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Report recommends UN climate panel shakeup

Rearrange the chairs please

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An enquiry into the UN's climate panel, the IPCC, has recommended administrative changes, including a full-time chief executive. It found the IPCC had "assigned high confidence to statements for which there is very little evidence", had failed to acknowledge criticism, or follow its own guidelines.

The InterAcademy Council, led by Dr Harold Shapiro, an economist at Princeton University, also said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had "gone beyond its mandate to be 'policy relevant' not policy prescriptive" - for which it recommended a new "communications policy". The IPCC was also criticised for "confirmation bias" with lead authors placing "too much weight on their own views relative to other views". It recommended working group co-chairs be limited to one assessment.

The report is an indirect criticism of the part-time chairman Dr Rajendara Pachauri. The IAC Panel recommends a full-time chairman limited to a shorter term.

The investigation was prompted by criticisms of the IPCC's fourth assessment report (AR4) published in 2007 - specifically the output of Working Group 2 (WGII), set up to examine the "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability" and which produced a report ran to almost 1,000 pages. This was found to lean heavily on "grey literature", including activist reports and even travel brochures. A prediction that that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 was traced to a casual remark by an Indian scientist. Here and elsewhere, the IPCC excluded work that suggested that the impacts of global warming were overstated, or which were critical of the costs of the policy favoured by the UN and activist groups of mitigation, rather than adaptation.

The IAP said the IPCC's work included headline-catching statements which couldn't be justified.

"The IPCC uncertainty guidance provides a good starting point for characterizing uncertainty in the assessment reports. However, the guidance was not consistently followed in the fourth assessment, leading to unnecessary errors. For example, authors reported high confidence in statements for which there is little evidence, such as the widely-quoted statement that agricultural yields in Africa might decline by up to 50 percent by 2020. Moreover, the guidance was often applied to statements that are so vague they cannot be falsified. In these cases the impression was often left, quite incorrectly, that a substantive finding was being presented."

Shapiro's panel criticised the IPCC's response to the errors as "slow and inadequate", and called for a "rigorous" conflict of interest policy. However, the use of grey literature may continue.

Politics and policy

Skeptical headline writers have interpreted the report as a call to de-politicize the UN climate process. Responses to climate change broadly follow two paths - adaptation, such as changing agricultural techniques, or building better sea defences, or mitigation, such as behavioural and lifestyle changes, and major national economic shifts away from fossil fuel use. Although the IPCC is nominally supposedly policy neutral, the focus in the IPCC's summaries for policy makers is heavily on mitigation. But the headlines are not substantiated by the IAP report, which includes only a fleeting reference to the IPCC's policy role. And here, the IAP avoids questioning the purpose of the IPCC or its success in fulfilling its policy mandate: it calls for more "outreach" and a new communications program, ie better public relations.

Unpeeling the policy function from the IPCC may be problematic, since politics was a factor in the creation of the IPCC itself. Climate issues were a meteorological backwater in the Cold War era of the early 1980s, with the US National Research Council advising "caution not panic" in 1983, and most scientists eschewing policy recommendations. In 1985 three sponsors, including two UN agencies (the UN Environment Program and the WMO) selected scientists to attend a workshop in a personal capacity in Villach. The resulting statement advised that "the rate and degree of future warming could be profoundly affected by government policies on energy conservation, use of fossil fuels, and the emission of greenhouse gases". Villach made policy the business of scientists, and when scientists subsequently met, the debate was decreasingly focused on scientific issues, and more likely to ask "what can we do to make them do something?".

Yet prominent scientists skeptical of the view of the extent of climate change and its causation were still active in the process as recently as 2001. Professors John Christy of the University of Alabama, and Richard Lindzen of MIT were both lead authors for the IPCC's Third Assessment Report in 2001. They were absent for AR4 in 2007. ®

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