The UN’s climate change body looks inward to move ahead

The United Nation’s IPCC is considered the definitive source on climate science in international negotiations. UN IPCC

When there’s a report in the news about the latest science on climate change, the source is very often the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This body plays a very important role in global climate change policy around the world. Its reports, five of which have been published since 1990, enjoy a degree of credibility that renders them influential for public opinion. And more important, the reports are accepted as the definitive source by international negotiators working under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Now, though, the IPCC is at a crossroads. Its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) – the latest of its comprehensive studies published every five to seven years – is complete and largely successful. But, like many large institutions, the IPCC has experienced severe growing pains. Its size has increased to the point that it has become cumbersome. It sometimes fails to address the most important issues.

And most striking of all, it is now at risk of losing the involvement of the world’s best scientists due to the massive burdens that participation entails.

The IPCC is contemplating organizational changes aimed at engaging more scientists and boosting representation from different countries. Because it has so much influence, these changes matter to more than just climate scientists.

Taking stock

The good news is that this is a moment of considerable opportunity for addressing challenges the IPCC faces, because the direction of future assessments is now open for discussion and debate. Indeed, last month the 195 member countries of the IPCC met in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss, among other topics, the future of the IPCC.

Just one week before the Kenya IPCC sessions commenced, another much smaller meeting took place about 4,000 miles northwest of Nairobi – in Berlin, Germany. Twenty-four participants with experience with the IPCC met in February in Berlin for a three-day workshop on the future of international climate-assessment processes. The aim of the workshop, which I co-organized, was to take stock and reflect on lessons learned from the production of past assessment reports, including those of the IPCC, in order to identify options for improving future assessment processes.

Participants included social scientists who contributed in various capacities to the fifth assessment report and earlier IPCC assessments. Importantly, users of IPCC reports, including national governments and intergovernmental organizations, as well as representatives of other stakeholder groups, also participated.

The workshop, titled “Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy,” was co-organized by four academic and research organizations based in Europe and the United States: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM, Italy), the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (US), the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC, Germany) and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (US).

Possible ways forward for the IPCC

Two of my co-organizers – Carlo Carraro of FEEM and Charles Kolstad of Stanford – and I have written a brief memorandum, based on our reflections on the Berlin workshop discussion. In it, we describe a set of specific challenges and opportunities facing the IPCC and provide options for improving the IPCC’s process of assessing scientific research on climate change. Our analysis focuses on five areas:

  • improving integration and coordination across IPCC working groups and enhancing the interface between scientists and governments
  • enhancing the interface between the IPCC and various social scientific disciplines and communities
  • increasing efforts in innovative ways to facilitate contributions of expertise from developing countries
  • increasing the efficiency of IPCC operations and ensuring the scientific integrity of its work products through targeted organizational improvements
  • strengthening outreach and communications.

We gave considerable attention to changes in the IPCC process that would increase its efficiency and the quality of its products. Frequent meetings place a high burden on authors. To better ensure participation of scientists, the IPCC could reduce the number and length of meetings and rely more on remote collaboration tools, such as videoconferencing. In addition, the IPCC can improve the quality of the reports by clarifying its review process. It is also worth considering altering disclosure rules to help assure the integrity of the IPCC process.

The memorandum we wrote is only the first of several products that will be forthcoming from this initiative. Over the coming months, we will produce a comprehensive report from the workshop in time for the IPCC’s next meeting in October of this year, as well as the subsequent UNFCCC meeting in Paris in December.