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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.

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More recently, the body has become embroiled in a controversy regarding faulty data it cited indicating a physically impossible rate of decline in Himalayan glaciers, as well as on the severity of anticipated effects of deforestation on the Amazon region.

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The University of Colorado's Dr. Pielke Jr. says those glitches are regrettable, but from a policy standpoint, they have little impact. More serious, he says, is what he terms an egregious misrepresentation of the relationship between damage costs from severe weather in the US and global warming contained in the second of 2007's climate reports. Essentially, the report claimed an increase, especially after the 2004 and 2005 hurricane season, that doesn't exist, he says. The report misrepresents work he and others have done on the topic.

The IPCC also neglected to include peer-reviewed studies suggesting that the technologies for dealing with climate change are not as well in hand as some economists believe. That conclusion is not without critics. But it has a bearing on the level of effort needed to deal with global warming, suggesting that countries need to place a far greater emphasis on technology development than current approaches to combating the problem include.

Among the suggestions for change: Shuttering the IPCC after 2014 and replacing it with three independent groups: one that looks strictly at the science and whose members are selected by national academies of science; five to 10 regional groups to assess the effects of global warming -- putting a greater emphasis on effects where people live, than on somewhat artificial global averages; and a standing group of 50 to 100 people representing the interests of regular people, so-called "civil society" globally.

John Christy, a climate researcher at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, suggests setting up a Wikipedia-type IPCC with clear space for scientifically credible dissenting views, as well as direct links to research and other documents contributors cite. This approach would be far more responsive to the most current results than the IPCC's reports can be.

Not everyone calls for the IPCC's imminent demise.

Jeff Price, managing director for adaptation for the World Wildlife Fund and a lead author for IPCC reports released in 2001 and 2007, argues that the IPCC already has rules that, if more rigorously enforced, would reduce the already small likelihood of specious data finding their way into IPCC assessments.

But he also holds that the body should produce smaller, more timely assessments rather than the reports that come out every five to seven years.

Despite recent revelations, "the science is sound," Dr. Price says. And, he notes, by the time the reports are finished, the so-called summaries for policymakers are far more conservative in their conclusions than the extremes in scientific results would suggest.

The basic principles behind human-triggered global warming remain intact, Pielke agrees.

"There are core findings that really haven't changed over decades," he says. "Humans influence the climate system. Greenhouse gases and other human influences are a big part of that. These influence could very well be negative for many people."

Getting beyond this core understanding over the next several decades is likely to be tough, he adds. "That's a very difficult message for people to accept on both sides of the debate, arguing their competing certainties. Creating a safe place to discuss uncertainties in this highly politicized context has to be one of the important outcomes of whatever institutional reforms" come to the IPCC.

[Editor's Note: The original version of this story omitted Dr. Price's professional affiliation.]