Review Puts U.N. Climate Panel on the Hot Seat

BY Jenny Marder  August 31, 2010 at 7:13 PM EDT

A management overhaul, more transparency, more alternative views and a stronger communications policy. These are among the recommendations that the InterAcademy Council (IAC,) a multi-national group of science academies, has urged for the U.N. Climate Panel, the international body charged with providing updates on the state of global warming. The 101-page report was released on Monday.

The review evaluated the “processes and procedures” of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), not its scientific conclusions. The science of the climate panel has come under heightened scrutiny after it wrongly stated in its 2007 assessment report that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. This followed the release of hacked emails from a British climate center, which led to a flurry of criticism that climate scientists were manipulating and withholding data. While subsequent reports from the Netherlands, the U.S. and the UK have found flaws with specific numbers in the report, they’ve largely upheld the panel’s findings on mankind’s role in climate change.

The IPCC panel, which consists of a “massive, far-flung, and decentralized network of scientists” is still of great value, writes the IAC report chair and former Princeton University president Harold Shapiro in the report’s preface, referencing that it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. But, he adds, it needs to better implement its own rules.

“Their own policies say they ought to identify carefully which studies are peer reviewed or not,” Shapiro says. “They don’t always do that. There is also guidance regarding what review editors ought to do, and what their authority is. They don’t always insist that review editors meet that responsibility.”

The report calls for the IPCC to include an executive committee, elected by and reporting to the panel, with a full-time executive director that handles its day-to-day operations, acts as its chief spokesperson and serves for the term of one assessment, which is five to seven years.* Still unclear is what this would mean for IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

An executive director could follow-up on questions and problems, respond quickly and be a needed point person, says Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University, who was interviewed for the IAC report and served as a lead author for the IPCC. In the case of the Himalaya mistake, a director could have quickly responded, he says, “rather than let it fester and let people jump on it and say that this one mistake undermines the credibility of the process and of the institution. Such a person might also have more clout when mistakes are made.”

The degree of confidence and uncertainty in each scientific conclusion must also be clearly communicated, the report says. This can be a tricky task when dealing with probability, incomplete data and a diverse range of possible impacts.

“It’s really a call that we have to be careful,” says Joel Smith, IPCC lead author and vice president of Stratus Consulting, an environmental research and consulting firm. “Our job is to get right … in the name of credibility and in the name of good science.”

The IAC recommended that review editors be charged with combing through the blizzard of comments that IPCC drafts generate and deciding which deserve the most attention. This could take the burden off the authors who typically have to respond to each comment. In the first draft of the 4th assessment report, 35 pages of text and references drew 105 pages of comments that had to each be answered individually.

Other recommendations include a rigorous conflict-of-interest policy and documented consideration of alternative views.

*Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the executive director would serve for one year.