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More Calls To Fix The IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done indispensable work over the years in assessing the vast amount of research out there on the Earth's climate system and putting it all together into an accessible summary for policymakers and laypeople. I'd very much recommend the IPCC's Working Group 1 report from 2007 to anyone who wants to delve deeper into the basics of how scientists know that humans are warming the planet.

Still, the panel isn't perfect. Recently, a handful of errors have been uncovered in the IPCC's Working Group II report—which deals with the trickier topic of climate impacts. (We know humans are warming the planet, but there's still an awful lot of uncertainty about precise effects.) On their own, the errors aren't ground-shaking. For instance, one incorrect line stated that Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2035, whereas more rigorous projections suggest they aren't on pace to vanish until 2305. True, the world's glaciers are still receding, and this fact poses problems for various water supplies, but even so, the Himalayan estimate was neither accurate nor based on peer-reviewed science. (Under IPCC rules, the section dealing with impacts is allowed to cite "gray literature"—i.e., reports that aren't peer-reviewed—which strikes many people as problematic.)

Likewise, another line in the climate-impacts report suggested that 55 percent of the Netherlands is below sea-level, when it turns out the real figure is more like 26 percent (the 55 percent figure had included areas at risk of river flooding). And in another section, the panel appears to have been too bullish on nuclear power, relying on the industry's own figures instead of doing independent estimates. True, these aren't the sort of errors that undermine the broader picture, but they're real mistakes and not good for the panel's overall credibility. Given how vast these reports are, errors will happen, but there has to be a solid process for correcting them swiftly. The IPCC under chairman Rajendra Pachauri (right) has been too slow in some cases to respond, as appears to have been the case with the glacier flap.

Anyway, this has led recently to a number of calls from scientists to reform the IPCC process, and there's a package of essays in the latest issue of the journal Nature with some ideas on that score. The pieces are subscriber-only, but Scientific American's David Biello did a nice job picking out some of the more interesting suggestions:

A more robust way to expose such errors and correct them more quickly is proposed by former IPCC lead author and atmospheric scientist John Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Writing in the February 11 edition of Nature, Christy called for a "living, 'Wikipedia-IPCC.'" … After all, as he noted: "Voluminous printed reports issued every six years by government-nominated authors cannot accommodate the rapid and chaotic development of scientific information today." …

Yet, it is just such government approval and multiple layers of review that help give the IPCC process its authority. And such a process requires one thing: time, argues physicist Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the physical sciences group for the 2014 report. "Faster turnover would jeopardize the multistage review and thus compromise authority and comprehensiveness," he wrote in the same issue, while also arguing that the IPCC must be rigorous in its pursuit of assessments that are "policy relevant but never policy prescriptive."

To enhance that relevance, contributing IPCC author and paleoclimatologist Eduardo Zorita of the GKSS Research Center in Germany calls for the creation of an international climate agency, along the lines of the International Atomic Energy Agency or the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, that would continue to deliver assessments but with a permanent staff, rather than relying on the voluntary contributions of thousands of scientists. "Climate assessment is too important to be left in the hands of advocates," he concluded in the same issue.

Another idea, suggested by one of the IPCC's lead authors, Mike Hulme, is to split the IPCC into three independent panels. One panel would be focused solely on synthesizing scientific research. The second would assess the consequences of climate change for different regions of the world, and the third would look at policy. The IPCC does all of these things, but it might make sense to keep them separate.

Meanwhile, as I've argued before, one disadvantage of the IPCC is that the reports only come out every seven years (the next won't come out until 2013), and the panel usually has to stop incorporating new scientific information two years before the reports are actually written, in order to make the workload manageable. More frequent updates would be more useful to policymakers. On the flip side, though, a faster pace could make the review process less rigorous, and it would be a major burden on the scientists volunteering their time for the panel. That's why Eduardo Zorita's suggestion to have a full-time staff, ala the CBO, is intriguing.

As one final suggestion, it would be nice if the IPCC put out more of its periodic "special reports" on topics of particular interest. In 1999, the panel produced a report on aviation emissions that was extremely helpful in gauging the airline industry's contribution to climate change. (Until then, the topic had been subject to a lot of bloviating.) Why not special reports on, say, geoengineering, or the role of soot? We already have plenty of information on global warming itself—more than enough, I'd argue, to take action—but there are a lot of smaller subtopics that could really use close examination.