Panel Calls for 'Fundamental Reform' of IPCC

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

A new review of the procedures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives the influential science organization a solid B+ for its 2 decades of assessments of the global climate system. But a panel assembled by the InterAcademy Council, which is made up of science academies from around the world, says that there are plenty of areas in which IPCC could do better. Its 113-page report, issued today, calls for a new leadership structure with shorter terms, tighter review procedures, and better lines of communication.

One significant change would create a full-time executive director position to run the day-to-day operations of the group, along with an executive committee to make crucial decisions quickly. The key decision-makers should serve a single, roughly 6-year term, says the report of a 12-member panel chaired by Harold Shapiro, president emeritus of Princeton University. Indian engineer Rajendra Pachauri has served as the half-time chair of the informally organized body for the past 9 years. Speaking at a press conference in New York City, however, Pachauri gave no indication that he was prepared to hand over the reins.

The report says that the increasingly varied, complex, and numerous literature on climate has taxed the limited resources of IPCC’s staff members and its hundreds of volunteer reviewers, just as climate science has come under greater public scrutiny. To help the authors deal with the onslaught, the report suggests that review editors,who oversee each chapter’s multistep review process, be given more authority to force chapter authors to respond to public comments. At the same time, the report suggests that it would be easier to process the thousands of comments that flood into IPCC for each chapter if authors responded to “the most significant ones” as decided by the review editors.

Shapiro’s opening written statement captures the tone of the report, which was commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Pachauri:

Overall, IPCC’s assessment process has been a success and served society well.  The assessments have put IPCC on the world stage, raised public awareness of climate change, and driven policymakers to consider options for responding to climate change.  Indeed, these were among the reasons IPCC was awarded a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

All of this has been accompanied, however, by an increasingly intense debate in the media and political arena about climate change science and the costs of proposed climate policies, which in turn has meant much greater public scrutiny of IPCC.  Controversies have erupted over the perceived impartiality of IPCC toward climate policy, and all of you are aware of the attention given earlier this year in the press to the revelation of errors in the last assessment.  Meanwhile, the assessments themselves have grown in size and complexity.  Most of our Committee's key recommendations are aimed at helping IPCC manage this increasingly complex process and doing so under the gaze of a public microscope.

The governments that sponsor IPCC will take up the report in October at a meeting of IPCC in Busan, South Korea.

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