As the UN’s COP 21 meeting in Paris, France, draws closer, the future of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is under consideration. In numerous consultations from Nairobi to Berlin, member countries and scientists are discussing what’s next for the body whose scientific assessments have underpinned the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since the late 1980s.
With scientific consensus settled on the need to limit warming to two degrees Celsius by the end of the century, there seems to be not much left in the science for observers to debate. It is the internal mechanisms that are of key interest: how the assessment process and its outcomes can best help to achieve the IPCC’s overall goal of providing authoritative information.
What is the IPCC assessment worth? Most scientists, policymakers and the public seem confident that it is the most authoritative source of information on climate change, its impacts, adaptation and mitigation. Experts reach their conclusions by rigorously evaluating the available peer reviewed literature.
But of late, some IPCC report authors and readers have reflected on the need to improve the form and structure of the process, raising questions about whether there is scope for changing the prevailing processes of assessing and using this science.
Smooth the approval process
There are three key areas of concern. First, there is the issue of improving the viability of the interaction between scientists and their initial ‘audience’.
I use the word audience intentionally. Those involved in the report approval process will know that the Summary for policymakers is read out line by line to representatives of the panel’s member countries. This is followed by deliberations between author-scientists and member country delegates, and separately among the delegates themselves.
The outcome of this intense approval process is then released to the rest of the world. At this point, the authors are free to voice their opinions on the approved text versus what was left unapproved or modified. Does this create confusion or scepticism among second-level consumers of the science as well as authors? Or does it lead to relief that a text was agreed given that in some cases there is initially some disagreement?
No doubt, what is approved is scientifically credible. The question is whether the process can be smoother. Ideally, it needs to allow for more interaction between authors and member country delegates early on in the process — so that arriving at a final, negotiated version of a document that has taken four years to produce is not squeezed into a few exhausting days.
Add developing world literature
A second concern that resonates with many IPCC authors, and carries much weight when the text gets approved, is the need for more literature from the developing world. This has been a recurring concern. It is important not only in terms of representation — how much literature from resource-poor countries is factored in — but also in terms of relevance: the evidence base for IPCC reports includes much less material covering issues unique to the developing world. For instance, there is limited literature available on climate impacts on peri-urban areas (areas surrounding a city), an increasingly important phenomenon in much of the developing world.
Empirical evidence from different parts of the world can substantiate experiences documented in particular regions. It can also reveal differences between developed and developing countries. But if literature from certain regions is scant, this can become a blind spot where some phenomenon or policy is overlooked when in fact there is just not enough evidence to judge its significance.
The situation is gradually improving. But catching up will take too long — the rate of progress is slow, and the gap is still wide. For instance, last year’s Fifth assessment report considered 10,544 sources of scientific literature for Europe and 2,982 for Africa to attribute climate change impacts across different parts of the world.  To speed things up, an international, institutional mechanism — perhaps a UN initiative — could be set up to facilitate the process.
More inclusion of peer-reviewed science from, and based on, the developing world would lend credibility and acceptability to the evidence. It would also increase global scientific buy-in and accord the process greater transparency.
Improve reports’ user friendliness
The third concern is about making the reports more user friendly through different means of presentation, outreach and dissemination. A lot of effort goes into summarising the key messages of the Synthesis report of the overall assessment in a format and language that are relatively easy for policymakers to understand. There is scope for individual assessment reports, which are written in technical language, to get similar treatment.
In a similar vein, the IPCC could set up hubs to assess region-specific concerns. One hub could be on knowledge transfer for renewable energy in South Asia; another could tackle heat-stress related adaptation in Europe. The onus for dissemination would also then lie with the regional hubs, which can best judge what is required, such as translation into local languages.
There will always be a case for having one major IPCC report — an encyclopedia of information that assesses all opportunities for mitigation and adaptation, all new progress, and the knowledge gaps and challenges that remain. There is no substitute for this since climate change is a multiscale and multidimensional issue; involves multiple disciplines across the social and natural sciences; and is relevant to a wide range of discerning stakeholders from academics to activists to policymakers.
But parallel sub-reports and an emphasis on regional hubs will open up innovative thinking and ensure the timely availability of new knowledge, particularly in rapidly changing areas such as the commercialisation of renewable energy technologies. This will not only help countries to put climate policies in place, but also to dovetail these into developmental goals and aspirations.