International Climate Panel Announces Reforms on Conflicts, Errors

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meeting this week in Abu Dhabi for their annual confab, have added new procedures for dealing with errors, conflicts of interest, and other procedural issues. They have also renamed it the body’s governing structure. The changes are the most substantive response thus far to major questions raised last year regarding the integrity of their major reports.

The new moves come directly from recommendations issued last year by the InterAcademy Council, an international group of representatives from top science academies. In its report, the council said the climate panel was “successful overall, but [that] IPCC needs to fundamentally reform its management structure and strengthen its procedures to handle ever larger and increasingly complex climate assessments as well as the more intense public scrutiny.” “I can say that we are very gratified that the IPCC found the substance of our key recommendations compelling and useful,” wrote the chair of the council’s committee on IPCC, economist Harold Shapiro of Princeton University, in an e-mail to Insider.

Last year, IPCC said it agreed in principle with most of the proposed reforms and in March 2010 created working groups that hashed out the details. (Key documents here.) During the 4-day meeting that ended today, scientists solidified and tweaked the new procedures the working groups had proposed. “With the enhancements to the procedures approved in Abu Dhabi, we are building upon the IPCC’s firm foundations in order to make the next Assessment Report, due out in 2013 and 2014, the highest quality IPCC report to date,” said top U.S. IPCC official Chris Field, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Stanford, California, in a press release.

The press release gave a few details on each new policy. According to a draft of the conflict-of-interest policy distributed before the final vote, coordinating editors and authors of the panel’s voluminous reports would have to fill out a form each year detailing affiliations, funding, and jobs that “might reasonably be construed by others as affecting your judgment.” (Finalized documents from Abu Dhabi were not available.)

What the release described as “a clear and timely procedure for evaluating and correcting genuine errors” was detailed in premeeting draft documents that envisioned an internal tracking system to allow errors to be reported by the public and evaluated up and down the chain of command. “Corrected errors and errata will be posted on the IPCC web site,” the press release said.

On the issue of citing non-peer-reviewed literature, such as reports from nongovernmental organizations and climate activists, the new procedures say that IPCC report authors can include such documents “as long as they are scientifically and technically valid. However, magazines and newspapers are in principle not valid sources ... blogs, social networking sites, and broadcast media are not acceptable sources of information for IPCC reports.”

A key recommendation from the InterAcademy Council was to create a position of executive director of IPCC. Delegates declined to do so, but they did “empower” a newly named “executive committee” to make certain decisions about correcting errors and managing the reports, Field told ScienceInsider. A call for a one-term limit for the IPCC chair, currently held by Indian engineer Rajendra Pachauri, was also accepted, though delegates decided to apply the rule after the end of Pachauri’s second term, in 2014.

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