Climate group told firmly: reform management structure, be more open

IPCC needs structural, cultural changes to regain credibility, InterAcademy Council report advises

Australian desert (photo: ©2010 Peter Brodbeck, flickr)

Geneva, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) - The Geneva-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) needs to make “fundamental reform” to its management structure and to work in a spirit of far greater openness: this is the conclusion of the special report on the organization by the InterAcademy Council. The IPCC, created by the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 and winner of a Nobel Prize in 2007, was caught in a whirlwind of criticism early in 2010 when scientific errors were found in its latest report: a key part of the group’s work is to review scientific evidence of climate change. The IPCC has 194 membersWhile the errors themselves were eventually determined to be relatively insignificant, the outcry drew attention to IPCC’s scientific methods. The organization’s credibility came under fire.

The UN in March 2010 asked one of the most respected bodies in the scientific community, the InterAcademy Council, with heads of the world’s major scientific academies as members, to review the methods of the IPCC and report back within six months. The UN made it clear that the role of the IPCC in assessing climate change and the fact of climate change itself were not in question.

Representatives from 194 countries make up the panel that is the IPCC. The panel’s job is “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,” according to the InterAcademy Council.

“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,” says Harold Shapiro, president emeritus and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University in the US and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Report calls for a number of changes

Ed. note: The following summary is taken directly from the InterAcademy Council’s IPCC review web pages, with bold headings set by GenevaLunch

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.

The part-time nature and fixed term of the IPCC chair’s position has many advantages, the committee said, but the current limit of two six-year terms is too long

The IPCC chair and the proposed executive director, as well as the Working Group co-chairs, should be limited to the term of one assessment in order to maintain a variety of perspectives and fresh approach to each assessment. Formal qualifications for the chair and all other Bureau members need to be developed, as should a rigorous conflict-of-interest policy to be applied to senior IPCC leadership and all authors, review editors, and staff responsible for report content, the committee added.

Stronger enforcement of existing IPCC review procedures could minimize the number of errors

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.

Guidelines for the use of so-called gray literature should be made more specific

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. The Working Group II report, for example, contains some statements that were assigned high confidence but for which there is little evidence. In future assessments, all Working Groups should qualify their understanding of a topic by describing the amount of evidence available and the degree of agreement among experts; this is known as the level of understanding scale. And all Working Groups should use a probability scale to quantify the likelihood of a particular event occurring, but only when there is sufficient evidence to do so.

The IAC 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.

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 IAC 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. The relevance of the assessments to stakeholders also needs to be considered, which may require more derivative products that are carefully crafted to ensure consistency with the underlying assessments. Guidelines are also needed on who can speak on behalf of IPCC and how to do so while remaining within the bounds of IPCC reports and mandates.

The IAC committee urged IPCC to be even more creative in maintaining flexibility in the character and structure of assessments

The IAC committee credited IPCC with having proved its adaptability, and urged it to be even more creative in maintaining flexibility in the character and structure of assessments, including possibly releasing the Working Group I report, which examines the physical scientific aspects of climate change, a few years ahead so the other Working Groups can take advantage of the results.

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 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.

Links to other sites: Guardian editorial on climate change, Le Temps (Fre) roundup of media reports and Le Temps editorial, Roger Pielke blog