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Time to change how the IPCC reports?

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the outcomes from Working Group I (WG-I) of the Fifth Assessment Report on the physical climate change. The IPCC has issued four…

The IPCC’s reports have been rigorous and comprehensive, but it’s time for a different, more agile approach. Sebastien Wiertz

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the outcomes from Working Group I (WG-I) of the Fifth Assessment Report on the physical climate change. The IPCC has issued four previous assessments, in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007. Should there be another one in 2019? Or should IPCC reports evolve along with its findings and the state of the climate?

A case can be made that the IPCC should declare success and do things differently in future. There are some aspects of the IPCC process that should be retained, but the burden on the climate community in endlessly producing unfunded reports is too much. More importantly, society’s needs have changed.

What does the IPCC do?

The role of the IPCC is to provide policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive scientific advice to policy makers and the general public. Each new IPCC report reviews all the published literature over the previous five to seven years. It assesses the state of knowledge, while trying to reconcile disparate claims, resolve discrepancies and document uncertainties.

In 1995, the IPCC first raised headlines when it said “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”. Its findings were an important input to the Kyoto Protocol.

The third assessment reported “there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities”. The fourth report in 2007 stated that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and it is “very likely” due to human activities.

Later in 2007, the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Al Gore Jr, “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.

Two major reviews are carried out in producing the report. The first is by experts and the second includes governments. Climate “sceptics” can and do participate, some as authors. All comments are responded to in writing and result in many changes in the report. The process is overseen by two or more review editors for each chapter.

United Nations rules require a unanimous consensus to be sought. Negotiations occur over wording to ensure accuracy, balance, clarity of message, and relevance to understanding and policy. The strength is that it is a consensus report but the process also makes it a conservative report. The rationale is that the scientists determine what can be said, but the governments determine how it can best be said.

However, the IPCC format has always created certain difficulties. Huge numbers of scientists are involved, but their contributions are voluntary. It has been difficult for information to flow between groups. The effort is huge, cumbersome and burdensome.

We need more up-to-date information

Given the findings, a key question is: what should be done about them?

It is not the role of IPCC to decide, but it is the role of IPCC to lay out the options and likely consequences. There is now an imperative to recognise that climate change is with us and we must plan for it in every way possible. The climate of the past is simply no longer a good guide to that in the future.

We need to develop climate services in the broadest sense to provide a continuous stream of information on how the climate is changing, why it is changing, what the expectations are on various time horizons, and how best to plan for the future climate. It is no longer pragmatic to wait for six years or so for another report.

Because of the importance and costs associated with climate variability and climate change, many of the topics need to be assessed continually. It no longer makes sense for the activities of Working Group 1 (which assesses the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change) and those of Working Group 2 (which looks at impacts, adaptation and options for coping with climate change) to be separated.

I am tempted to say the reports should become routine and operationalized, except there is nothing routine about dealing with the variety of challenges facing us. Accordingly, there must be an ongoing strong research component on how to continually improve the tools and information, even as products are developed and disseminated through extensive outreach efforts.

Time for reports to evolve

There are already some aspects of IPCC reports that have become routine through the “State of the Climate” reports published mid-year by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The 2012 report came out in August 2013 and contained 238 pages. It lacks the rigour and review of the IPCC reports but has been an excellent step in the right direction. In addition, many nations have their own annual reports.

Other aspects must be picked up by climate services, perhaps through the World Meteorological Organization initiative “Global Framework on Climate Services”. The goal is to establish a comprehensive climate information system that includes observations and monitoring, product dissemination, research, modelling and applications, and user services.

The IPCC already issues special reports on “hot topics” as well as technical reports that often cut across different working groups. This is a way for the IPCC to continue to play a major role and not lose the procedures developed.

There is a continuing need to be responsive to governments but with targeted reports. Perhaps a model is the reports put out by the National Research Council in the United States? These are rigorous reviewed reports assembled by panels of experts, and customised to the task at hand, often at the request of Congress or the government agencies. They are deliberative but not locked to a particular timetable.

The service the IPCC offers in giving an overview of climate science has been invaluable. In the past, it has also been highly effective. But as climate change moves more rapidly, and as our response has to move more rapidly to keep up, the IPCC may have to find a new way to keep us informed.

Read more IPCC analysis here.