Nature Climate Change | Climate Feedback

What next for the IPCC?

Olive Heffernan

First it was the glaciers, then the link with extreme weather, now it’s an apparently erroneous claim that “global warming could cut rain-fed north African crop production by up to 50% by 2020”. It seems there’s no end to the blunders being picked out of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) assessment report on the impacts of climate change.


That the errors of overstatement have all appeared in the impacts report will perhaps be less surprising to

scientists than to the general public. Climate impacts research is in its infancy compared to science on the physical climate, for a number of reasons: attributing cause and effect isn’t easy; neither is collecting data over timescales and regions long and large enough such that it’s possible to draw any meaningful trends from their analysis.

But this recent spate of errors also points to more fundamental flaws in how the UN panel assesses climate science, leading to intensified calls for its reform in recent weeks. In the latest issue of Nature, five climatologists who have all been involved in the IPCC put forward their visions of how to modernize the UN panel. The full article is here [subscription], but the highlights are below.

Over the years, says Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, UK, the IPCC has had to expand its remit to include an ever-widening subset of the social, technological, environmental and ethical dimensions of climate change. But it’s unfeasible for one panel to deliver an exhaustive integrated assessment of all of these areas of knowledge, and so it should be split into three different panels using the same dividing lines that currently separate its working groups, says Hulme. He suggests having a Global Science Panel to deliver frequent, focused reports on specific scientific topics, Regional Evaluation Panels to assess the cultural, social, economic and development dimensions of climate change and a Policy Analysis Panel to undertake rapid analyses of specific policy options, such the environmental effectiveness of controlling black carbon.

Eduardo Zorita of GKSS Research Center in Geesthacht, Germany, says that the IPCC should start of the process now of moving towards becoming a stronger, independent body such as the International Energy Agency. The International Climate Agency (ICA) would be staffed by around 200 fulltime scientists who would be independent of government, industry and academia, says Zorita, and would be responsible for several key issues: streamlining biennial state-of-the-climate reports; acting as a repository and quality-controller of observational climate data; advising governments on regional assessments of climate impacts; and coordinating the suite of future-climate simulations by research institutes.

Thomas Stocker, of the University of Bern, Swizterland, says that the IPCC should adhere to its current strategy of producing an assessment report every six years. “There is a strong pressure to provide ‘just-in-time’ scientific updates for policy-makers and stakeholders, as was the case in the preparations for the 2009 climate-change conference in Copenhagen. The IPCC must not yield to this pressure”, writes Stocker. He notes that the panel must have strict adherence to procedures and to scientific rigour at all stages in order to provide the best and most robust information.

Jeff Price of WWF, US, says the panel must take a closer look at how it selects its authors and must produce an annual assessment of the literature for policymakers. “The most senior positions should be filled by the nominees most expert in their field, regardless of balance” says Price. “Geographic and gender balance should then be used in selection of lead authors”. Price also recommends an increase in the number of lead authors to give better balance and to allow more scientists to participate in the process.

John Christy at the University of Alabama in Hunstville, USA, says that the IPCC needs to allow for a greater heterogeneity of voices among its authors. He suggests that rather than producing voluminous printed reports every six years, it would be worth establishing a ‘Wikipedia-IPCC’, which would be an online resource managed in rotation by various authors. “Controversies would be refereed by the lead authors, but with input from all sides in the text, with links to original documents and data. The result would be more useful than occasional big books and would be a more honest representation of what our fledgling science can offer” writes Christy.

Image source: IPCC


  1. Report this comment

    Steve Short said:

    It is really nice to see that an open debate on the future of IPCC is now underway and that the views of prominent, scientifically credible scientists of a less orthodox viewpoint such as Dr. John Christy are also being allowed to speak. It is a regrettable fact that the tenure of IPCC has paralleled, and reflected an unsavoury rise in the tendency of some areas of modern science e.g. climate science, to become club-like, politicized and/or commercially compromised, dogmatic and (worst of all) to rush to establish paradigms immaturely.

    In my view, it is high time the entire body of contemporary scientific literature became transparently online on the Net, INCLUSIVE of peer review. The role of editors should then be to interpret and reflect the opinions of reviewers AND any other competent online comment, in a fully transparent online fashion.

    IPCC has become an outmoded institution simply because it reflects the deep flaws in the crude, outmoded and unbalanced way in which we still manage current scientific literature.

    This has become a stark anomaly in the Age of the Internet.

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    Zdzislaw Meglicki said:

    IPCC has become a mouthpiece for special interest groups and not a trustworthy agency delivering scientific assessment of the highest quality—for governments to act upon. Everything about its actions and deliverables reeks of corruption, fraud, and propaganda, and everyone involved with it has been tained. Such is the inevitable outcome of cheating in science—enforced relentlessly in other disciplines, so, why not here?

    What should be done about IPCC? Funding should be stopped and the organization disbanded. Governments inclined to do so should fund their own research efforts in this area, or just have their scientists follow the only form of scientific discourse acceptable: peer reviewed publications in reputable, professional journals.

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    Mitch Lyle said:

    I think the best argument for IPCC effectiveness is the level of controversy recently aroused by these reports. If they were not effective no one would care. Most of the statements I have seen against the IPCC process have not been supported, and seem to be typical internet flames.

    If you will notice, the controversies about the IPCC are all surrounding minor statements within the volume, not of the core data or conclusions. I am not certain whether the average person (or Nature reporter) is aware that there are 3 separate agencies making global temperature assessments,and that they all agree except for minor differences despite different methodologies. Are most people aware that tree ring data is only one of the data streams used to make the ‘hockey stick’? My favorite, in fact, is the use of borehole temperatures. I would suggest that people read the 2006 National Academy of Science report “Surface temperature reconstructions for the last 2000 years” to understand the current state of the art.

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    Bob Montalto said:

    If the IPCC really believes that global warming is from man made co2 alone, they are sadly mistaken…

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    Jacob Stueckelberg said:

    Mr. Lyle, you seem to be missing one of the most important aspects of this whole CRU-IPCC business. In real, empirical science people publish their conclusions after inspecting a wide variety of collected and structured empirical data that they have stored away in their pre-publication Fort Knox type intellectual safe as well as their mathematical and statistical, potentially perfectly legitimate manipulations of these data.

    But the problem facing CRU and the IPCC is the basic imbalance between legitimate demands for exposure of the mathematical and statistical methods used by Jones, Briffa, Mann et al and their response to these normal and legitimate requests.

    Normal, non-ideology-based scientists question the veracity of the CRU-IPCC flavoured results just because the JBM camaraderie-based group did refuse to honour such requests and people ask the following question: why, if both the empirical results – the raw data (including the nitty-gritty details of the temperature measurements) AND the theoretical model-based machinery are above board and the overall climatological picture of a man(n)-made warming is pretty much a safe bet, why then would some AGW researchers like the JBM gang refuse to accept that they, too, have got to conform to normal scientific procedure and release the raw data and the details of the theoretical machinery used to understand those data?

    Why would they be scared of honouring FOIA requests?