IPCC climate change panel needs transparency, review panel finds

The IPCC climate change advisory panel, stung by criticism that it ignored dissenting views, underwent an independent review of its management. Observers have called the report 'remarkably hard-hitting.'

Denis Balibouse/Reuters/File
Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Rajendra Pachauri addresses the high level segment of the World Climate Conference-3 in Geneva, Switzerland, September 3, 2009.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set up 22 years ago to provide science advice to governments as they try to deal with global warming, needs to overhaul the way it runs itself, according to a report released Monday.

Among those needs: more transparency; a rigorous set of conflict-of-interest rules; wider representation of dissenting views among practicing climate scientists in its final reports; and a limit on the number of reports scientists can take a lead role in producing.

The review and its recommendations come from a panel made up of 12 experts from 10 countries. The members were selected by the InterAcademy Council, an organization representing 15 national academies of science in developed and developing countries.

The review panel, assembled in May at the request of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, did not address the science of global warming itself. Instead, it focused on management issues raised in controversies that erupted during and after the IPCC issued it last set of climate reports in 2007.

Many of these controversies came to light within the past 10 months. Emails leaked from the University of East Anglia revealed a handful of influential climate scientists displaying a circle-the-wagons mentality as some analysts tried to gain access to their data and analysis methods. Critics alleged that the emails also held evidence of fudged results.

In addition, some global warming skeptics have identified mistakes in the 2007 volumes, including a claim that a warming climate could deprive the Himalayas of their glaciers by 2035.

In responding to the panel's findings Monday, Dr. Pachauri defended the science itself, noting that seven investigations have been conducted into allegations of data fudging or other alleged scientific abuses stemming from the leaked emails. The investigations all concluded the science itself is sound, he said.

Still, "there's no question that the IPCC's trust was somewhat dented by all these controversies," said review-panel chairman Harold Shapiro, an economist and professor emeritus at Princeton University. Panel members "think that what we have recommended will help restore" trust in the IPCC's work.

Among its 22 recommendations, the panel calls for the adoption of conflict-of-interest policies that cover everyone directly involved in producing the reports. It recommends limiting the IPCC chairman, as well as a handful of other top IPCC participants, to overseeing only one set of periodic climate reports, after which they would be replaced for the next set. And it seeks a more transparent, thorough discussion in IPCC reports of credible dissenting views on aspects of climate research and projections, along with a clearer, more consistent description of uncertainties surrounding conclusions the IPCC reports offer – particularly in the influential summaries for policymakers.

Taken as a whole, the report and its recommendations are "remarkably hard-hitting," says Roger Pielke Jr., who specialized in science policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It's not at all the rap on the knuckles that some commentators had expected."

Assuming the recommendations are adopted as a package, and not picked over, "this could mark the moment when climate science joins the 21st century as far as science advice is concerned," Dr. Pielke says. "It's had some practices that were too ad hoc for its prominent role."

The next step must come from the 194 governments that make up the IPCC. The first opportunity to discuss these recommendations as a group and perhaps act on them comes at the IPCC's plenary session in Pusan, South Korea, in October.

The next set of IPCC reports is due out in 2013.

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