Monday, December 17, 2012

Changing the IPCC to better meet the needs of international climate policy

One seemingly minor and unreported component of the recent UN climate talks in Doha highlights the drawbacks of old-school scientific assessments and the need to modernize the IPCC process. It is especially relevant given last week's leak of draft IPCC reports and the ensuing discussion about changing the arduous and close IPCC assessment process.

IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri addresses the COP18 in Doha
Starting in at the Copenhagen meeting three years ago, the countries participating in the UN climate talks agreed to regularly revisit whether a +2°C warming 'limit' is sufficient to avoid dangerous impacts of climate change. The text of that agreement, and all since, have specifically indicated a +1.5°C threshold should be evaluated.

Put aside for a moment whether you or I think either goal is attainable; in fact, the final Doha text itself raises that question right off the start:

Noting with grave concern the significant gap between
the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms 
of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels

The parties to the UN climate talks agreed to evaluate the temperature targets, because of concern in developing nations, particularly the small island states, that +2°C warming will lock-in unacceptable climate impacts. The outstanding question at Doha and the last meeting in Durban was how will those evaluations happen.

At the bottom of the agreed Doha text, after all the publicized issues like the Kyoto extension, long-term agreements and financing arrangement, is the plan:

79.  Decides that the review should periodically assess, in accordance with the relevant principles and provisions of the Convention, the following:
(a)  The adequacy of the long-term global goal in the light of the ultimate objective of the Convention;
(b)  Overall progress made towards achieving the long-term global goal, including a consideration of the implementation of the commitments under the Convention;

After outlining some of the logistical details, come the guts (italics are mine):

86.  Decides to establish such a dialogue under the guidance of the subsidiary bodies on aspects related to the review in order:
(a)  To consider on an ongoing basis throughout the review the material from the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as it becomes available, as well as relevant inputs referred to in decision 2/CP.17, paragraph 161, that are published after the cut-off date of the Fifth Assessment Report, through regular scientific workshops and expert meetings and with the participation of Parties and experts, particularly from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change;

The Doha text effectively states that the UN climate policy process requires something more "nimble" than the IPCC. This matches what many in the climate science and policy community have been saying since the last IPCC assessment was published in 2007. The IPCC is an amazing institution, with no real parallels in science. In what other field have the countries of the world agreed to gather panels of experts to conduct exhaustive, lengthy assessments of all the science on a subject, which are then open for review by anyone in the science community and representative of the government, and all on a volunteer basis? The IPCC process, though hardly perfect, is without peers.

It is also very old school. The IPCC is a product of the late 1980s, before the internet, before smart phones, and before we had overwhelming evidence for a human role in climate change. The IPCC assessments are the product of a long, exhaustive writing and reviewing process. They can only be completed every few years, and can not reflect research conducted within 1-2 years of when the assessment are published. As such, they do not cover some recent findings or advances in modelling. The process, and the desire for consensus, also leads to conservative decisions, like the decision to exclude then-uncertain contributions from ice sheet melt in the summary estimates of future sea level rise in the last IPCC assessment.

That sea level rise dispute likely drove the inclusion of the published after the cut-off date to the Doha text. The projections of sea level rise published after, and in response to, the last IPCC assessment presents a very different future for low-lying small island states, many of which were already lobbying for the lower temperature target. There's a good chance the lack of a permafrost methane feedback in most climate models, and hence conclusions of the upcoming fifth IPCC assessment ("AR5"), will lead to similar disputes after that assessment is released.

This raises an important question:  If the UN negotiation process requests quicker turnaround reviews of climate science, reviews conducted by IPCC members, why continue doing full IPCC assessments after AR5? It is time to move to shorter, faster targeted reviews of key outstanding issues and areas of scientific uncertainty.


david lewis said...

Whenever I hear that in 1988 "we" didn't have "overwhelming evidence for a human role in climate change" I think back to the 1988 Toronto Changing Atmosphere conference, where 400 high level delegates signed on to this statement warning the world about climate change in terms that cannot be taken to mean anything other than that those 400 delegates all believed the evidence was overwhelming.

Check out the first paragraph. A few quotes: "Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war. The Earth's atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities.... These changes... are already having harmful consequence over many parts of the globe."

This is the conference where, some say, that somewhere in a back room the decision was taken to establish the IPCC.

Although now many say Jim Hansen's Congressional testimony was THE event of that year that woke a lot of people up for the first time about the climate issue, that Toronto conference, which was held a few days after Hansen's testimony, was reported on front pages of newspapers all over the world.

I think it is better to say the evidence since then has become stronger.

I realize many disagree. Bob Watson claimed at this year's AGU, in the Q&A following his first presentation, that the reason the IPCC didn't come up with a strong attribution statement until AR3 was because "the evidence was not overwhelming" until then.

Bob Watson's name is on the 1988 Toronto conference statement.

During his AGU talk Watson indicated he thought the world had been told about climate change twenty years ago, as of 1992 when the UNFCCC was signed, i.e. that he thought the entire world should have gotten the message and started in on the incredible task of eliminating CO2 emissions as quickly and completely as possible to see if the composition of the atmosphere could be stabilized.

There's some kind of incredibly preposterous doublespeak going on, where a guy like this can say in the same talk that the evidence was not overwhelming enough for the IPCC to state clearly that human CO2 emissions were changing Earth's climate, but that the evidence was overwhelming enough for the world to take drastic steps to reduce emissions. Being able to do this in just the right way can get you a knighthood for distinguished service to the United Kingdom. Its "Doctor Sir Bob" these days.

As far as the question you raise in your post goes, why not continue full IPCC assessments? Where I see problems is in the way people use the information. Analysts should keep in the forefront of the their minds what the IPCC is and what it produces. You can't have a carefully considered report agreed on by so many unless it at some point cuts off the flood of new information, which is why the report is dated and the cutoff date is publicized.

You'd do better to call for your "shorter, faster targeted reviews of key outstanding issues" as an addition to what the IPCC does.

Simon Donner said...

No one doubts the evidence has become even stronger since the 80s. Whether or not the evidence was "overwhelming" enough in 1988 - or even today - to warrant drastic steps is hard to say scientifically. It's really a value judgement based on how one interprets the importance of the problem.

There's certainly some value in still conducting full IPCC assessments. My argument is about the costs and benefits. The costs - in terms of time - may not outweigh the benefits. The lead authors, all volunteers with full-time jobs, probably can't do the full assessments AND the shorter targeted assessments so many people and the Doha "accord" say are far more necessary.