Let the sunlight in on climate change

The IPCC was tasked by the governments of the world to deliver an encyclopedic consensus on the state of knowledge about one of the most far-reaching yet divisive questions of our time. And this grouping of thousands of scientists, taking time out from their regular jobs has, for more than two decades, delivered. Thanks to the IPCC's work, the world's nations have come together to decide that we must prevent our planet warming by more than 2 °C - even if achieving that goal is proving difficult, to say the least.

The serious error, reported here two weeks ago, that led to the inclusion in an IPCC report of mistaken claims about how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting is undoubtedly damaging to the panel's reputation. But it does not in any way undermine the conclusion that human-induced climate change is happening, is dangerous and requires urgent action.

However, the IPCC's heroic days are probably over. The case for anthropogenic climate change has been established; the Nobel prize is won. So it is time for a rethink of where the IPCC is going, and what its future role should be. Two years ago, in the aftermath of the last major assessment report, many scientists argued that the task should have begun then. It is no less urgent now.

We still need the IPCC to serve as a seeker of truth whose deliberations are open to scrutiny. There is plenty of new science to assess. But it makes little sense to have to wait six years between assessments: though reflection, and time for the replication of findings, are essential, why not have an annual report?

The organisation also needs to be more focused on providing the science that will address emerging policy challenges. Its best recent work is in its special reports on topics such as aircraft emissions. A special report on geoengineering would be invaluable, as would a dispassionate assessment of how to measure and verify national greenhouse gas emissions, and carbon sinks such as soils and forests.

Should the IPCC remain as an intergovernmental body - in other words, answerable to national governments from around the world? Yes, it probably should. It was the US, during the Reagan presidency back in the 1980s, that insisted on this. At the time, many scientists were dismayed, fearing political interference in the panel's published reports. But these fears largely failed to materialise, and the fact that national governments all sign off each report has reinforced the IPCC's authority. But public attitudes to science are changing. The IPCC was established before the internet revolution. Like it or not, its closed world of peer review is no longer possible, let alone desirable.

The job of scientists is to test theories to destruction, which inevitably makes science adversarial at times. Dispute is good; consensus stultifies. It is neither surprising nor disturbing that disputes about the science break out, within the IPCC and outside it, and such disagreements need to be out in the open.


Post a Comment