IPCC’s future: babies, bathwater, or a new bath?

An opinion piece in this week’s Nature features the views of five diverse climate scientists on how the IPCC might be reformed or restructured in the light of the recent fuss about “errors” in AR4. The headine asks if we should “cherish it, tweak it or scrap it?” It makes interesting reading (it’s behind a paywall, unfortunately), but here’s a summary.

Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, suggests that the IPCC could be dissolved after the publication of AR5 in 2014, and replaced with three different bodies. A Global Science Panel would focus on the physical sciences, using an IPCC-like process to produce “smaller, sharper syntheses of knowledge on fast-moving topics”. Work on impacts and adaptation would be carried out by “Regional Evaluation Panels” around the globe, while a Policy Analysis Panel of experts would undertake rapid reviews of policy-relevant ideas.

Edouard Zorita of the GKSS Research Center in Germany wants the IPCC replaced by an International Climate Agency, a standing body along the lines of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and divorced from direct governmental input. He sees it producing reports every two years.

Thomas Stocker at the University of Bern is in the”cherish it” camp. He believes the current structure is an efficient “honest broker”, and that it has sound procedures that if rigorously applied deliver good results. Jeff Price, the director of climate-change adaptation for WWF in the US, wants new short, quickly produced reports and a faster turnaround for the full assessments.

Fifth cab off the rank is John Christy, Roy Spencer’s collaborator on the UAH satellite temperature series. He’s one of the very few sceptics who are working, publishing climate scientists. It’s not perhaps surprising that he wants the IPCC removed from under the wing of the UN, and that it should morph into a “Wikipedia-IPCC” continuously updated as the science develops.

Taking its cue from the Nature piece, the Science Media Centre asked NZ scientists for their views. All six — Glenn McGregor, Peter Barrett, Jim Renwick, Jim Salinger, Martin Manning and Andy Reisinger — basically support the current structure, provided that procedures are tightened to avoid a repeat of the Himalayan glacier error. Andy Reisinger puts it rather well:

“Asking for wholesale revision to the IPCC in the wake of this mistake appears to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and dismantling the bath tub as well, when all it needed was a reminder to clean behind the ears.” [The Reisingers have a new baby: GR]

My view, for what it’s worth (and that’s not much in the greater scheme of things), is that the current six year cycle is probably about right for the full review process, but that it needs to be staggered so that the material in Working Group 1 (the science) can feed forward into WG2 (impacts) and WG3 (mitigation). The full reports should be supplemented by much more frequent updates and special reports on emerging or fast-changing issues. It would be good, for instance to have “special reports” on recent work on Arctic warming or sea level rise. Policy makers need to work from a good knowledge base, and that’s what the IPCC or any body that might succeed it has to provide. I also really like the Wikipedia-IPCC idea, but not as a means of providing policy relevant information, more as an unimpeachable source of material for public discussion. And perhaps as a second (or third?) career for Stoat… 😉

10 thoughts on “IPCC’s future: babies, bathwater, or a new bath?”

  1. This is not the time to be doing a major overhaul or replacement of the IPCC.
    But it does need some change.
    I would like to see two changes.
    First and foremost, all political interference has to be removed.
    Editing by government hacks won’t change reality, but it dangerously hides what that reality might be, both now and further the road.
    Second, I agree with you Gareth, that there should be more frequent updates and special reports.
    Waiting to publish information at the “proper time”, makes it dated information.
    As far as the “errors” are concerned; so what.
    Nothing that the human species does is without error.
    The key is to catch them, correct them as quickly as possible and, by all means, admit to that error or errors.

    My vote is to tweak it.

  2. Two obvious problems with the IPCC are:

    1. The requirement for word-for-word consensus in the Summary for Policymakers (which enabled the Saudis to insist that the likelihood of AGW be downgraded from 99% to 95%), and

    2. The systemic delay in reporting research results (the 2007 AR4 report was based on research carried out up to about 2004, which is why the sea level rise was underestimated).

  3. Consensus = “widespread and general agreement”, which I take to mean that if any government objects to a particular word, it has to change, i.e. 100% agreement is required.

    The IPCC PR states: “For the IPCC, the top level is
    the key messages that appear in the Summaries for Policymakers. In these documents, each point undergoes not only the careful scrutiny of the scientists. It must also be approved, word by word, by consensus, by all the participating governments, typically representing more than 120 countries.”

  4. RT,

    Agreed then, all or 100 percent is too tough.

    It puts the certainty of planetary political assent above that of responsible and reliable science.. and, I suspect unwittingly, can lead to a few holding the planet’s many to ransome.

  5. Yes, and it is why the IPCC appears to be so conservative – the Saudi’s, etc have veto rights over every word in the “Summary for Policymakers”, which is the only part of the IPCC report that most people read.

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