Climate Change Panel – Esteemed, But Perhaps Too Conservative

November 15, 2007

They are seen as the gurus of global warming, and their reports are accepted almost as the gospel of climate science. Esteem for the panel of scientists was immortalized when it won this year’s Nobel Peace prize.

But experts and the scientists themselves acknowledge the reports are flawed, conservative and have a poor track record of predictions.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change []meets in the Mediterranean coastal city of Valencia, Spain, to finish its fourth report in two decades, it must decide whether it will produce a fifth.

“Next year would complete 20 years of the IPCC,” Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said Monday. “That clearly is a point where we should carry out deep and detailed introspection on what we have achieved, what we could have achieved further, and how we might be able to ensure achievement in the future.”

The panel’s future is an agenda item on the weeklong meeting that will end Saturday when it releases its latest climate change assessment. It is a loose organization of more than 2,000 scientists who submit their own research and review the work of others. The IPCC has issued extensive reports on global warming every five or six years since it was created under the auspices of two U.N. bodies. Each report includes a brief summary for policy makers, which is approved by government representatives. In between, the scientists may put together reports on specific subjects, such as deforestation.

Although Pachauri questioned whether the panel should continue, few voices have been heard calling for reform. The assessment reports have won accolades as the most authoritative compilation of climate science available, largely because of the rigorous process of peer review. Even if the data produced by different researchers may conflict, the science is deemed to be solid.

But its thoroughness is also a shackle that condemns it to lag behind the latest research. It takes at least a year for a scientific paper to be reviewed, and it usually takes the collaborative efforts of dozens of IPCC authors about two years to compile a report. The IPCC also suffers from having to report on a complex subject rife with imponderable variables that the scientists discover only as they go along.

In its assessment this year, the IPCC has reported with near certainty that human activity is causing temperatures to rise and changing weather patterns. Sea levels are rising, storms are growing more fierce, deserts are spreading and glaciers are melting, it said.

The panel predicts that millions of poor people will suffer from hunger, thirst, floods and disease unless drastic action is taken. But it also says the tools are available, or soon will be, to greatly slow global warming, soften the impact and help nations adapt to changing conditions.

As grim as that may look, the reality may be much worse. “”We need to understand that the worst impacts in the report may not in fact be the worst that will happen, or the worst that appear possible,” said Peter Altman, the climate policy project manager for the National Environmental Trust, a Washington lobby.

“What’s in the report now is scary enough. But in most of the predictions the IPCC has made, just about everything is happening faster and more intensely than we thought,” he added. “This issue is not being overstated. If anything, it is being understated.”

A joint report this month by two U.S. security institutes said they compared predictions of climate change over the last two decades with changes that actually occurred, and found the scientists had consistently fallen short.

Part of the reason was the lack of data, but it also could be that the scientists shied away from controversy and wanted to avoid being discredited as “alarmists,” according to the paper by the Center for Strategic International Studies and the Center for a New American Security.

The scientists see their caution as strength rather than a shortcoming. “The process tends to lead to a fairly conservative outcome,” said Bert Metz, one of the IPCC’s lead authors, who is with the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. “Because the scientists will wait for verification of research before pronouncing a possible trend. By not using an alarmist or advocatist tone, you in the end gain much more credibility.”

The World Wide Fund for Nature, or WWF International, which is invited with other environmental groups to observe IPCC meetings, agrees the IPCC process is cumbersome and late. “Climate change is going faster than our worst-case scenarios of five or six years ago,” said WWF’s climate specialist Hans Verolme.

He also indicated, however, that it would be difficult for the panel to issue more frequent reports to try to keep pace with the research without sacrificing its scientific integrity. “I wouldn’t know how to speed up the process,” he said.

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