Climate scientists are likely to face charges of putting politics before science, following two controversial decisions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this month.
The IPCC decided for the first time to impose strict geographical quotas on the scientists who author its major assessment reports. There will also be a push to increase the representation of women among its authors.
Controversially, it also voted to increase the role in those assessments of “grey literature”: publications not subject to peer review. Using such material in the last assessment is what led to the “glaciergate” scandal in 2010, when the report was found to have vastly overestimated the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are losing ice.
The panel publishes three voluminous assessments of the state of climate science every six years, the last of which came out in 2007.
Some critics New Scientist spoke to say the changes, which have not so far been publicly announced, will reduce the quality of the assessments by excluding the best scientists and muddying the waters between peer-reviewed and other literature.
However, the changes were backed this week by a senior IPCC scientist, Thelma Krug, a Brazilian co-chair of the panel’s task force in greenhouse gas inventories. Speaking at a side event at the Rio+20 environment conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she said the changes will correct geographical biases that have skewed past assessments.
Grey literature was responsible for several embarrassing errors in the 2007 report. These included the false claim that the Himalayas could be ice-free within 30 years and the assertion that African farmers could suffer yield losses of up to 50 per cent by 2020 because of climate change. The latter claim was formally corrected at this month’s Geneva meeting.
After the scandals, some called for grey literature to be banished from IPCC assessments. Instead, the meeting embraced it, and set criteria for its use. From now on, for instance, any grey literature used in an IPCC report will have to be put online so that reviewers can assess its quality.
Krug told New Scientist this would correct an imbalance in the assessments as it is harder for people in developing countries to get research findings into the major peer-reviewed journals.
“There is a lot of information available in [the grey literature of] developing countries that would balance IPCC literature,” she said.
The IPCC is an intergovernmental body, but its reports are written by scientists. In the past these have been chosen largely on their scientific merit, but from now on the 30-person IPCC bureau – which oversees all publications – will have geographical quotas. For instance Africa will have five members and North America four. In addition, each of its three working groups must now include at least one person from every continent in their eight-person bureaux.
Richard Klein, an IPCC stalwart from the Stockholm Resilience Institute in Sweden, told New Scientist this was mostly a formalisation of current practices. “Membership has always been based on expertise, geographical balance and gender.” But Krug said it represented a breakthrough for involvement of developing-world scientists.