Over the course of this year, six reviews have examined various aspects of climate research – most recently Monday’s report on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by the world’s scientific academies. While none has challenged the fundamental view that man-made global warming must be tackled by cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, there has been harsh – and often deserved – criticism of the IPCC and the climate research centres that contribute to its assessments.
Now it is time to implement fundamental reforms that would reduce the risk of bias and errors appearing in future IPCC assessments, increase transparency and open up the whole field of climate research to the widest possible range of scientific views.
Restoring public confidence in the IPCC is essential, because it is the main intermediary between scientists and politicians who have to decide on climate policies that could cost the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars. Given that most scientists believe in the need to tackle global warming, the IPCC cannot hope to satisfy the most extreme “climate sceptics”. But it must never again undermine its own credibility by sloppily repeating unsubstantiated statements that exaggerate the risk of climate change, such as the notorious claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.
At its plenary meeting in South Korea next month, the 194 national governments that control the IPCC must push through a thorough overhaul of management and procedures. The IPCC needs stronger leadership to maintain credibility, including a new executive committee (with at least one member who is not a climate scientist) and a chief executive rather than a relatively powerless secretary. Although Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC chairman since 2002, has been unfairly vilified in some quarters, his recent performance under pressure has not helped the cause of climate science; the time has come for him to move on.
A rejuvenated IPCC leadership could tackle the deficiencies in its review process. This should become more inclusive, welcoming alternative views where these are scientifically valid, and at the same time more exclusive, rejecting unsubstantiated claims of dramatic change. The many uncertainties need recognition, with IPCC assessments talking more about risks and probabilities than they have in the past. Then the debate can get back to the real issues posed by climate change.