In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its first assessment report on the state of the science of climate change. The synthesis of the sixth evaluation report will be published at the end of this year. But we can guess its messages: we are changing the climate with adverse consequences and we must urgently reduce emissions. So after all this time, is the IPCC still useful?
To address this question, I recently hosted a webinar with two longtime IPCC authors, Lisa Schipper and Mark Pelling, who were joined by Silke Beck, who has researched the IPCC since 1994 without, like me, contributing directly to it. My colleague from UCL, the prominent climate change researcher Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, chaired.
What is the IPCC?
The IPCC was created by the United Nations. It synthesizes and evaluates the science of natural and human-caused climate change, impacts and risks, and our options and consequences of action. Member states appoint IPCC scientists, and governments must approve all reports. They are not shy about trying to remove material.
The IPCC publishes many different reports, the most notable of which are the full assessment reports every five to seven years. The latest, the sixth, was published within the last year following a delay related to COVID-19. The full technical report of the three working groups is thousands of pages long. It is intended to be politically neutral and policy-relevant, but not policy-prescriptive.
A headline-grabbing “Summary for Policymakers” from each working group typically spans dozens of pages. It must be politically acceptable and therefore tends to diverge from carefully nuanced science. One review called it “the potentially weakest aspect of the Assessment Report process.”
the story is the same
Over the years, the benchmark message hasn’t really altered, especially in terms of public perception that, in short; humans are changing the climate rapidly and substantially. Consider the BBC’s online news reports, for example. The first sentence in his coverage of the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment called the human cause of climate change “highly likely.”
His report on the 2013 IPCC Fifth Assessment began “scientists are 95% certain that humans are the ‘dominant cause’ of global warming since the 1950s.” Last year’s story on the IPCC’s sixth assessment, written by the same reporter, began “Human activity is changing the climate in unprecedented and sometimes irreversible ways.” From very confident to completely confident in 14 years.
Is the IPCC needed?
Although we are sure of the basics, much of climate science remains unknown or uncertain. The challenges range from the role of clouds to the application of economic models. These gaps should not prevent action based on what we know about the science.
These days, the IPCC contributes little to the science of climate change. All three webinar speakers agreed that the IPCC had served its original purpose. But they raised fundamental concerns about who is involved, whose voices are being heard, and the effort required to try to meet the IPCC mandate (and not quite get there). The IPCC has made some important steps towards broadening representation, although it still has a long way to go to fully include, among others, indigenous peoples.
Speakers also suggested that IPCC reports are too technocratic and place too much faith in technology. In addition, a conflict of interest sometimes arises when IPCC authors synthesize and evaluate their own published science.
Limitations in the IPCC process were also noted. Achieving real consensus and coherence is difficult within the mandate. While the IPCC strives for balanced, diverse and representative authorship, it is not necessarily successful, even in regional representation. The work is effectively free, which favors authors willing to give their time and who work for responsible institutions.
Authors gain networks and perceived prestige, but the impact on careers may not always be positive. Schipper lamented: “He has taken up a great deal of our time. And, for example, my contract at Oxford is about to expire because I haven’t had time to find research funding because I’ve been so committed to the IPCC process.” It can be even worse for authors who reside in countries that do not support or where the IPCC’s messages do not sit well with their governments.
Those not well versed in the science of climate change tend to revere the IPCC as a paragon of reality and authenticity. Unaware of the mandate, process, power relations, knowledge biases and inconsistencies, many hold up the IPCC as an untouchable icon. They don’t see bureaucracy and strong personalities shaping reports as much as science.
Can the IPCC move forward?
Speakers were not ready to leave the IPCC at this stage, but rather wanted to see constructive reform. In particular, they hoped to improve science-policy interactions. This means that policymakers must want to engage with the science, which, by all accounts, is not always the case.
And while countries remove mentions that are portrayed negatively, more targeted and targeted reporting, even at the country level, could be an important direction. The shorter and more focused reports were considered to be the most useful.
These would not only reduce the time gap between reports, but also help circumvent the inability to review the vast amount of science being published. Searching a single academic publisher for peer-reviewed articles relevant to climate change in 2022 revealed more than 33 published each day.
Rather than adopt his advice, webinar speakers noted how the IPCC continues to move toward longer reports, more complicated rules, and increasingly futile attempts to encompass all of the published science. Taken together, substantive action addressing human-caused climate change must be successful before the IPCC’s seventh assessment report is expected to be completed.
Rather than have galvanized the necessary responses, the IPCC could simply provide confirmation that we could have acted, but now it is too late.