GLOBAL: Scientists to review UN climate panel

A 12-member panel of top scientists from around the world began reviewing the work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, last week. The key task of the team selected by the InterAcademy Council, an Amsterdam-based association of national science academies, is to review processes that led to the findings of the UN climate panel. Mistakes in IPCC reports have undermined public confidence in science and created confusion over climate change.

Economist Harold T Shapiro, a former president of Princeton University and the University of Michigan who writes on bioethics, is leading the prestigious panel conducting the review . Shapiro has chaired several US National Academy of Sciences committees and been active in efforts focused on the relationship between science and society.

The vice-chair is Professor Roseanne Diab, Executive Officer of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa and emeritus professor of environmental sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The panel also includes scientists in a range of disciplines from China, India, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Malaysia.

"This is an absolutely critical review," Diab told University World News. "The credibility of IPCC reports has been questioned because of errors picked up in certain areas, and so the credibility of climate change science has also been questioned. The implications for the future are huge."

In March, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and IPCC chair Rajendra K Pachauri asked the InterAcademy Council to independently review the processes and procedures of the climate change panel and draft suggestions on how its scientific work might be strengthened.

The request followed mistakes unearthed in panel reports, including a mammoth 2007 report that earned the IPCC the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, shared with former US vice-president Al Gore.

The panel admitted in January that the report had overstated the speed at which Himalayan glaciers were melting and how much of The Netherlands was below sea level. The errors were used by sceptics to question whether human activities were the main cause of climate change and the hazards it presents to the world - an IPCC conclusion Ban has supported.

Most, but not all, of the IPCC's work is based on peer-reviewed scientific publications. Mistakes in the 2007 publication reportedly arose from incorrect information given to the panel by governments and advocacy groups.

Still, the result - along with the 'Climategate' controversy that erupted last year after the theft of email exchanges between climate scientists - undermined public trust in climate science.

The review team will submit a peer-reviewed report on its findings and recommendations to the UN by the end of August, to inform an October meeting for the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.

"We won't be looking at the science but at the processes that led to the IPCC's findings," said Diab. "We have no preconceptions. We will be looking at the procedures followed and how they can be improved, if necessary."

The review started last Friday in Amsterdam with an interactive, open live webcast discussion with leading climate change figures and statements made by organisations, including the UN.

"We approach this review with an open mind," said Shapiro, in a statement issued by the InterAcademy Council, or IAC. "I'm confident we have the experts on this committee necessary to supply the UN with a stronger process for providing policy makers with the best assessment of climate change possible." The members of the committee were nominated by science and engineering academies around the world.

Aside from procedures the IPCC follows in preparing its reports, the committee will review issues including data quality assurance and control, the type of literature that may be cited in IPCC reports, expert and government reviews of IPCC materials, handling the full range of scientific views, and correcting errors identified after reports have been completed.

"The committee also will review overall IPCC processes, including management functions and communication strategies," the statement added. The committee was asked to come up with recommendations on possible revisions of policies and procedures, to strengthen them.

The review would help ensure that future IPCC products had as strong a scientific basis as possible, "giving governments and the public confidence in the findings and projections," said co-chair Lu Yongxiang, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in the statement.

The IAC was established in 2000 as a multinational organisation to mobilise top scientists and engineers around the world to provide evidence-based advice to international bodies such as the UN and World Bank, including preparing expert, peer-reviewed studies upon request.

Its board comprises the presidents of 15 academies of science and equivalent bodies in Brazil, Chile, China, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Turkey, the UK and US, plus the African Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) and other international bodies.

The IAC, according to its website, produces reports on scientific, technological and health issues related to global challenges, providing knowledge and advice to governments and international organisations. The council also assembles international panels of experts - who work on a voluntary basis - to provide advice on particular issues, such as the IPCC review.

* University World News will publish a special report on how universities around the world are responding to the challenges of climate change. See our edition on 30 May.

Recent research by Henrik Svensmark and his group at the Danish National Space Center points to the real cause of the recent warming trend. In a series of experiments on the formation of clouds, these scientists have shown that fluctuations in the sun's output cause the observed changes in the earth's temperature.

In the past, scientists believed the fluctuations in the sun's output were too small to cause the observed amount of temperature change, hence the need to look for other causes like carbon dioxide. However, these new experiments show that fluctuations in the sun's output are in fact large enough, so there is no longer a need to resort to carbon dioxide as the cause of the recent warming trend.

The discovery of the real cause of the recent increase in the earth's temperature is indeed a convenient truth. It means humans are not to blame for the increase. It also means there is absolutely nothing we can, much less do, to correct the situation.

Thomas Laprade