Scientists call for overhaul of UN 'blockbuster' climate reports

06.09.2013 18:16

International scientists are calling
for an overhaul of the United
Nations' "blockbuster" climate
reports ahead of the delivery of the
next big assessment.
The reports from the
Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change are compiled by
hundreds of scientists and are
considered the definitive
assessment of global climate risks,
with the next big report due to be
released in Stockholm this month.
But the IPCC's core mission is now
under challenge from the very
scientists who compiled those
reports, as well as some
governments.
"There is the open question as to
how we should be doing these
assessments," said Don Wuebbles, a
climate scientist at the University of
Illinois, who has been a leading
author of the IPCC reports since
they began in the late 1980s.
"Should we be doing these major
assessments every five years or so,
or should we be doing more
targeted assessments that
policymakers need? It's not so
clear."
The governing body of the IPCC will
discuss its future at a meeting in the
Georgian resort town of Batumi in
October and later in Berlin, a
spokesman said.
"What sort or products should the
IPCC be producing, over what kind
of time scale? Do we need this
blockbuster report every six or
seven years or do we need more
frequent reports? That is the sort of
thing that is going to be discussed
there," IPCC spokesman Jonathan
Lynn said.
Governments have begun weighing
in on the IPCC's future, with
America and some European
countries pushing hardest for
change.
The next big push could well come
from the climate scientists
responsible for producing the
reports.
Thomas Stocker, a climate scientist
at the University of Bern and a co-
chair of the UN climate panel, said
he had sought permission to
convene a public debate on the
future of the IPCC at one of the
biggest gatherings on the scientific
calendar, the fall meeting of the
American Geophysical Union
(AGU).
Some 22,000 people are expected at
the meeting, which takes place in
San Francisco in December.
Stocker said he saw the meeting as
a chance to broaden the discussion
on the future of the IPCC.
"With that input directly bottom-up
from the scientists, I can help in
this discussion and certainly
facilitate that the views of
scientists, those individuals and
colleague that carry the burden of
the assessment and provide their
time and intellectual expertise, are
heard," Stocker said.
The AGU would not respond
directly to questions about the
climate science town hall.
Other expert contributors to the
IPCC reports said they believed it
was time the panel shifted focus –
from production of mega reports to
more targeted studies, looking
more closely at certain regions, or
phenomena.
The IPCC was set up in 1988 to
provide the most authoritative
report on global climate change,
enabling governments to prepare
for a future of rising seas, droughts,
extreme weather events, and other
consequences.
It has delivered its landmark
reports every six or seven years
since then, relying on the
participation of some 1,300
scientists from around the world to
arrive at an expert consensus on
the pace of climate change, and its
effects.
The IPCC shared the Nobel peace
prize with Al Gore in 2007 . But in
2010, the UN climate panel was
forced to admit there was an error
in the report on the rate of retreat
of Himalayan glaciers.
The error was in one paragraph in
a 900-page report. But it was seized
on by those who doubt the science
behind climate change, and those
who oppose controls on carbon
pollution, to try to damage the
credibility of the entire IPCC
exercise.
Now, as the IPCC puts the finishing
touches to the latest report, some of
the climate scientists involved
argue the mammoth effort of
getting hundreds of scientists to
review hundreds of journal articles
– all on a volunteer basis – would
be better put to studying regional
impacts of climate change, or
specific phenomena.
"I think myself that the IPCC has
outgrown its usefulness in the way
in which it does things," said Kevin
Trenberth, a climate scientist at the
National Centre for Atmospheric
Research in Colorado.
Andrew Weaver, a lead IPCC author
and a Green party leader who
earlier this year was elected to the
British Columbia legislature, agreed
it was time to shift away from the
blockbuster style of reports.
The scientists said the science on
the causes of climate change and its
global effects was already well-
established. Given the rate and
extent of climate change, it would
be more useful to governments
which rely on the IPCC reports to
have scientists working on more
targeted reports on specific topics,
which would be delivered every
year or two.
"My own view is that ... it would be
healthy for the IPCC to focus on
regional impacts and to focus on
individual phenomena rather than
the big global thing. The way to go
forward would be to pick an issue
and to work together in an
interdisciplinary way," Weaver
said.
Scientists could then look at the
drivers of regional and specific
effects of climate change, which
are still not entirely understood, he
said.
Trenberth argued that with the
effects of climate change already
visible in real-time in terms of
extreme weather events, the
international community could not
afford to wait for several years to
hear from scientists.
"We can't wait seven years
between assessments," he said.
Stocker said he wanted to discuss
ways of easing the burden on IPCC
scientists.
Scientists involved in compiling the
reports sift through huge amounts
of material. The report due out this
month contains some 1,250 new
scientific graphs alone.
But Stocker said scientists must
squeeze in the work along other
obligations. The scientists are not
paid for their work on the IPCC.
"The top issue is really the burden
that is placed towards the scientists,
that you have to keep track of so
much peer-reviewed material. You
also are confronted with a huge
amount of model simulations. We
are talking about petabytes of
data," he said.
"There is a simple question: can the
scientific community do that still
on a voluntary basis, with basically
no institutional support other than
the support you have for carrying
out your research as you would do
normally?"