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Underwriting the Future of Climate Science

LONDON – As the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meets for its plenary session in Busan, South Korea, governments will have a valuable opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to climate science.

Their charge will be to consider a recent review of the IPCC by the InterAcademy Council (IAC). The review, commissioned in March by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Nobel laureate Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, to examine the IPCC’s processes and procedures, was published at the end of August.

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Several other inquiries have been held, by institutions such as Penn State University, the British Parliament, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. All had one thing in common: they all agreed with the IPCC’s fundamental conclusions concerning the major impact of man-made CO2 on climate change. This is a crucial outcome.

These inquiries also helped scientists learn important lessons. They now understand that they must open up and be more accepting of critical arguments. In addition, science must more effectively communicate its messages to a public that is concerned about climate change, but unclear on how the problem can be addressed.

National governments need to be able to draw on an accurate and objective assessment of climate science in order to determine what policy decisions should be taken in this area. The IPCC provides a risk assessment to the world, and, perhaps even more urgently, surveys the likely impacts of climate change. If the IPCC did not already exist, governments would be quick to create it.

Moreover, the four assessment reports that the IPCC has so far produced have allowed a better understanding of the threat posed by climate change in terms of extreme weather events and natural disasters. The IPCC now operates in a political context that did not exist at its inception 21 years ago, and it must be managed in such a way that both the reality and perception of its work provide full confidence to policymakers and the public.

The IPCC’s leadership has worked hard in the last few years to encourage reforms aimed at achieving these ends. However, progress has not gone as far or as fast as Pachauri and others would have liked. This failure to strengthen key functions at the IPCC left the organization unable to prevent and respond effectively to the minor mistakes that appeared in its last assessment report, published in 2007.

The IPCC has managed the remarkable feat of creating one of the most comprehensive reserves of scientific knowledge on any aspect of the physical world. It has achieved this with precious few resources and by relying on its many hundreds of scientists to give their time to work on the reports voluntarily. It is remarkable that an organization responsible for summarizing a body of evidence that acts as a cornerstone for national and global policymaking on climate change should be so under-resourced.

The InterAcademy Council recommendations, focusing on key areas such as transparency, leadership, and communications, were intended for consideration and action at the plenary session in Busan. Governments must now rise to the opportunity afforded to them of authorizing the necessary improvements.

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We have a real chance to strengthen the position of the world’s leading source of authoritative climate science. Action must be rapid and decisive to provide the direction that the IPCC requires in order to implement long-overdue changes.

Far from being seen as a rebuke of the IPCC, the IAC report must be used by governments in Busan to strengthen and improve this crucially important organization. Doing so would allow the IPCC to get on with its work – and enable governments around the world to focus on the challenges of climate change and the urgency of tackling them.