UN climate science chief Rajendra Pachauri welcomed today’s announcement of an outside audit that could help scientists win back public and political support for the battered consensus on human-caused climate change.
"It is critically important that the science we bring into our reports — and that we disseminate on a wide scale — is accepted by communities across the globe, by governments, by businesses, by civil society," Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said at UN headquarters.
The remark followed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s formal announcement that an independent review of the IPCC would be carried out by the Amsterdam-based InterAcademy Council (ICA), a multinational organization of the world’s science and engineering academies.
The ICA will examine how incorrect projections slipped past the IPCC’s peer-review process in its latest report, released in 2007. The panel will also review guidelines for the types of literature permitted in future IPCC reports, especially regarding non-peer-reviewed information provided by governments and organizations.
In addition to data quality control, the ICA was tasked with analyzing the entire management structure and transparency of the IPCC, and improving how the body communicates with the media and the public.
"We expect that this review will help us in strengthening the entire process by which we carry out preparation of our reports," Pachauri said.
The council will publish its results by the end of August, in time for the October launch of the IPCC’s next evaluation of climate science, the 2013-2014 Fifth Assessment.
Pachauri said he hopes that with the help of the ICA the fifth assessment will be "stronger and better than anything we have produced in the past."
"The world demands that of us," Pachauri added. "And we will live up to the expectations of the global community."
For the 10-year-old IAC, the IPCC review is its highest-profile assignment yet.
The IAC was launched in 2000 to mobilize scientists to provide advice to international bodies on "critical global issues." So far, it has published four reports on science and technology, African agriculture, women and science and sustainable energy.
Its 21 board members include 15 presidents of national academies of science, including those from the U.S., the UK, India, China, Brazil, France and Germany.
Robbert Dijkgraaf, a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam and co-chair of the IAC, who will head up the assessment, said the IAC is "ready to take on the challenges of this important review of the IPCC."
"Our goal will be to assure nations around the world that they will receive sound scientific advice on climate science so governments and citizens alike can make informed decisions," Dijkgraaf said.
The scientists appointed to the panel will have "scientific expertise, stature in the scientific community, a balance of scientific perspectives and an absence of personal conflict of interest," Dijkgraaf said. The audit itself will go through "intensive peer review."
The project will be funded by the UN, Dijkgraaf said. But "neither the United Nations, the IPCC, the World Meteorological Organization, or the UN Environment Program will exercise any control or oversight over the process."
Questions remain over whether Pachauri, who has been asked to step down from his post by groups that include Greenpeace, will continue on.
When asked if the ICA would support Pachauri’s chairmanship, Dijkgraaf dodged the question, before adding, "The panel members will look at the organizational structure of the IPCC."
‘Fundamental Consensus on Climate Change’ Stands
The review comes in the wake of several scandals involving results from the IPCC 2007 Fourth Assessment.
In January, news broke that the IPCC published an error that said 80 percent of the Himalayan glaciers would likely vanish by 2035 if warming continues, a claim not based on peer-reviewed science.
The IPCC acknowledged the mistake. Fixing it, experts say, would require deleting two sentences in the 3,000 page report.
But climate change skeptics seized upon the blunder as evidence that global warming science is not settled.
Since then, other mistakes have made the media rounds. The most valid of these involves a claim that 55 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level, a number that was provided by the Dutch government itself. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency published a correction last month.
Climate scientists downplayed the overstatement, saying it has no bearing on the IPCC’s conclusions, which cites over 10,000 papers from the scientific literature.
Speaking today, Ban said:
"Regrettably, there were a few small errors in the IPCC report." But "nothing that has been alleged or revealed in the media recently alters the fundamental consensus on climate change, nor does it diminish the unique importance of the IPCC’s work."
In a previous announcement that there would be an independent review, the IPCC said: "We recognize the criticism that has been leveled at us" but stated that the IPCC stands "firmly behind the rigor and robustness of the 4th Assessment Report’s conclusions."
Chris Field, a member of the IPCC and director of the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, agreed that "none of the scientific conclusions can be challenged by any of the recent issues associated with the IPCC."
That did not stop him from embracing the ICA review. "There are always ways our process can be improved," Field said. "Within the IPCC we really embrace the idea of an independent review."
Peter Frumhoff, the director of science and policy for the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists and a lead author of the 2007 IPCC report, called it "a right move."
"If this independent review is carried out with rigor and transparency," said Frumhoff, "it will help strengthen the IPCC’s commitment to robust scientific assessments and restore public confidence that has been shaken by an aggressive campaign to sow confusion about climate science."
The 2007 assessment report is considered conservative by most climate scientists.
A new study released last week by the UK Met Office said that advances in observational data show that some climate-related changes are happening faster than expected. The study covers the developments in climate science since the last IPCC report and provides "the clearest evidence yet that human activity is impacting our climate," the agency said.