The Nobel prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must undergo "fundamental" changes if it is to remain a "valuable resource," said a committee probing the group’s processes and procedures in an unexpectedly scathing review.
The 113–page Climate Change Assessments: Review of the Processes and Procedures of the IPCC was presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York on Monday.
It represents the most comprehensive look ever taken at one of the world’s most influential climate science organizations.
The review was carried out by 12 experts of the InterAcademy Council (IAC), an Amsterdam-based organization of 15 of the world’s science academies. The committee was chaired by Harold T. Shapiro, an economist and former president of Princeton University.
While Shapiro declared the IPCC assessment process a success "overall" and a value to society, he also clearly stated that the panel hasn’t kept up with the complexity of climate science research and higher public expectations.
"Significant improvements are … necessary for the fifth assessment [report on climate change] and beyond," which has already begun and is due out in 2014, the peer-reviewed investigation said.
The authors presented a list of nearly two dozen recommendations for comprehensive reform. "Most … can be implemented during the fifth assessment process," they wrote.
One of them is to limit the term of the IPCC chair to one assessment period, or six years, instead of two terms – a policy that would force current chair Rajendra Pachauri out of his job.
"[The recommendation] was not in any way connected to Dr. Pachauri," Shapiro clarified at UN headquarters on Monday. "Our notion was that an organization like this needs to have its leadership constantly changed to increase vitality."
Pachauri said he thought the findings were intended for the further-off future.
"I think the IAC’s recommendations are forward looking," he said. "I’ve been elected to continue the fifth assessment process."
However, Pachauri said the issue "will be discussed" at an October plenary of the IPCC in South Korea. There, he said, the group will vote on which recommendations of the IAC to implement — and by when.
"I see this [IAC review] as a mission that I cannot shirk, and I cannot walk away from," he said, suggesting he may resign if called upon to do so.
Since its establishment by the World Meteorological Organization in 1988, the IPCC has released period assessments on the state of climate change science to guide national and international global warming policy.
The IAC review was commissioned by the UN secretary general and the IPCC in March. Its charge was to examine the entire IPCC processes – from how it corrects mistakes to its inclusion of contrarian views and its quality control of data.
Himalayan Glacier Error
The review came largely in response to an erroneous claim in the over 1,000-page 2007 fourth assessment that Himalayan glaciers could disappear completely by 2035, or sooner, if the present rate of global warming continues.
Skeptics seized upon the blunder as evidence that the science on global warming is not settled.
Shapiro said the mistake, and others, injured public trust in the IPCC.
"The errors made did dent the credibility of the process. There’s no question about it," he told reporters at UN headquarters.
The report puts the blame on the authors and review editors.
"In the case of the incorrect projection of the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers … some of the review comments were not adequately considered and the justifications were not completely explained."
In Shapiro’s words, "It came from just not paying close enough attention."
The committee published several comments received by IPCC reviewers on the Himalayan claim that were seemingly ignored. They include:
This is a very drastic conclusion. Should have a supporting reference otherwise should be deleted (Government of India)
I am not sure that this is true for the very large Karakoram glaciers in the western Himalaya (Hayley Fowler, Newcastle University)
Drafts of the fourth assessment report drew more than 90,000 review comments, Shapiro said.
"I think … they were overwhelmed by the number of comments and didn’t take them all quite as seriously as they should have," he added.
Shapiro and his team conceded that "carrying out an intergovernmental climate assessment is an inherently difficult task."
But the report harshly criticized the IPCC for "straying into advocacy" around "specific climate policies," a behavior that "can only hurt IPCC’s credibility."
"IPCC’s mandate is to be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive. However … IPCC spokespersons have not always adhered to this mandate," the report said.
Further, the panel got slammed for exaggerating the level of scientific certainty on certain issues, and even getting things wrong.
"For example, authors reported high confidence in statements for which there is little evidence, such as the widely-quoted statement that agricultural yields in Africa might decline by up to 50 percent by 2020," the report said. "Moreover, the guidance was often applied to statements that are so vague they cannot be falsified. In these cases the impression was often left, quite incorrectly, that a substantive finding was being presented."
Recommendations to improve the IPCC include:
- Electing an executive committee to approve corrections, communicate effectively and quickly in the face of controversy, among other tasks.
- Strengthening and enforcing its procedure for the use of unpublished and non-peer-reviewed literature, known as "gray literature."
- Ensuring that reviewers’ comments are adequately considered by the authors and that genuine controversies are adequately reflected in the report.
- Demanding a conflict of interest and disclosure policy for IPCC leaders and lead authors
- Ensuring that lead authors explicitly document that a range of scientific
viewpoints has been considered
- Developing of a new communications strategy for a more rapid response to crises, which includes guidelines about who can speak on behalf of IPCC and how to represent the organization appropriately.
The IAC committee, whose members were nominated by science and engineering academies around the world, come from nine countries and cover a range of disciplines from environmental sciences to economics and chemistry.
Its recommendations came from IPCC material, interviews and public meetings.
Spin from Both Sides
As the findings were made public yesterday, spin flowed in from both sides.
In a statement to the press, the IPCC said it "welcomed its findings," saying the panel will be "strengthened” by the review.
Similarly, Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University and IPCC working group co-chair said the review "will allow the world to have even greater confidence in the credibility of the IPCC reports moving forward."
The popular RealClimate website, authored by climate scientists, including several who have taken part in the IPCC process, said:
"The suggestions made here will mostly strengthen the credibility of the next IPCC … though whether it will make the conclusions less contentious is unclear. Judging from the contrarian spin some are putting on this report, the answer is likely to be no."
Those who are more skeptical of climate science declared victory.
Roger Pielke, Jr., environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, who was included in Foreign Policy’s guide to climate skeptics in February, called it "an excellent, thoughtful report," in a blog post. "If the IAC Review recommendations are to have any meaning at all then Pachauri should go," he added.
Skeptic Anthony Watts, chief meteorologist at KPAY radio in California and blogger at Watts Up With That? similarly said that the IAC and Pachauri are "on a collision course," in a post with a string of over 100 comments, with some heralding the findings as a "pleasant surprise," and others calling for Shapiro to replace Pachauri.
Climate Science Untarnished
Pachauri was steadfast in his assertion that the key finding of the fourth assessment — that the planet is heating up and humans are to blame — remains.
In a statement to the press on the IAC review, Ban echoed that claim.
"The Secretary-General firmly maintains that the fundamental science on climate change remains sound. He continues to support the conclusions of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, which have been repeatedly upheld and endorsed by numerous professional review boards across the globe. "
Even Shapiro, who showed himself to be hardly a fan of the IPCC, said: "Many groups of scientists have insisted that whatever the failings in certain aspects of IPCC’s massive assessment, the key findings of the most recent IPCC assessment remain," in his preface to the report.
The Himalayan controversy broke on the heels of so-called Climategate scandal last November, in which 1,000 private emails by over 160 authors were leaked or stolen from computer server at the University of East Anglia’s premier Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and published online.
Critics said the correspondence revealed attempts by scientists to manipulate data and keep scientific papers out of the 2007 IPCC report, among other issues.
Three independent reviews have fully exonerated scientists involved in the controversy of any willful wrongdoing.
"By overwhelming consensus, the scientific community agrees that climate change is real,” Pachauri told reporters on Monday. "My hope is that the accumulation of so many investigations into climate science in such a short period time will strengthen public trust so that we can move forward."