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IPCC: in need of a rethink?

Olive Heffernan

Today on Nature.com, my colleague Quirin Schiermeier reports on the allegations that have, of late, been plaguing the UN body that assesses the science of climate change. Aside from Glaciergate and other claims of inaccuracy in reporting the science, now Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is under pressure to resign because the institute he directs, the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, has ties with companies that could benefit from climate policies, writes Schiermeier.

In response, many climatologists have been considering how the body might reconsider its rules and procedures in an effort to reduce errors in the final product and create policies on potential conflicts of interest.

The next assessment report, known as AR5 and due out in 2013, will follow the same basic outline as its last one, with three working groups to tackle three areas of interest: the physical science of climate change, the impacts such change is likely to have and how these might be mitigated. There are two review editors for each chapter and the whole thing will be checked before publication, first by expert reviewers and then by governments.

Those closely involved in the process insist that it works well, but others say there is room for improvement. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, a lead author of the 2007 report, told Schiermeier that critics have grossly underestimated the rigour of the IPCC review process. But, he says that the reports from the three working groups could be better coordinated.

IPCC reports are written by humans,” says Jürgen Willebrand, an oceanographer at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany, and a coordinating lead author of the 2007 report. As such, some errors will creep in, he says. “I have no doubt that similar errors could be found in earlier IPCC reports, but nobody has bothered to look in detail because at the time of these reports the IPCC was less visible to society, politics and media.” But he says the IPCC should have a more formal process for ensuring each flagged error is dealt with promptly.

Willebrand also calls for the IPCC to develop a policy on potential conflicts of interest. Schiermeier says any changes to the structure or leadership of the panel would need to be approved in its next plenary session, which will take place in October in Busan, South Korea.

The full story is available online here [subscription required].

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