IPCC’s future: babies, bathwater, or a new bath?

By Gareth Renowden 12/02/2010

An opinion piece in this week’s Nature features the views of five diverse climate scientists on how the IPCC might be reformed or restructured in the light of the recent fuss about “errors” in AR4. The headine asks if we should “cherish it, tweak it or scrap it?” It makes interesting reading (it’s behind a paywall, unfortunately), but here’s a summary.

Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, suggests that the IPCC could be dissolved after the publication of AR5 in 2014, and replaced with three different bodies. A Global Science Panel would focus on the physical sciences, using an IPCC-like process to produce “smaller, sharper syntheses of knowledge on fast-moving topics”. Work on impacts and adaptation would be carried out by “Regional Evaluation Panels” around the globe, while a Policy Analysis Panel of experts would undertake rapid reviews of policy-relevant ideas.

Edouard Zorita of the GKSS Research Center in Germany wants the IPCC replaced by an International Climate Agency, a standing body along the lines of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and divorced from direct governmental input. He sees it producing reports every two years.

Thomas Stocker at the University of Bern is in the”cherish it” camp. He believes the current structure is an efficient “honest broker”, and that it has sound procedures that if rigorously applied deliver good results. Jeff Price, the director of climate-change adaptation for WWF in the US, wants new short, quickly produced reports and a faster turnaround for the full assessments.

Fifth cab off the rank is John Christy, Roy Spencer’s collaborator on the UAH satellite temperature series. He’s one of the very few sceptics who are working, publishing climate scientists. It’s not perhaps surprising that he wants the IPCC removed from under the wing of the UN, and that it should morph into a “Wikipedia-IPCC” continuously updated as the science develops.

Taking its cue from the Nature piece, the Science Media Centre asked NZ scientists for their views. All six — Glenn McGregor, Peter Barrett, Jim Renwick, Jim Salinger, Martin Manning and Andy Reisinger — basically support the current structure, provided that procedures are tightened to avoid a repeat of the Himalayan glacier error. Andy Reisinger puts it rather well:

’Asking for wholesale revision to the IPCC in the wake of this mistake appears to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and dismantling the bath tub as well, when all it needed was a reminder to clean behind the ears.’ [The Reisingers have a new baby: GR]

My view, for what it’s worth (and that’s not much in the greater scheme of things), is that the current six year cycle is probably about right for the full review process, but that it needs to be staggered so that the material in Working Group 1 (the science) can feed forward into WG2 (impacts) and WG3 (mitigation). The full reports should be supplemented by much more frequent updates and special reports on emerging or fast-changing issues. It would be good, for instance to have “special reports” on recent work on Arctic warming or sea level rise. Policy makers need to work from a good knowledge base, and that’s what the IPCC or any body that might succeed it has to provide. I also really like the Wikipedia-IPCC idea, but not as a means of providing policy relevant information, more as an unimpeachable source of material for public discussion. And perhaps as a second (or third?) career for Stoat;-)