IPCC: In need of a course correction?


Rising emissions Even as the IPCC has garnered awards and recognition, there is scant evidence that nations are acting on its warnings. Emissions of heat-trapping gases have grown. File photo

Two years ago, an international scientific panel seized worldwide attention by reporting that human activity was warming the planet in ways that could greatly disrupt human affairs and nature.

The work of the group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. After two decades of delivering climate reports to the world without fanfare, it suddenly had a wide following.
But as the panel gears up for its next climate review, specialists in climate science and policy, both inside and out of the network, are warning that it could quickly lose relevance unless it adjusts its methods and focus. Although the panel, founded in 1988 and operating under the United Nations’ auspices, has garnered awards and acclaim, there is scant evidence that nations are acting on its warnings. Emissions of heat-trapping gases have grown. Talks about a new climate treaty remain largely deadlocked.

Challenge before the IPCC
“Like grabbing the tail of a tiger, the IPCC has gotten the world’s attention, but now the challenge is to get the tiger to head in the right direction,” said Michael MacCracken, a longtime contributor to panel reports and a chief scientist for the Climate Institute, a nonprofit group. “For the IPCC, this means providing guidance that will minimise climate impacts and maximize investments in a prosperous and sustainable future.”
Environmentalists assert that the reports by the panel are watered down by a requirement that sponsoring governments approve its summaries line by line.
Some experts fret that the organisation, charged with assessing fast-evolving science, has failed to keep pace with an explosion of climate research.

At the same time, scientists who question the likelihood of a calamitous disruption of the Earth’s climate accuse the panel of cherry-picking studies and playing down levels of uncertainty about the severity of global warming.

“It just feels like the IPCC has gone from being a broker of science to a gatekeeper,” said John R Christy, a climate scientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and a former panel author.  In an interview, Rajendra K Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, rejected the charge of bias, noting layers of transparent peer review. But he acknowledged the challenges that the group faces in translating complex science in a way that produces meaningful responses.

Under its charter, the group cannot recommend a course of action to cut climate risks. It has laid out specific paths for emissions of greenhouse gases that governments would need to follow to avoid overheating the planet, but governments need not follow those paths.

What’ll go into the new study?
While the new study is not scheduled for release until 2014, its shape will be determined at an October meeting of government representatives from more than 80 countries.
One goal for the next report is a much more thorough assessment of how fast and far seas could rise from unabated warming. The panel’s 2007 report expressly excluded the influence of melting ice sheets because of limited understanding of how fast they could melt.

Shying away from discussing such possibilities because there is low scientific confidence can imply there is also a low probability they may occur, said Stephen H Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford and longtime panel member. That is not necessarily the case, he said.

More attention will be devoted to research on the potential for dangerous changes in ocean chemistry as seas absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide. Another focus will be large-scale artificial methods of countering warming, called geo-engineering. The panel will also try harder to identify anticipated impacts of climate change on certain regions, and options for fostering resilience in especially vulnerable places like sub-Saharan Africa.
Scientists involved in shaping the next report worry that the runaway growth in peer-reviewed studies of climate change is making a broad, fair assessment of such research impossible.

4,500 climate studies!
In Venice, Neville Nicholls, a lead writer on several parts of the last report, submitted a chart showing that 4,500 climate studies were published in 2007, triple the total a decade earlier. In the end, perhaps the most vital shift is for the panel to pay more attention to the murkier but most consequential possibilities in a warming world, said Schneider.

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