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Academies Review Climate Panel

Climate Change: UN panel needs new leadership, says coalition of national science academies

by Cheryl Hogue
September 6, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 36

Credit: Newscom
Credit: Newscom

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) needs changes at the top, concludes a review released last week by the Inter­Academy Council (IAC), a coalition of national scientific academies. The chairmen of IPCC and its working groups should serve in their roles only for a single scientific assessment, the review states.

IPCC’s assessments take years to compile. The panel was founded in 1988, and it has produced four assessments of climate-change science, with the most recent completed in 2007. The fifth is expected in 2013–14.

Regular changeover at the top will help ensure a variety of perspectives and a fresh approach to IPCC assessments, says Harold T. Shapiro, chairman of the IAC committee that prepared the report. Shapiro is president emeritus and a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.

But IPCC Chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri, who oversaw the 2007 assessment, is not planning to step down in response to the IAC review. Pachauri says that he is the “elected servant of IPCC” who was tapped to complete the panel’s upcoming assessment.

Pachauri points out that he serves at the discretion of the 194 countries that make up the panel and that they can make changes to IPCC leadership if they see fit.

IAC’s recommendations focus on IPCC’s procedures, not its scientific conclusions. Pachauri and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked for the review earlier this year (C&EN, March 15, page 13). Their request came in the wake of criticism of IPCC’s scientific integrity and mistakes in the panel’s 2007 report, including one that incorrectly stated that Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035.

These events blemished the reputation of IPCC, Shapiro says.

In its report, IAC concludes that the climate panel’s process for detecting and correcting errors “is thorough.” However, IPCC needs to strengthen enforcement of its review process to minimize errors. “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,” IAC says.

In addition, IPCC needs to adopt a rigorous conflict-of-interest policy for the senior leaders, authors, review editors, and staff responsible for the content of its reports, IAC says. At the same time, the panel needs to be as public as possible about the criteria it uses to select participants and scientific information for its assessments, the review council adds.

IPCC needs guidelines that are more specific than current ones on appropriate use of “gray literature” from unpublished or non-peer-reviewed sources, such as conference proceedings and technical reports, IAC continues. This information is often relevant and appropriate to use in assessments, the review council says, although its use has been controversial.

The member countries of IPCC plan to discuss the IAC report at an Oct. 11–14 meeting in Busan, South Korea. Only a plenary gathering of this sort can determine which of the recommendations IPCC will adopt and when.



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