones, Frumhoff added.

"I think there is broad consensus that the IPCC needs an update, needs a reboot to remain relatively nimble and relevant to the policy process moving forward," he said.

The current chairman of the body, Rajendra Pachauri, has said he will step down in 2015, and the body is at a point where it can consider changes to its structure. But it will not be a simple process.

"In my experience, there are as many opinions about what shape the IPCC should take moving forward as there are lead authors and as there are governments. Everyone has an opinion," Frumhoff said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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