UN climate panel charts next steps
IPCC prepares for new leadership and plans another assessment of climate science.
Despite calls for change, the next United Nations climate assessment will take much the same form as the last one, the panel charged with producing the recurring reports announced on 27 February. The decision comes just days after the panel’s long-time leader resigned in the middle of a sexual-harassment investigation.
Meeting in Nairobi from 24 to 27 February, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made several minor adjustments to its assessment process. The changes aim to engage more scientists, in part by boosting the representation of developing nations in the group’s governing body. But the basic framework will continue to comprise a comprehensive assessment published every five to seven years plus two or three special reports on specific topics. The fifth and most recent IPCC climate assessment, which was completed last year, concluded that it is “extremely likely” that humans are responsible for the bulk of recent global warming.
“The overall structure remains, but some key aspects of its mode of operation have been improved to facilitate a fuller participation of all scientists, in particular from developing countries,” says IPCC vice-chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a climatologist at the Catholic University of Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. “This was a key thing I think the IPCC needed to do.”
The meeting follows the sudden departure of Rajendra Pachauri, who has headed the IPCC since 2002 and whose term was due to end in October. Pachauri is under investigation over allegations that he sexually harassed a colleague at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, of which he is director. He has denied the claims but elected to step down on 24 February, soon after announcing that he would not be attending the Nairobi meeting.
“We cannot ignore the resignation of Dr. Pachauri, but the allegations against him … do not relate to the IPCC,” said IPCC secretary Renate Christ during a press conference on 27 February. Christ said that the panel will, however, ensure that it maintains an atmosphere in which “everyone’s rights are respected and upheld”.
Ahead of the meeting, some scientists involved in the IPCC argued that the assessment process is too slow and requires too much time from the more than 2,000 scientists from around the world who volunteer for duty. Some have advocated that the IPCC put less energy into monumental assessments and more into shorter reports that focus on major scientific and policy debates. During the last major assessment, the IPCC released special reports on renewable energy and the risks of extreme weather, but even those were major undertakings.
Christopher Field, co-chair of the working group on impacts and adaptation for the most recent assessment, says that there are ways to streamline the process, but maintains that the value of the IPCC comes from the give and take between scientists and governments. “Operationally, it is hard to imagine a way to capture this unique value without key process steps, including multiple rounds of monitored review and line-by-line approval of summaries for policy-makers,” he says.
At the meeting, IPCC members said that the next assessment should have a greater focus on specific regions and include a broader review of non-English scientific literature, with more involvement of science writers and communications experts to help reach a broader range of people.
The panel also wanted to open itself up to researchers who have been seeking access to the closed-door meetings in an effort to study the assessment process and the institution itself; research proposals will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“That is indeed a major step forward toward both increased transparency of the IPCC process and eventually finding ways to improve it,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey who is part of a team of researchers seeking such access.
Oppenheimer has advocated reforms that would emphasize smaller, faster assessments while decreasing the workload for scientists. He says that the latest decision largely represents “business as usual”, but does open the door for improvements. In particular, he credited the IPCC for emphasizing communications and engagement with developing countries. “This is important and needs to be done,” he says.
The IPCC will hold its leadership election in October. Candidates include van Ypersele and Thomas Stocker, a climate scientist at the University of Bern who co-led the working group that wrote the physical-science portion of the report during the most recent assessment. Field, who is founding director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, California, says that he, too, is likely to run.