Process to assess data on climate change is slow, outdated

IPCC report may be ditched

by and


Top U.N. experts have just delivered the first volume of a massive new climate change report, but already whispers are starting to be heard: Will it be the last such review?

By the end of 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should have delivered all three tomes, plus a synthesis of the trio, in only the fifth such report in more than a quarter of a century of the panel’s existence.

To supporters, these massive “assessment reports” play a vital role in stoking awareness.

Not only do they condense the findings of thousands of studies published in peer-reviewed journals, in a transparent process in which the text is vetted twice over, they also carry the approval of governments. A total of 195 nations have a seat on the IPCC and their representatives examine a summary of a technical text written by scientists.

This dual-track approach, say supporters, yields a fantastic tool for politicians who want to tackle climate change: they can tell the public that the need for reform is clear as the evidence comes from neutral and impartial sources.

Conversely, if politicians prevaricate on climate change, the public can challenge them on facts that they themselves had endorsed.

Cautious and painstaking the process may be, “but it delivers the key messages, that climate change is already happening and there are alarming signals of accelerating impacts,” said a delegate at the IPCC discussions.

Jean Jouzel, a French scientist who is vice chairman of the group that issued Friday’s report, said that though the technical text is authored by scientists “it is the adoption of the summary which gives the IPCC its success, and enables it (the summary) to be used by governments.”

But some critics say these mega-reviews spanning thousands of pages belong to the past.

The process is agonizingly slow at a time when both climate change and the science used to evaluate it are leaping ahead, they say.

And the need for consensus makes these comprehensive judgments worryingly conservative.

“The question of whether the exercise is worthwhile is logical,” said a European delegate, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that “things have changed substantially since the first report” in 1990.

For example, an early cutoff date to review published literature meant that the Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 was unable to include dramatic new evidence about the melting of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland.

Six years later, the issue of the ice sheets is being addressed in the Fifth Assessment Report, whose first volume on the physical evidence for climate change was released by the IPCC’s Working Group 1 in Stockholm on Friday.

Compiling this document in itself took nearly three years.

This time around, the cutoff date meant the authors were unable to evaluate recent, but very worrying, studies that say methane trapped in ice-bound coasts in northeast Siberia is being released as seas warm, thus putting the greenhouse effect into higher gear.

“The (IPCC) reports are currently perceived to be quite dated already a few years after they have been published,” said the Netherlands in a proposal to overhaul the panel’s procedures.

Two more volumes in the Fifth Assessment Report are due next year. They will be released by Working Group 2, which deals with the impacts of climate change, in Yokohama next March; and by Working Group 3, with deals with how to tackle the problem, in Berlin in April.

These will be crowned by a synthesis report, due out next October in Copenhagen.

Anders Levermann, a professor of climate system dynamics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany said the question as to whether there should be a sixth assessment report “is very, very difficult.”

The biggest challenges are in Working Groups 2 and 3, where the regional impacts of drought, storms, flood and rising seas are becoming ever clearer, Levermann said in a phone interview.

“It’s the sign of a maturing process of the whole climate issue, that we are moving in discussion from the question of whether there is climate change and whether it is man-made to how we can solve it,” he said.

Several countries, including the United States, have joined the Netherlands in suggesting reforms when the panel meets in Georgia in the southern Caucasus.

Ideas include slimming the IPCC to two working groups and updating parts of the assessment report as and when necessary, rather than going through a vast soup-to-nuts review that ties down resources for years.

Another idea that is gaining ground is to focus efforts on specific issues, as the climate panel has already done with a smaller report on extreme weather events.

The IPCC “has provided invaluable evidence for policymakers, but giant reports should give way to nimbler, more relevant research,” the science journal Nature declared.

  • jr_hkkdo

    If climate is not man-made, I fail to see how man can do anything much about it. It seems quite arrogant of man to think we can.

    Furthermore, though many contend that climate change IS man-made, it is NOT settled science, no matter what many activists may say. Seems like we should be focused on how we can settle that science conclusively before the UN spends more time/resources on how to “solve” the problem. Again, first, is it man-made? If so, THEN we should seriously study how to solve it (if we can). If it is NOT man-made, then I, for one, choose not to spend much more time on huge programs to solve it. All that does is help some activist organizations to get more money to spend, when all countries are looking for ways to save money and spend less.

  • Oh please, I guess it must be time for ‘action’.
    quote: “….the evidence comes from neutral and impartial sources”.
    There is no such thing as a non-biased source. Everyone is biased. That does not preclude truth/accuracy, but it does demand sceptical consideration of all assertions.

    Quote: “Conversely, if politicians prevaricate on climate change, the public can challenge them on facts that they themselves had endorsed”.

    Yeh right, every member of the public have the skills to question complex issues like climate change….such that their ‘informed vote’ can be construed as a ‘mandate’ for ‘climate-care’. Why don’t we just acknowledge that a pack of liberals around the world mobilised to compel politicians to act, and politicians thought…why not? It could only give us a new source of revenue.
    The issue has highlights the intellectual dishonesty of a great many people; and the failure of our political systems to deal with complex issues.

  • randydutton

    So far action has resulted in:
    Manufacturing from western nations with good pollution control to China and India with poor pollution control, thus MORE carbon soot and sulfides released into the air and onto ice sheets and glaciers.

    The clearcutting of rainforests to grow food-for-biofuel; the dramatic increase of fallow land turned to marginal farmland to grow biofuel feedstock, thus more drawing down of aquifers for irrigation, more fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and more runoff into ocean ‘kill zones’.

    The tearing down of some hydro-electric dams (for example, the Elwha) with the expectation that replacement power would come from ‘green’ energy.

    The promotion of inefficient wind and solar, which in themselves are vast consumers of metal, concrete, and rare earth elements (97% monopolized by China).

    The dramatic increase in rare earth elements (REE) that cause massive discharges of radioactive thorium and acids into the Yellow River and thus into the Pacific food chain (because of the way China mines and refines). A subsequent loss of western jobs to China because China then blackmails companies needing REEs to move operations to China.

    A major consequence of the GW movement is to move jobs to China and India. Does anyone wonder why people are getting angrier at politicians who are so naive about the consequences of their decisions?