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Report recommendations to strengthen IPCC and restore trust in climate science

31 August 2010
Report recommendations to strengthen IPCC and restore trust in climate science

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager for The Climate Group, reflects on the release of an independent report on the workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The release this week of an independent report on the workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underlines why scientific transparency and effective communication are essential to the task of addressing global climate change.

The report, prepared by the Inter-Academy Council (IAC) – the multinational body that represents national science academies – was commissioned by the UN in the wake of a number of embarrassing mistakes in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report. These mistakes, including the assertion that Himalaya glaciers would disappear by 2035 (the correct date was in fact 2350), were seized on by those unconvinced of the need for climate action as proof that the IPCC’s work was driven more by politics and ideology than sound science.

The IAC’s brief was to examine the processes and procedures that support and give structure to the IPCC’s assessment reports. The mandate did not extend to reviewing the underlining climate science, which the IAC authors noted remained sound following several recent independent assessments, including by the US National Research Council.  While complimentary of the impressive achievements of the IPCC over the years, the main thrust of the report was the need for reform to ensure the panel remained a trusted and respected institution in the future.

The ICA authors made eight key recommendations:

  • Establish an Executive Committee to act on behalf of the IPCC between its annual plenary meetings. Crucially, the ICA recommends that the committee should be small (12 members) and include members from outside the climate community, including from the private sector.
  • Elect a full-time Executive Director to run the IPCC’s secretariat and handle day-to-day operations. Rachenda Pachauri, the (part-time) IPCC Chair, currently fulfills this function).
  • Encourage Review Editors to fully exercise their authority to ensure that comments provided by reviewers are fully considered by report authors, and that genuine controversies are properly reflected in the report.
  • Establish a more targeted and effective review process for responding to reviewer comments (the last IPCC report drew 90,000 comments, stretching the ability and resources of authors).
  • Standardize the way that uncertainty is characterized and communicated. The previous IPCC reports used a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods for measuring uncertainty.
  • Use quantitative probabilities only when there is sufficient evidence
  • Complete and implement a transparent communications strategy with emphasis on rapid and thoughtful responses relevant to stakeholders.
  • Establish set criteria for selecting participants for all key IPCC roles.

For anyone concerned with an honest and open debate on climate science and policy, the ICA report is a welcome development. Its clear identification of management, process and communication failings within the IPCC, plus prescriptions for remedying the situation, are vital to rebuilding the trust and confidence in the Panel and the work it does. The proposed increase in resources to the Panel and its tiny secretariat has the potential to be particularly positive, providing the IPCC with an infrastructure more commensurate with its influence.

Such changes are in the interests of all. Given the complexity and uncertainties of climate science, the need for transparency, open debate and clear communication is crucial if governments, business and communities are to remain convinced of the need for ambitious climate action. As the world’s ultimate arbiter of the climate science, it is vital that the IPCC remains a paragon of such virtues.

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