Is it time to overhaul the IPCC?

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

By , /Staff writer

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    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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.]

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