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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.

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  1. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    WG1 does the most valuable work, outlining the problem we face, and on which WG2 and WG3 depend for input.

    Therefore, the staggered release of Assessment Reports is appropriate, and avoids repeating the Himalayan glacier which gave so much succour to the anti-humane Forces of Darkness (aka traitors to the entire world).

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to David Arthur

      David, pursuant to another thread since closed, a singular difficulty with English as a so-called common tongue is like The Conversation itself not only its opacity but its poverty.

      In French, the indefinite subjective pronoun to which you allude is 'on', but I didn't mean that. In response to your third person plural 'they'; 'ils' or 'elles' depending on gender, I rather intended the definite first person equivalent 'nous', being 'us'.

      In short, I do not intend humanity generally but me and a few colleagues specifically.

      And yes, I do agree that in a decision-making sense "we" is no unity.

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    2. Mulga Mumblebrain

      Rocket surgeon

      In reply to David Arthur

      The Himalayan glacier farrago was a perfect example of MSM duplicity. I believe that the report said, not that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone, but that a high percentage would be, by 2035. Pardon me, but that looks pretty much on the mark. The alternative, idiot, explanation, proffered, that it was meant to read 2350, was moronically laughable. At the rate we are emitting greenhouse gases, by 2350 there will not be enough ice left on the planet to drown a scotch-not that there will be any upright, uptight, upstart hominids left to enjoy it. When confronted by evil Rightwing MSM lying and history invention, the forces of decency have to confront the Evil Ones with vigour. There has been way too much rolling over and trembling in the face of evil.

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    3. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Mulga Mumblebrain

      I believe these anonymous comments go against the cons comment policy. I have flagged your posts for the moderator's attention. Happy to engage with someone prepared to put their real name rather than a pseudonym.

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mulga Mumblebrain

      What happened in 2007 is that IPCC Working Group 1 - the physical scientists who actually do the science of how the natural world is changing - correctly reported the then-current understanding that Himalayan glaciers could be gone by 2350.

      The cock-up about Himalayan glaciers melting by 2035 was in the Assessment of IPCC Working Group 2 - the people looking at adaptation to climate change. Somehow, somewhere previously, someone had misread the original paper (IPCC WG1 Assessments are reviews, not original work per se) as 2035, not 2350 - and this error made it through the WG2 revision process, possibly because WG1 physical basis people weren't going over it in detail.

      We can see what AR5 says about Himalayan glaciers after Monday 30 Sep.

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    5. Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Industrial Electrician

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      How do I know that your name is Mark Hendrix and not NSA?

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    6. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Start by spelling it correctly. In regard to use of pseudonyms thus is not my policy but one of this site. If you prefer comments from Daffy Duck suggest you try the abc.

      The Cons Conditions of use.
      We require real names. Contributors who want to comment must use their real names when signing up for an account on The Conversation. Organisation representatives creating accounts also must use their own names. Requiring real names helps us maintain a transparent and credible forum for discussion and debate. We reserve the right to delete comments made from profiles with partial names or aliases.

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  2. John Russell

    logged in via Twitter

    Now that climate change and it's human origin is—as near as dammit—an unequivocal certainty, all that really needs addressing in future are any changes that arise in its conclusions. This would over come one of the problems with the current system: that 'waiting for the next IPCC report' has become a denial tactic in itself.

    So now, if I could be so bold, I'd like to see climate scientists turning their attention, under the banner of the IPCC, to responding to some of the denial memes that come along (as they do). At the moment a few scientists are doing this in blogs (like Real Climate) but how much more credible that would be if it was done under the aegis of the consensus that is the IPCC?

    Let's face it; it's arguable that it's not worth doing the work if nobody that matters is going to act on the conclusions. So surely climate scientists as a group must by now have started to think that they need to confront misinformation?

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    1. Mulga Mumblebrain

      Rocket surgeon

      In reply to John Russell

      Excellent idea, but the fight is staggeringly one-sided as the Forces of Evil have almost the entire Western Rightwing MSM propaganda sewer on their side. But the truth-tellers have, indeed, been calamitously meek and weak in confronting evil.

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    2. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Mulga Mumblebrain

      I believe these anonymous comments go against the cons comment policy. I have flagged your posts for the moderator's attention. Happy to engage with someone prepared to put their real name rather than a pseudonym.

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    3. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to John Russell

      "Let's face it; it's arguable that it's not worth doing the work if nobody that matters is going to act on the conclusions."
      John people and governments HAVE been acting on IPCC conclusions. You might not like/agree with those actions, but that is a different issue.

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  3. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

    Thoughtful essay on the IPCC process by Judy Curry that follows on the lines of Kevin's article. link below and Some excerpts. Again one wonders what the curators here fear about sharing such "dangerous" ideas. Is the risk of having an actual conversation on the issue too much for them?

    http://judithcurry.com/2013/09/28/ipcc-diagnosis-permanent-paradigm-paralysis/#more-13142

    Diagnosis: paradigm paralysis, caused by motivated reasoning, oversimplification, and consensus seeking; worsened and…

    Read more
    1. Mulga Mumblebrain

      Rocket surgeon

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Stupendous hypocrisy, as one would expect. Why would scientists, heirs to the Enlightenment, dedicated to truth and knowledge, be forced to have a 'conversation' with fanatic misrepresenters, liars and dissemblers? It is like demanding that parents have 'a conversation' with paedophiles over child-rearing, or biologists with 'Creation Scientists' over evolution and the origins of life on this planet. What is more, the denialists refuse to acknowledge error, even when it is pointed out over and over again, and continue peddling their garbage, again and again. If they were 'scientists' in any form, they would publish and be peer-reviewed like all other scientists, but they even defame peer review as a commo plot by the insidious 'warmist gate-keepers'.

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    2. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Mulga Mumblebrain

      I believe these anonymous comments go against the cons comment policy. I have flagged your posts for the moderator's attention. Happy to engage with someone prepared to put their real name rather than a pseudonym.

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    3. Nick Fisher

      retiring

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Dr Trenberth, someone actually having some engagement with assembling the reports, offers a straightforward and thoughtful article, which throws the hollowness of Dr Curry's posturing into stark relief. If she has something to say intended to reach beyond her echo-chamber, why is she indulging in such silly hyperbole and imagery?

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  4. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

    While readers are considering difference not opinions this post by Roger Pielke Jnr also worthwhile. Roger another of The Cons missing expert voices.

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com.au

    The release of the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (again, technically the SPM of its WGI, available here in PDF) should give anyone following the climate issue a deep sense of deja vu, if not a full-on case of Groundhog Day syndrome. We have seen this all before.

    At some risk of contributing to the deja…

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    1. Kevin Trenberth

      Distinguished Senior Scientist at National Center for Atmospheric Research

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      This is a partial response to the previous 2 comments.
      The IPCC carries out assessments. The current assessment of the published literature includes material only into March of 2013. It does not include any developments since then. Nor it is set up to effectively respond to the latest issues.

      The IPCC is hamstrung by what is published. Since its deadline there have been substantial papers on both hurricanes and tornadoes. The issue of drought is not handled well and is not resolved by IPCC, but we have a paper that does resolve the outstanding issues and it is tentatively accepted for publication.

      As I have argued, more is needed than the IPCC process.
      Kevin Trenberth

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    2. Rob Painting

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kevin Trenberth

      Yes, I'm of the opinion that these large all-encompassing assessments of climate science have passed their use-by date. More regular assessments, targeted at specific issues of importance policy-wise would seem to be the way forward.

      We'll probably re-publish this article at Skeptical Science.com.

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    3. Mulga Mumblebrain

      Rocket surgeon

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      More garbage from the tiny cabal of top dog denialati, who often meet in phone-boxes to plot their next move. This scratched record plays on and on, Foxy Lady followed by Voodoo Child, and this repetitive idiocy could certainly be played behind one's head-well away from frontal lobe activity.

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    4. Mulga Mumblebrain

      Rocket surgeon

      In reply to Kevin Trenberth

      Actually, the IPCC Reports have been a sort of 'soft denialism', in their insane infrequency, susceptibility to interference by political parties like Saudi Arabia and the almost Panglossian predictions of future developments (the 2007 Report was laughable in its incorrect predictions on the rapidity of Arctic summer sea ice loss, even as it was released, and that is, in my opinion, the central parameter of doom). Oh, and the gutless reluctance of the authors and contributors to properly engage with the denialist industry, its Big Business patrons and the political invertebrates who are at their beck and call. Time to shut it down, like the ABC, as a corrupted waste of space.

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    5. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Mulga Mumblebrain

      I believe these anonymous comments go against the cons comment policy. I have flagged your posts for the moderator's attention. Happy to engage with someone prepared to put their real name rather than a pseudonym.

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    6. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Mulga Mumblebrain

      I believe these anonymous comments go against the cons comment policy. I have flagged your posts for the moderator's attention. Happy to engage with someone prepared to put their real name rather than a pseudonym.

      report
    7. Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Industrial Electrician

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      How do I know that your name is Mark Hendrix and not NSA?

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  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Your reasonable concern, Keven, that "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," is well founded.

    But there are realities that need to be addressed first. I wrote over 20 years ago of "the downside of excessive literacy in a hyper-intellectualized…

    Read more
    1. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Mulga Mumblebrain

      I believe these anonymous comments go against the cons comment policy. I have flagged your posts for the moderator's attention. Happy to engage with someone prepared to put their real name rather than a pseudonym.

      report
    2. Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Industrial Electrician

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      How do I know that your name is Mark Hendrix and not NSA?

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    3. Arthur James Egleton Robey

      Industrial Electrician

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      How do I know that your name is Mark Hendrix and not NSA?

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  6. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    But wait! Has this been run past Rupert Murdock? He is not going to be happy. Is he dead yet?

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  7. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Interesting plea on how the IPCC should alter their reportage. However, I'm of the view they need to become truly obscene - ie: Publish the stuff of nightmares, and do it in plain language backed by their obscene findings.

    As it stands much of their complexity flies above the heads of most citizens, so the denier liars, have free rein to present contrary views based on fairly simple wordage and distortion - Thus the experts really need to add yet another interdisciplinary string to their bow…

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  8. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    Facts and science will not sway or silence the vested interests who simply refuse to accept such unpleasantness. Not to say we should abandon facts but we must be more careful in framing the issue - not to frighten the horses and drive the masses into grabbing at any comforting denialist clap-trap on offer.

    The target audience of the IPCC has been decision makers, producing a summary report which is without doubt the most widely read and comprehensible of their publications.

    But we are all…

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    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Aw, we could all pitch in and produce a monthly paper for the corner store. Using the CC as a source. I could print off a couple of hundred a month for the local store/newsagent/ petrol station, and drop some at a couple of newsagents nearby. With a donation box for the CC.

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