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U.N. Climate Change Panel Gets Tips to Boost Credibility

In 2010, shareholder resolutions addressing climate change received majority votes at Layne Christensen and Massey Energy. Seventeen votes received more than 40 percent support, and 88 received more than 20 percent of shareholder votes. In part due to effective shareholder pressure, but also because they have come to see the financial opportunities of mitigation strategies, corporations increasingly are issuing sustainability reports that include disclosure of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

At the same time, however, challenges to the validity of climate science are proliferating. Many climate deniers seized upon isolated errors in data compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including a remark by a climate scientist that the Himalayan ice caps will melt by 2035, as evidence of a plot by scientists to advance a political agenda in an effort to obtain government grants. The remark made its way into the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007.

Recent examples of climate denial in the U.S. include a statement in 2009 by Bill Kovacs, the senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, who called for public hearings in which the science of climate change could be debated. Saying it would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century," Kovacs described such hearings as amounting to a trial of climate change science.

A leading proponent of the climate denial agenda in the U.S. Senate has been James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who in a 2005 speech called climate change "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Yet even as the Chamber purported to speak for its dues-paying membership, an analysis published in May of this year by American Businesses for Clean Energy (ABCE) found that 6,000 companies support energy and climate legislation. The companies employ an estimated 3.5 million workers, represent more than $2.6 trillion in market capitalization, and totaled $3.5 trillion in estimated revenue in 2009.

Furthermore, in response to challenges to its endangerment finding on GHG emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated, "Climate science is credible, compelling, and growing stronger."

"Climate change is already happening, and human activity is a contributor," the EPA continued.

Several of the petitions denied by the EPA sought to discredit the IPCC by asserting that two confirmed errors in its 3,000-page Fourth Assessment Report invalidates the findings of the report.

In response to the controversy, the United Nations and the IPCC itself asked the InterAcademy Council (IAC), a multinational organization of science academies, to review the processes and procedures of the IPCC, and provide recommendations to enhance the authority of its reports.

Yesterday, the IAC released its report, "Climate Change Assessments, Review of the Processes & Procedures of the IPCC." Given the scientific backgrounds of its authors, it is not surprising that the report provides no ammunition for attacks on climate science; the validity of climate science itself is not questioned.

As IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said in a webcast from the U.N. yesterday, referring not only to the IAC report but to seven reports addressing climate change that were conducted in 2010 alone, "None of the studies found flaws in the science of climate change. By overwhelming consensus, the scientific community agrees that climate change is real."

Yet, Pachauri acknowledged its "credibility has been challenged, and we realized from the outset that only an exhaustive, impartial, and independent review would be acceptable."

"Unlike much of the current debate," the IAC report states, "The focus of this review is on the processes and procedures that support and give structure to IPCC's very distinctive assessments."

Recognizing that "controversies have erupted over its perceived impartiality toward climate policy and the accuracy of its reports," the report provides a number of recommendations for the IPCC to implement in advance of its Fifth Assessment Report, scheduled to be published starting in 2013.

According to the report, its recommendations relate primarily to governance and management, the review process, characterizing and communicating uncertainty, communications, and transparency in the assessment process.

In order to address the kinds of issues that have erupted since the publication of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, the IAC recommended that an executive committee be elected in order to address such issues by "approving minor corrections to published reports, approving modest alterations in the scope of an ongoing assessment, (and) ensuring effective communication." Because of the increasing complexity of the IPCC's work, an executive director should be named to handle the day-to-day operations of the organization.

Noting that drafts of the Fourth Assessment Report drew 90,000 review comments, the IAC recommended a more targeted process by which review editors prepare written summaries of the most significant issues. Lead authors would then be required to provide detailed written responses to the most significant issues.

Since the "Working Group II Summary for Policy Makers has been criticized for various errors and for emphasizing the negative impacts of climate change," the IAC recommended that a qualitative level-of-understanding scale be used by all working groups. "The level-of-understanding scale," the report states, "is a convenient way of communicating the nature, number, and quality of studies on a particular topic, as well as the level of agreement among studies."

In response to the "slow and inadequate responses to reports of errors in the Fourth Assessment Report," the IPCC should devise comprehensive media relations and communications strategies. Finally, because "the IPCC can expect that its reports will continue to be scrutinized closely ... it is essential that the processes and procedures used to produce assessment reports be as transparent as possible."

In yesterday's webcast at the U.N., Pachauri said, "There has been a productive debate this year on the IPCC's work. But we have to remember that honest scientific discourse wilts under gross distortion and ideologically driven posturing. Sadly, such tactics have been a prominent feature of climate science for many years."

"The IPCC will be strengthened by the IAC review and by others of its kind this year," Pachauri said. "We already have the highest confidence in the science behind our assessments. We're now pleased to receive recommendations on how to further strengthen our own policies and procedures."

This article originally appeared at and is reprinted with permission.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user World Economic Forum.

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