Experts urge faster, more relevant UN climate reports

The UN panel of climate scientists should be more nimble at highlighting global warming trends and at fixing mistakes, experts said ahead of the planned August 30 release of a review of the group’s work.

global warming

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked for an independent review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) after the group came under fire for errors such as wrongly saying Himalayan glaciers could all melt by 2035 and overstating the amount of the Netherlands below sea level.

“It is an embarrassing but useful crisis,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who is not one of those conducting the review.

Schellnhuber and other experts contacted by Reuters said the UN group, which guides government climate policies and shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with US campaigner Al Gore, could play a bigger role in assessing extreme weather such as Pakistan’s floods or Russia’s heat wave in real time.

“There needs to be a more real-time assessment of the climate,” said Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research.

One possible format for future IPCC reports could be the US “state of the climate” report, the 2009 version of which was issued in June 2010, he said.

The current report “is a fairly clumsy vehicle … covering all regions and all sectors. It is a sort of Bible written every 7 years,” said Schellnhuber. The last IPCC assessment was in 2007 and the next is due in 2013-14.

“It would be better to have leaner publications, more updated, on time. That would not preclude that you also have a major publication in 5, 6, 7 years,” he said.


The review group, led by former Princeton University president Harold Shapiro, will submit recommendations for overhauling the IPCC to Ban on August 30.

One concern that needs to be addressed is the IPCC’s slowness at correcting errors — it took months to fix the mistake about the Himalayas, feeding a view that the IPCC was deaf to criticism.

A report by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in July found the IPCC’s basic conclusion that mankind was to blame for global warming was sound. But the IPCC and the credibility of science have suffered.

A Gallup poll in March, for instance, showed that 48% of Americans thought that news of global warming was “generally exaggerated”, up from 41% in 2009.

The IPCC’s problems have been mirrored by scant progress in climate negotiations this year after a summit in Copenhagen in 2009 agreed only a set of non-binding guidelines for slowing global warming, short of a new UN treaty that many countries had hoped for.

Another issue is whether the way the IPCC works needs to be reformed. Under the current system scientists and government officials agree reports together, which binds governments to the conclusions but can bring suspicions of political tampering.

“I think the IPCC should have a clearer difference between the scientific part and the political part,” said Paal Prestrud, head of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

The experts contacted by Reuters also said the IPCC should be more cautious about using so-called “grey literature” that falls short of peer-reviewed science. Such reports include studies by environmental groups.

The review may also try to bolster the Geneva-based secretariat of the IPCC, which has about 10 staff and an annual budget of $5-million to $7-million. Governments will consider the review’s findings at a meeting in South Korea in October.

Source: Engineering News (via Reuters)

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