Time for a Change at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? [Update]

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Update [11:11 PM EDT]: It’s worth taking a look at some of the recommendations made by the IAC report:

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. The current position of the IPCC secretary does not carry a level of autonomy or responsibility equivalent to that of executive directors at other organizations, the IAC committee found.

Don’t forget that the entire IPCC is part-time—which perhaps tells you all you need to know about the importance the world’s governments have put on improving climate science. IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, like all thousand of scientists who work on the IPCC’s massively complex assessments, is donating his time—that much has to change, and having a full-time executive staff would cut down on potential conflicts of interest.

In general, the IAC report recognized that while the IPCC seems to function well when it comes to characterizing the physical science of climate change—even underplaying the overall scientific uncertainty—it tends to overplay certainty when it comes to interpreting the impacts climate change will have on ecosystems, species and mankind. That’s largely what happened with the most embarrassing of the small mistakes that have been discovered in the IPCC’s 2007 assessment—the one that won the body a share of that year’s Nobel Prize with Al Gore—the so-called “Himalayagate.” (The IPCC—partially on the basis of a paper from an environmental group, not peer-reviewed literature—reported that the mountain ranger’s glaciers could melt completely by 2035, centuries earlier than harder evidence suggests.)

A better IPCC needs to be a more open one—critics, including scientists who contribute to the assessments, have been saying that the process could use more inputs from experts whose views diverge from the consensus. (SeeAndy Revkin’s January post on the subject at Dot Earth.) Ultimately, while it’s hard to see how the IPCC can follow the IAC’s recommendations and still keep Pachauri on as chairman, fixing the scientific body will take much more than changing the man on top. That’s what Roger Pielke Jr., a longtime critic of the IPCC, had to say today:

Removing Pachauri and doing nothing else would do little to fix the IPCC.  Conversely, doing everything else recommended by the IAC and leaving Pachauri in place would go a long way to improving the organization.  So in many respects I see the focus on Pachauri as a distraction.

We’ll see what ends up happening with Pachauri. (Pielke, for his part, told the AP: “”It’s hard to see how the United Nations can both follow the advice of this committee and keep Rajendra Pachauri on board as head.”) And there are other problems with timing—having one huge assessment released every five years is far too slow for the pace of climate science or politics. But what the IPCC really needs is money and professionalism, along with a little more openness. If we’re going to ask the world’s scientists to diagnose perhaps the biggest problem facing the planet, we need to give them the resources to do the job.

Original: Experts conducting an independent review of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the global scientific body charged with providing regular assessments of the state of global warming—announced their preliminary findings today, and the results shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the sturm und drang of global climate science.

The InterAcademy Council—a loose alliance of scientific institutions around the world—found that the IPCC needed to be more open to alternative views, and more transparent to any potential conflicts of interest among its thousands of members. Still, there’s no evidence that those management problems change the IPCC’s overall conclusion, one echoed independently by countless national scientific reports, including from the U.S.: that global warming is happening, and that human beings are a chief cause. (You can read the report here.) “All the key recommendations that are really important are well supported by the scientific evidence,” the report’s chairman, former Princeton University president Harold Shapiro, told the Associated Press.

I’ll have more analysis later this evening, but for now it’s enough to note that the main question going ahead with be the status of the IPCC’s chairman, Indian academic—and recently minted Yale professor—Rajendra Pachauri. Pachauri has come under criticism—a Daily Telegraph story from late last year (no longer online) accused him of essentially profiting from his climate change advocacy—but an independent audit from KPMG released a few days ago vindicated him. Still while the IAC report recommends replacing the top officials in the IPCC every seven years or so, Pachauri, who has served since 2002, has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation. We’ll see whether that lasts in the wake of the IAC report.