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How to Reform the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Recent scandals have undermined the credibility of the international scientific body, yet the scientific evidence for climate change remains as strong as ever
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Himalayan glaciers to disappear by 2035. Nuclear power plants cheaper than fossil fuel–fired ones. A chairman who might have financial conflicts of interest (and an interest in penning a racy, loosely autobiographical romance novel). These are some of the mistakes currently argued to have been made by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a panel of more than 2,500 volunteer scientists and other experts from 154 countries tasked with assessing climate change.

So the question is: Is it time to reform the IPCC, despite its Nobel Peace Prize–winning stature?

As it currently stands the IPCC produces vast reports roughly every six years, the fourth and most recent review in 2007, with another due in 2014. The idea is to synthesize all the latest peer-reviewed literature on climate change to present an authoritative and comprehensive report on the physical science of climate change and the issues it entails: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability as well as mitigation. The IPCC also occasionally produces reports on specific technologies or policies such as carbon capture and storage, with upcoming reports set to address renewable sources of energy and managing the risk of extreme weather events.

The main IPCC report from 2007, particularly the section dealing with the physical science of climate change, is perhaps the most exhaustively reviewed 3,000-page scientific document on the planet. Governments and reviewers submitted some 90,000 comments on the draft text, which then had to be addressed by the expert authors. And the final "summary for policymakers" (a condensed version of the full text) was reviewed word by word by government officials with guidance from the scientists.

Yet, errors still made it through this rigorous process, including the seeming transposition of Himalayan glaciers melting by 2350 to 2035—a physical impossibility as well as a statement apparently based on one scientist's opinion. The IPCC went so far as to issue a retraction of the statement and express "regret" for that error, among others.

Of course, retractions are a big part of self-correction in science—and responsible for much of the robustness of the scientific method in general. And none of these errors detract from the central theory of climate change: Rising CO2 and other greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere from human activity are "very likely" responsible for the observed temperature change over the industrial era, as the IPCC puts it.

A more robust way to expose such errors and correct them more quickly is proposed by former IPCC lead author and atmospheric scientist John Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Writing in the February 11 edition of Nature, Christy called for a "living, 'Wikipedia-IPCC.'" (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) After all, as he noted: "Voluminous printed reports issued every six years by government-nominated authors cannot accommodate the rapid and chaotic development of scientific information today." Lead IPCC author and director of climate change and adaptation at the environmental group World Wildlife Fund, Jeff Price similarly argued in the same issue for producing more reports faster.

Yet, it is just such government approval and multiple layers of review that help give the IPCC process its authority. And such a process requires one thing: time, argues physicist Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the physical sciences group for the 2014 report. "Faster turnover would jeopardize the multistage review and thus compromise authority and comprehensiveness," he wrote in the same issue, while also arguing that the IPCC must be rigorous in its pursuit of assessments that are "policy relevant but never policy prescriptive."

To enhance that relevance, contributing IPCC author and paleoclimatologist Eduardo Zorita of the GKSS Research Center in Germany calls for the creation of an international climate agency, along the lines of the International Atomic Energy Agency or the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, that would continue to deliver assessments but with a permanent staff, rather than relying on the voluntary contributions of thousands of scientists. "Climate assessment is too important to be left in the hands of advocates," he concluded in the same issue.

And IPCC lead author and environmental scientist Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia in England, an institution that has come under fire after e-mails were released purporting to show deception among climate scientists, urged the replacement of the IPCC with three independent panels to deliver respectively: scientific syntheses, regional assessments and policy analyses, thereby splitting the functions that have caused potential problems with the IPCC process. "The IPCC is no longer fit for purpose," Hulme wrote. "It is not feasible for one panel under sole ownership—that of the world's governments, but operating under the delegated management of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization—to deliver an exhaustive 'integrated' assessment of all relevant climate change knowledge."

Ultimately, the uncovered errors in the most recent IPCC report prove the difficulty of its task as well as highlight the process's fundamental openness and self-correction. "There should be an open dialogue where anybody's views should be heard and considered," noted lead U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern during public remarks at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, on February 9. But, he added: "The mounting evidence on the ground of what's actually happening and the growing sophistication of the modeling goes way beyond any particular set of data or any particular problems that occurred with respect to the University of East Anglia or IPCC mistakes."

After all, the IPCC has judged the evidence for human-caused climate change to be "unequivocal" and it is 90 percent certain that the "net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming." The IPCC further warned in its 2007 report that "warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change."

In fact, thanks to the long timelines of IPCC reports, its 2007 summary contained no scientific information published or collected after 2005; meanwhile, reports from the field in recent years have measured conditions that are even worse than those predicted by climate models. A 2009 update from several IPCC authors noted that even with the less than 1 degree Celsius of warming that has already occurred there have been catastrophic heat waves, a precipitous meltdown of polar ice, and other more extreme impacts, which will only get worse as warming continues due to the rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

That is an intensifying risk that Stern, for one, judged as worthy of taking out an insurance policy: "People would not dream of failing to insure their homes or cars for risks to those things that are 50 times lower than the risks we face from climate change and its effects. It's nothing short of crazy to be putting our heads in the sand and failing to take action. And doubly crazy to risk losing out on the next great game of energy in the 21st century."

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