Science & Environment

Harrabin's Notes: Reform ahead

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin looks at what the findings of an international review will mean for the UN's climate body, the IPCC.


If you're one of the clan which holds that climate change was invented by green liberals to trample on individual liberty, you'll be disappointed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is still alive and kicking after its blunder on Himalayan glaciers.

In fact, the InterAcademy Council (IAC) is actually complimentary about much of the IPCC's work, praising it for creating a "remarkable international conversation on climate research both among scientists and policymakers".

Image caption Dr Pachauri has said he wants to stay to implement changes at the IPCC

When you see this sort of accolade you remember what an extraordinary and unprecedented intellectual venture the IPCC represents.

But in many ways the IAC report looks like more of a triumph for those "outsider" critics sometimes seen as enemies by "insider" climate scientists.

This is because the IAC has accepted many of what the outsider critics have said about the way official climate science is governed.

And when you see those criticisms spelled out in the way the IAC has done, you might wonder why the IPCC has not been more able to reform itself.

The IAC suggests the problem is one of institutional sclerosis - the structure of the panel just didn't develop as its significance and reputation grew proportionately with public concern over its findings.

The review committee's call for a full-time executive director will be widely welcomed, as will the demand for an executive committee to react to things that go wrong - like the glacier mistake.

The IAC further suggests that the committee might contain an eminent person not involved in the climate debate. That would please people who say climate science is too inward-looking.

Clarity and transparency

There is a wish, too, for the IPCC's structures to be simplified and clarified. The IAC said that even some people working for the IPCC didn't understand how it operated (although workers in many other organisations might say the same thing).

There is also a lack of clarity surrounding the process of appointing leaders of the IPCC. What exactly qualifies them?

Future reports will surely have to be more clear on this - and the IAC wants transparent guidelines on suitability to be drawn up.

This drive for transparency will have to stretch to agreement and disagreement on findings, too. Future reports will have to be careful to detail a range of reputable views - something the Chinese government demanded immediately after the "Glaciergate" affair.

The IAC will receive much support for its demand that the IPCC deals with scientific uncertainty in a better way. I had not noticed, for instance, that the three working groups of the panel's 2007 climate science assessment (known as AR4) used different measures of uncertainty. Some might question why this not rectified at the time.

The report is particularly scathing on the uncertainty issue - take this from comments on Working Group II (one of the sections of the IPCC's 2007 report): "Authors reported high confidence in some statements for which there is little evidence.

"Furthermore by making vague statements that were difficult to refute, authors were able to attach 'high confidence' to the statements."

But the IAC has left room for further debate about the way the panel uses so-called "grey", or non-peer-reviewed, literature. It said some types of grey literature such as conference reports could be useful.

Calling time?

Some commentators want grey literature banned, whilst others - like the Indian green campaigner Vandana Shiva - insist that, for example, the oral history of tribal people about annual rains must be taken into account alongside formal climate records.

So what happens now? Well, the IAC's report will be considered at the meeting of the whole IPCC panel in Busan, South Korea, this October. It will be attended by government representatives as well as top climate scientists.

UK government sources tell me they are keen to digest the IAC's findings - and that there will be a strong impetus for the report to form a template for reform in Busan.

One thing is for sure, time appears to be running out for the chair of the IPCC, Dr Rajendra Pachauri. He may not be guilty of all the things he's been accused of, but his response to the glacier mistake seems to have been terminal.

If that were not obvious enough, the IAC is insisting that all senior members of the UN body serve just one term.

Dr Pachauri is well into his second term, and he is surely ready to unpack his bags after years of exhausting round-the-world trips that would have wiped out a man half his age.

When the right-wing American critics who are likely to welcome much of this report raise a glass in celebration whenever Dr Pachauri does go, they should remember who put the chairman in his current place.

It was George W Bush. This was seen by some as a move to install a compliant developing country economist who wouldn't stand in the way of industrial growth. He arranged the appointment of a former railway engineer who proceeded to drive right over his toes.

Many now think that if the IAC report's recommendations are implemented, it will help get climate science back on track.

Roger Harrabin is presenting a two-part radio programme called Uncertain Climate. Part two will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 0900 and 2130 on Monday 6 September. Part One is available on BBC IPlayer.

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