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Is it time to overhaul the IPCC?

Climate scientists debate whether the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should be tweaked, overhauled, or scrapped.

By Peter N. Spotts/Staff writer / February 10, 2010

Among the recent complaints about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that one of its reports claimed incorrectly glaciers in the Himalayas could melt completely by 2035.

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The United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – given the charge of providing world leaders with periodic updates on global warming and the policy options to tackle it -- is overdue for an overhaul.

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That's the view of several climate scientists who set out their prescriptions for the embattled organization in the pages of today's issue of the journal Nature. The recommendations range from tweaks to the IPCC's procedures to scrapping the IPCC completely after it finishes its next set of reports, due out on 2014.

Over the course of its 22-year history, the IPCC has become "too cumbersome, too bureaucratic, too big, too slow, and too much aligned with government interests and not the people's interests," writes climate scientist Michael Hulme in an e-mail.

Dr. Hulme, a researcher at the University of East Anglia in England, is one of the scientists contributing to the recommendations. He also has served as a lead author and a contributing author to IPCC reports.

One result, he says, is a group that has gained too much authority, lending its pronouncements a scientifically and politically unhealthy air of infallibility.

Beyond what he and others see as an increasingly ossified organization, the IPCC faces a broader challenge:

Countering the growing impression, which critics say it hasn't discouraged, "that we march from ignorance and uncertainty toward enlightenment and certainty" in climate science, says Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in science policy. "The reality is that over time, uncertainties can also increase."

As if to underscore the point, one prominent climate researcher suggests that uncertainties in projections of future change are likely to grow, at least initially, as the IPCC moves toward its fifth assessment report in 2014.

The reason, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Kevin Trenberth: That effort is placing new demands on climate models in trying to project changes beyond 2100, which has been the cut-off year up to now. The models will include improvements based on recent research. The aim is to provide more realistic climate simulations that past efforts, he wrote last month in an article for the online publication Nature Reports.

But because the work is cutting edge, "the uncertainty in AR5's climate predictions and projections will be much greater than in previous IPCC reports," he wrote, referring to the next climate change reports.

It's the age-old scientific conundrum, he continued. Advances in understanding some aspects of climate often expose factors that either were previously under-appreciated or unknown.

The IPCC has come under increasing scrutiny following Climategate -- the distribution last November of e-mails either hacked or leaked from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. They lay bare a seamier side of science often unseen by the public -- one filled with rivalries, personal invective, and threats -- if not actions -- to ostracize others who disagree with conclusions or with the high level of confidence a researcher grants their results.

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