OPINION: Reforming the IPCC
This piece first appeared on Thomson Reuters
Given the rarity of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publication and its potential life-changing impacts, media furore before the launch of its Fifth Assessment Report – known as AR5 – is reaching fever pitch. However it is received, the world will still need further rigorous global assessments of the threat of climate change.
Despite all the hot air in the right-wing press, the forthcoming report will confirm, with ever greater certainty, that the world has warmed, will continue to warm and that humans are to blame. But the real acid test will be whether the report succeeds in underpinning a renewed global focus on climate change and whether this drives governments to agree an ambitious deal to cut carbon pollution in 2015.
Founded in 1988 to advise governments on the threat of climate change, the IPCC releases the first instalment of its Fifth Assessment Report on Sept. 27, 2013.
The report is among the most comprehensive scientific studies ever produced, with more than 7,000 pages across seven publications. AR5 also counts as one of the biggest scientific collaborations yet mounted, involving over 830 scientists from 85 different countries.
All IPCC reports go through four rounds of internal, expert and government review and finish with 195 governments spending days and nights with a team of scientists meticulously picking over and agreeing every single word of the “Summary for Policy Makers”. This is happening in Stockholm this week.
Assessment reports themselves only happen once every seven years and are divided into three main components, each prepared by a separate Working Group.
For AR5, the first publicly available document will be the Summary for Policy Makers on ‘The Physical Science Basis’ of Climate Change (Working Group I). Further reports on ‘Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ (Working Group II) and on the ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’ (Working Group III) will be published in March and April 2014, respectively.
The publication of AR5 will also present an important opportunity to ask whether the IPCC and its assessment reports are still fit-for-purpose. This question was last asked in the heated days of ‘Himalaya Gate’, which resulted in a formal review of the IPCC by the Inter-Academy Council.
However, that review concentrated more on the scientific integrity of the IPCC’s procedures, rather than wider questions of whether the IPCC adequately satisfies government demand for timely and objective scientific information.
A new review should be launched after the publication of AR5 and should address a range of questions:
Is seven years too long between assessment reports?
IPCC assessment reports hold great value in setting the standard and reference point for an entire global community focused on tackling climate change. Nevertheless, the needs of governments, businesses and communities have changed due to the impacts of climate change that they are already seeing before them and the need to anchor climate action across political cycles. Waiting seven years between reports is simply too long.
To exactly the same standard, the IPCC has demonstrated it can produce special reports on single topics in just two years, involving members of all Working Groups in joint assessments (for example, SREX – the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation).
The IPCC is perfectly capable of producing comprehensive, but shorter and more focused assessment reports every four years. This would also help ensure the assessment includes the very latest science.
Further, the current Working Group structure means that scientists struggle to fully integrate physical science, impacts and mitigation assessments. Consequently, the review should ask whether separate working groups really make sense anymore, or whether they could be merged and streamlined to offer clearer messages, shorter processes and better collaboration.
Are IPCC reports too conservative?
Last week, just 12 days before the Working Group I (WGI) publication, a group of eminent scientists, calling themselves Earth League, released a statement saying that business-as-usual fossil fuel use will put the planet on track for 4C warming by the end of the century, or even earlier.
They point to warmer oceans, shrinking Arctic ice and higher seas to underscore that climate change is continuing apace, despite counter-claims. Tellingly, this is not a group of leftist crackpots, but the heads of the world’s most respected scientific institutions and longstanding IPCC authors and co-chairs.
The timing of the group’s statement may lead one to question whether the IPCC report is really able to convey the level of their concern. The cautious approach by the IPCC, related both to the fallout from ‘Himalaya Gate’ and the sheer volume of comments received, mean there is a strong tendency towards more conservative findings, despite the wishes of many contributors.
A review should address this point, as in 30 years’ time the IPCC’s reputation may be dashed – not because of getting one or two facts wrong, but because it was inhibited from telling the whole truth.
Is the IPCC Secretariat too small and underfunded?
Pilita Clark’s excellent piece in the Financial Times on the IPCC Secretariat paints an accurate picture of a skeleton staff, run on a shockingly small budget.
The IPCC relies on the good will of its contributors, the majority of whom work voluntarily in the evenings and at weekends to prepare incredibly detailed assessments of piles of publications on various topics (9,200 articles are cited in the forthcoming WGI report). This is no gravy train, quite the reverse.
In any scenario, the secretariat should be better funded, particularly to beef up the communications and media liaison component. At the moment, it struggles to counter the volume of silly claims about the IPCC, cannot mount a proper dissemination effort for reports, and hasn’t managed to convey all the excellent elements of an organisation and process often perceived by the public to be shrouded in mystery.
Any review should also recognise the valuable elements of the IPCC that should not be eroded. First, the rigour of the assessment and the adherence to strong scientific principles must not be downgraded. This includes the cycles of expert and government review so critical to the precision and level of trust in the report (authors of the first WGI publication responded to nearly 55,000 comments, all of which will be publicly available for review).
Second, the approvals process involving the world’s governments should be retained, as it ensures the findings are endorsed, meaning that the advice can be used with confidence in inter-governmental negotiations.
Third, the membership of author teams should continue to engage scientists from all four corners of the planet, helping to underscore the truly broad-based foundation of the assessment and the global nature of the threat we face.
More frequency, more boldness and more funds.
Rigorous global IPCC assessments of the threat of climate change will still be needed if climate risks are to be adequately managed. However, improving the IPCC’s impact and uptake will require a highly conservative organisation to take some risks itself.
Dr. Tom Mitchell is a former co-ordinating lead author of the IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters for Advancing Climate Change Adaptation. He is head of climate change and environment at the Overseas Development Institute in London, UK.
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