Major reform for climate body (Nature)

Intergovernmental panel aims to become more responsive.

By Quirin Schiermeier
Published online 16 May 2011 | Nature 473, 261 (2011)

IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri faced calls to quit after errors were
found in a key report.

After months of soul-searching, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) has agreed on reforms intended to restore confidence in
its integrity and its assessments of climate science.

Created as a United Nations body in 1988 to analyse the latest
knowledge about Earth’s changing climate, it has worked with thousands
of scientists and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. But its
reputation crumbled when its leadership failed to respond effectively
to mistakes — including a notorious error about the rate of Himalayan
glacier melting — that had slipped into its most recent assessment
report (see Nature 463, 276–277; 2010).

That discovery coincided with the furore over leaked e-mails from the
University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in Norwich, UK (see
Nature 462, 397; 2009). Some e-mails seemed to show that leading
climate scientists, who had contributed key findings to previous IPCC
reports, had tried to stifle critics. This put the panel — especially
its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri — under intense pressure. The
InterAcademy Council, a consortium of national science academies, was
commissioned to review the structure and procedures of the IPCC and to
suggest improvements to its operations (see Nature 467, 14; 2010).

The council identified the lack of an executive body as a key factor
in the IPCC’s failure to respond to the crisis. It also urged the
panel to improve the transparency of its assessments and to make its
communication and outreach activities more professional. The IPCC
adopted several minor changes at a meeting last October (see Nature
467, 891–892; 2010).

More substantial reforms were signed off last week in Abu Dhabi at a
meeting of delegates from IPCC member states. An executive committee
will be created to oversee the body’s daily operations and to act on
issues that cannot wait for full plenary meetings. The 13-strong
committee will be led by the chairman, and includes the vice-chairs
and co-chairs of its working groups and technical support units.

A new conflict-of-interest policy will require all IPCC officials and
authors to disclose financial and other interests relevant to their
work (Pachauri had been harshly criticized in 2009 for alleged
conflicts of interest.) The meeting also adopted a detailed protocol
for addressing errors in existing and future IPCC reports, along with
guidelines to ensure that descriptions of scientific uncertainties
remain consistent across reports. “This is a heartening and
encouraging outcome of the review we started one year ago,” Pachauri
told Nature. “It will strengthen the IPCC and help restore public
trust in the climate sciences.”

The first major test of these changes will be towards the end of this
year, with the release of a report assessing whether climate change is
increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events. Despite much
speculation, there is scant scientific evidence for such a link —
particularly between climate warming, storm frequency and economic
losses — and the report is expected to spark renewed controversy.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the IPCC will handle this hot potato
where stakes are high but solid peer-reviewed results are few,” says
Silke Beck, a policy expert at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental
Research in Leipzig, Germany.

The IPCC overhaul is not yet complete. Delegates postponed a decision
about the exact terms of office of the group’s chairman and head of
the secretariat. Critics say that these terms should be strictly
limited to the time it takes to produce a single assessment report,
about six or seven years. With no clear decision on that issue,
Pachauri could theoretically remain in office beyond 2014, when the
next full report is due for release.

But the Indian economist says he has not considered staying on that
long. “My job is to successfully complete the next assessment,” he
says. “That’s what I’m solely focused on.”

Read more on climate controversy at: nature.com/climategate