Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Is the IPCC fit for purpose?

There’s no doubt that the IPCC’s analysis of climate change has been one of the most impressive scientific efforts of all time, comparable to the Human Genome Project. This was recognised by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

But there have been mistakes. The best known is probably the exaggeration of the threat to the Himalayan glaciers. But the most serious are the IPCC’s understatements of both the severity of the problem and the confidence we can have in the reality of the problem.

The IPCC has done a remarkable job, in the face of considerable hostility and criticism, of describing the problem but its very success has changed the situation. The IPCC was set up to analyse a threat seen as serious but long-term. We now know that the threat is urgent, becoming critical, and what’s needed now is action.

So is the IPCC still fit for purpose? Do we need a scientific body that is able to react faster and describe the necessary policies as well as the problems?

In my view we still need the IPCC – but we need new institutions too.

The government link
It’s important to remember that the IPCC is the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. It was created by the world’s governments to provide independent advice. (And to provide excuses for inaction!) This connection to the world’s governments prevents the IPCC from acting as a critic but makes it more likely that governments will listen to what it says.

The link is therefore functional to the degree that governments remain key actors.

The delays
The IPCC seeks to provide authoritative analysis. To do this it has decided to look only at evidence published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It also imposes a cut-off date many months prior to the publication of each report. Papers published after that date are not considered. The IPCC thus has time to consider the meaning and importance of each paper.

But this has consequences. It takes time to write a scientific paper – especially if it’s the work of multiple authors based in several countries. Such authorship is particularly important when dealing with a global phenomenon. It then takes time for the paper to pass peer review and be published. This whole process may easily take two years – and can take much longer.

And then there’s the data. The paper cannot be written until the data has been collected and quality checked. This takes time. Then again trend data is typically most valid for the mid-point of the period in which it was collected – pushing the timing back yet further.

Thus the data considered in the 2007 IPCC report (still the most recent) mostly relates to a period ending in 2003 and sometimes to much earlier dates. This compares unfavourably to the reporting of company performance to the stock markets or of military developments to commanders (if not to the public) or of competitive intelligence in most industries.

The need for additional reporting
Delay is the price of the IPCC’s authoritative voice but it’s clear that the world community needs faster reporting; something intermediate between individual scientific papers and the current style of IPCC report.

Two additional kinds of report would be valuable:
  • Periodic, often annual, publication of measurements that have been pre-agreed to be reliable and important, eg world average temperature, the extent of Arctic ice. These would provide tracking of phenomena that are already reasonably well understood.
  • Selective alerts on other measurements or research findings. The alert would say something like: This is credible and appears important. It’s more like the judgment formed by an intelligence officer than by a scientist

These reports need an understanding of the science but each needs something additional; process design and management in the first case and good judgment in conditions of uncertainty in the second. Scientists may possess these skills but they aren’t in themselves scientific skills. These kinds of reporting might benefit from the contributions of experts from other fields, notably business and intelligence.

Since the reputation of the IPCC remains strong amongst governments and diplomats these reports should be produced under the oversight of the IPCC rather than of any other body but perhaps by newly-established specialist bodies or committees.

Preparing for action
It’s increasingly clear that an effective response to climate change will require actions by governments, businesses and individuals. A low-carbon economy will require new technologies, eg for power generation and geo-engineering, and changed behaviour from both businesses and individuals, eg less flying and driving. These will have to be encouraged by government and by public opinion and motivated by carbon taxes and new standards for energy-using processes and structures.

There will be plenty of scope for honest disagreement about the relative advantages of the various options and there will therefore be needs for authoritative, independent assessment of the options. The skills required include a variety of sciences and engineering disciplines as well as law and expertise in social change. This certainly goes beyond the scope of the IPCC and may well be beyond the scope of any one body.

Work of this kind has already started, for instance the Royal Society report on geo-engineering published in 2009, but a great deal more will be needed. Although the UN would be the best home for such studies the difficulty of getting agreement and the almost inevitable politicisation of the resulting studies makes this an unattractive approach. It may be better to ask governments, or possibly individual philanthropists, to sponsor learned societies to collaborate on suitable evaluation projects. Suitable international might emerge over time.

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