Top Scientists the World Over to Review IPCC

Crossposted with

Will a review by the scientific organization uber alles rehabilitate the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?

Something had to give in climate-science land. The IPCC was, by most standards, the authoritative source on all things climate. But no more. Revelations that IPCC's latest scientific assessment -- the Fourth Assessment, released in 2007 -- contained errors appears to have shaken public confidence to the core.

The errors, by almost any standard, were not huge (e.g., an inaccurate statement on the fate of the Himalayan glaciers in chapter 10 of the assessment's second report, see GreenGrok post; an overstatement of the amount of land in the Netherlands subject to flooding also in the same report).

But the handling of their discovery by some (though not all) of the IPCC leadership was less than forthcoming and transparent, and ultimately the whole affair undermined public confidence in the body responsible for producing the reports as well as the assessments themselves. Criticisms, lobbed at the IPCC before, suddenly gained widespread traction.

All this happened as the IPCC was tooling up to begin its next large assessment of climate science -- the Fifth Assessment. One had to wonder, and I bet the folks at the IPCC began to wonder, if it made any sense to undertake a new assessment when so many people were questioning the scientific integrity of the last one.

Well, I, like most of my colleagues with whom I've spoken, did not find the uncovered errors to be of sufficient magnitude to undermine the basic science behind climate change or the basic conclusions of the IPCC. They were, in my opinion, though, serious enough to warrant a careful reexamination of the IPCC process -- a reexamination that would be best completed before the Fifth Assessment began.

The subjects at issue include:

  • The process by which the IPCC leadership is chosen. Is the current process too political? For example, the chair of the IPCC is chosen by the governments of the member nations of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization. Wouldn't it be more appropriate for a body of scientists rather than politicians to select a leader?
  • The process by which the assessment reports are reviewed and vetted. The IPCC assessments have grown to be massive documents. The Fourth Assessment's four reports (including its Synthesis Report) made for a grand total of nearly 3,000 pages. Clearly the current review process is not adequate to police such a large tome. Is there any process that could? Should the assessment be shorter, less detailed? Is it necessary to cover all aspects of the science in every assessment?
  • The process by which the IPCC responds to criticism and the discovery of errors. As noted above, the IPCC's response to claims of a factual error in the Fourth Assessment concerning Himalayan glaciers was not the organization's finest hour. Does the IPCC need a permanent body to monitor comments about its assessments and respond to them? (A broader but related question is whether the whole notion of producing a printed report every four or five years has become anachronistic in the age of Web 2.0. Would it not make more sense to have a living document on the web?)
  • The mission of the IPCC. The panel now does a lot more than produce periodic assessments of climate science. Other activities include production of supplementary reports, methodology reports, and technical papers as well as the maintenance of a data distribution center for scientists to carry out climate simulations for upcoming assessments. Is all this activity taking focus away from the IPCC's main task?

I frankly don't have the answers to these questions, and so I was relieved to learn yesterday that the IPCC is to be reviewed by an independent agency. I was especially pleased that the review is to be conducted by the InterAcademy Council -- arguably the world's preeminent scientific body. It is made up of all of the world's national science academies, which in turn are the preeminent scientific bodies in their respective nations.

In the United States, that body is the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which was established by Congress when Lincoln was president to advise the nation on scientific and technical issues. The NAS is composed of roughly 2,100 scientists; its membership is determined by scientists and it is governed by scientists. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the NAS.)

An important fact to bear in mind about both the NAS and the InterAcademy Council is that their membership includes scientists from all fields of inquiry, not just climate science. The InterAcademy Council has no special allegiance to climate science and no special dependence on funding for climate science research. It has no self-interest in protecting the IPCC or its findings.

So let's see what happens.