First it was the glaciers, then the link with extreme weather, now it’s an apparently erroneous claim that “global warming could cut rain-fed north African crop production by up to 50% by 2020”. It seems there’s no end to the blunders being picked out of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) assessment report on the impacts of climate change.
That the errors of overstatement have all appeared in the impacts report will perhaps be less surprising to
scientists than to the general public. Climate impacts research is in its infancy compared to science on the physical climate, for a number of reasons: attributing cause and effect isn’t easy; neither is collecting data over timescales and regions long and large enough such that it’s possible to draw any meaningful trends from their analysis.
But this recent spate of errors also points to more fundamental flaws in how the UN panel assesses climate science, leading to intensified calls for its reform in recent weeks. In the latest issue of Nature, five climatologists who have all been involved in the IPCC put forward their visions of how to modernize the UN panel. The full article is here [subscription], but the highlights are below.
Over the years, says Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, UK, the IPCC has had to expand its remit to include an ever-widening subset of the social, technological, environmental and ethical dimensions of climate change. But it’s unfeasible for one panel to deliver an exhaustive integrated assessment of all of these areas of knowledge, and so it should be split into three different panels using the same dividing lines that currently separate its working groups, says Hulme. He suggests having a Global Science Panel to deliver frequent, focused reports on specific scientific topics, Regional Evaluation Panels to assess the cultural, social, economic and development dimensions of climate change and a Policy Analysis Panel to undertake rapid analyses of specific policy options, such the environmental effectiveness of controlling black carbon.
Eduardo Zorita of GKSS Research Center in Geesthacht, Germany, says that the IPCC should start of the process now of moving towards becoming a stronger, independent body such as the International Energy Agency. The International Climate Agency (ICA) would be staffed by around 200 fulltime scientists who would be independent of government, industry and academia, says Zorita, and would be responsible for several key issues: streamlining biennial state-of-the-climate reports; acting as a repository and quality-controller of observational climate data; advising governments on regional assessments of climate impacts; and coordinating the suite of future-climate simulations by research institutes.
Thomas Stocker, of the University of Bern, Swizterland, says that the IPCC should adhere to its current strategy of producing an assessment report every six years. “There is a strong pressure to provide ‘just-in-time’ scientific updates for policy-makers and stakeholders, as was the case in the preparations for the 2009 climate-change conference in Copenhagen. The IPCC must not yield to this pressure”, writes Stocker. He notes that the panel must have strict adherence to procedures and to scientific rigour at all stages in order to provide the best and most robust information.
Jeff Price of WWF, US, says the panel must take a closer look at how it selects its authors and must produce an annual assessment of the literature for policymakers. “The most senior positions should be filled by the nominees most expert in their field, regardless of balance” says Price. “Geographic and gender balance should then be used in selection of lead authors”. Price also recommends an increase in the number of lead authors to give better balance and to allow more scientists to participate in the process.
John Christy at the University of Alabama in Hunstville, USA, says that the IPCC needs to allow for a greater heterogeneity of voices among its authors. He suggests that rather than producing voluminous printed reports every six years, it would be worth establishing a ‘Wikipedia-IPCC’, which would be an online resource managed in rotation by various authors. “Controversies would be refereed by the lead authors, but with input from all sides in the text, with links to original documents and data. The result would be more useful than occasional big books and would be a more honest representation of what our fledgling science can offer” writes Christy.
Image source: IPCC