Monday, September 13, 2010
Aug 30: A new report from the InterAcademy Council (IAC), an Amsterdam-based organization of the world's science academies including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), indicates that the process used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce its periodic assessment reports has been successful overall, but 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 coming from a world grappling with how best to respond to climate change.
Harold Shapiro, president emeritus and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University and chair of the committee that wrote the report said, "Operating under the public microscope the way IPCC does requires strong leadership, the continued and enthusiastic participation of distinguished scientists, an ability to adapt, and a commitment to openness if the value of these assessments to society is to be maintained."
In a release the IAC indicates that 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 U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri to issue a letter on March 10 this year requesting that the IAC review IPCC and recommend ways to strengthen the processes and procedures by which future assessments are prepared.
The IAC report makes several recommendations to fortify IPCC's management structure, including establishing an executive committee to act on the Panel's behalf and ensure that an ongoing decision-making capability is maintained. To enhance its credibility and independence, the executive committee should include individuals from outside the IPCC or even outside the climate science community. IPCC also should appoint an executive director -- with the status of a senior scientist equal to that of the Working Group co-chairs -- to lead the Secretariat, handle day-to-day operations, and speak on behalf of the organization.
Given that the IAC report was prompted in part by the revelation of errors in the last assessment, the committee examined IPCC's review process as well. It concluded that the process is thorough, but stronger enforcement of existing IPCC review procedures could minimize the number of errors. To that end, IPCC should encourage review editors to fully exercise their authority to ensure that all review comments are adequately considered. Review editors should also ensure that genuine controversies are reflected in the report and be satisfied that due consideration was given to properly documented alternative views. Lead authors should explicitly document that the full range of thoughtful scientific views has been considered.
Additionally, the report indicates that the use of so-called gray literature from unpublished or non-peer-reviewed sources has been controversial, although often such sources of information and data are relevant and appropriate for inclusion in the assessment reports. Problems occur because authors do not follow IPCC's guidelines for evaluating such sources and because the guidelines themselves are too vague, the committee said. It recommended that these guidelines be made more specific -- including adding guidelines on what types of literature are unacceptable -- and strictly enforced to ensure that unpublished and non-peer-reviewed literature is appropriately flagged. The committee also called for more consistency in how the Working Groups characterize uncertainty. In the last assessment, each Working Group used a different variation of IPCC's uncertainty guidelines, and the committee found that the guidance is not always followed.
Also, among other recommendations the IAC indicated that IPCC's slow and inadequate response to revelations of errors in the last assessment, as well as complaints that its leaders have gone beyond IPCC's mandate to be "policy relevant, not policy prescriptive" in their public comments, have made communications a critical issue. The report recommends that IPCC complete and implement a communications strategy now in development. The strategy should emphasize transparency and include a plan for rapid but thoughtful response to crises.