InterAcademy Council Report Terms UN IPCC Process a Success Overall, Calls for Reform in Management Structure

A new report from the InterAcademy Council, an organization of the world’s science academies, including the US National Academy of Sciences, found that the process used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce its periodic assessment reports has been a success overall, but that IPCC needs to reform its management structure, strengthen its procedures, and become more transparent to handle increasingly complex climate assessments and greater public scrutiny. The report was released yesterday at the United Nations.

The Committee found that the IPCC assessment process has been successful overall. However, the world has changed considerably since the creation of the IPCC, with major advances in climate science, heated controversy on some climate-related issues, and an increased focus of governments on the impacts and potential responses to changing climate. A wide variety of interests have entered the climate discussion, leading to greater overall scrutiny and demands from stakeholders. The IPCC must continue to adapt to these changing conditions in order to continue serving society well in the future.

—IAC Report

The Committee’s key recommendations for improving IPCC’s assessment process are:

  • The IPCC should establish an Executive Committee to act on its behalf between Plenary sessions. The membership of the Committee should include the IPCC Chair, the Working Group Co-chairs, the senior member of the Secretariat, and 3 independent members, including some from outside of the climate community. Members would be elected by the Plenary and serve until their successors are in place.

  • The IPCC should elect an Executive Director to lead the Secretariat and handle day-to-day operations of the organization. The term of this senior scientist should be limited to the timeframe of one assessment.

  • The IPCC should encourage Review Editors to fully exercise their authority to ensure that reviewers’ comments are adequately considered by the authors and that genuine controversies are adequately reflected in the report.

  • The IPCC should adopt a more targeted and effective process for responding to reviewer comments. In such a process, Review Editors would prepare a written summary of the most significant issues raised by reviewers shortly after review comments have been received. Authors would be required to provide detailed written responses to the most significant review issues identified by the Review Editors, abbreviated responses to all non-editorial comments, and no written responses to editorial comments.

  • All Working Groups should use the qualitative level-of-understanding scale in their Summary for Policy Makers and Technical Summary, as suggested in IPCC’s uncertainty guidance for the Fourth Assessment Report. This scale may be supplemented by a quantitative probability scale, if appropriate.

  • Quantitative probabilities (as in the likelihood scale) should be used to describe the probability of well-defined outcomes only when there is sufficient evidence. Authors should indicate the basis for assigning a probability to an outcome or event (e.g., based on measurement, expert judgment, and/or model runs).

  • The IPCC should complete and implement a communications strategy that emphasizes transparency, rapid and thoughtful responses, and relevance to stakeholders, and which includes guidelines about who can speak on behalf of IPCC and how to represent the organization appropriately.

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme to inform policy decisions through periodic assessments of what is known about the physical scientific aspects of climate change, its global and regional impacts, and options for adaptation and mitigation. Representatives of 194 participating governments make up the Panel, which sets the scope of the assessments, elects the Bureau that oversees them, and approves the Summaries for Policymakers that accompany the massive assessment reports themselves, which are prepared by thousands of scientists who volunteer for three Working Groups.

These assessment reports have gained IPCC much respect including a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. However, amid an increasingly intense public debate about the science of climate change and costs of curbing it, IPCC has come under closer scrutiny, and controversies have erupted over its perceived impartiality toward climate policy and the accuracy of its reports. This prompted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri to issue a letter on 10 March this year requesting that the IAC review IPCC and recommend ways to strengthen the processes and procedures by which future assessments are prepared.

The committee emphasized that in the end the quality of the assessment process and results depends on the quality of the leadership at all levels: “It is only by engaging the energy and expertise of a large cadre of distinguished scholars as well as the thoughtful participation of government representatives that high standards are maintained and that truly authoritative assessments continue to be produced.” It also stressed that because intense scrutiny from policymakers and the public is likely to continue, IPCC needs to be as transparent as possible in detailing its processes, particularly its criteria for selecting participants and the type of scientific and technical information to be assessed.

The committee’s report was informed by public meetings where presentations were made by IPCC and UN officials as well as experts with different perspectives of IPCC processes and procedures. The committee also gathered input from experts and groups via interviews and a widely circulated questionnaire that was posted on the web so the public could comment.

The IAC report is expected to be considered at the 32nd Plenary Session of the IPCC in Busan, South Korea, Oct. 11-14. The report was sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Founded in 2000, the IAC was created to mobilize top scientists and engineers around the world to provide evidence-based advice to international bodies such as the United Nations and World Bank—including preparing expert, peer-reviewed studies upon request. It is co-chaired by Robbert Dijkgraaf, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Lu Yongxiang, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The IAC Secretariat is hosted by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.

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