The IPCC at a Crossroads

Love it or hate it, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) plays a very important role in global climate change policy around the world. This is because its reports enjoy a degree of credibility that renders them influential for public opinion, and – more important – it is because the reports are accepted as the definitive source on all matters climate change by international negotiators working under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In previous essays at this blog, I have written both about problems with the IPCC process (Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?, April 25, 2014) and about its significant merits (Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up, May 3, 2014; The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 – Last Week’s Outcome in Copenhagen, November 4, 2014).

The IPCC is now at a crossroads. Its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is now complete and largely successful (see my previous essays cited above). But, like many large institutions, the IPCC has experienced severe growing pains. Its size has increased to the point that it has become cumbersome, it sometimes fails to address the most important issues, and – most striking of all – it is now at risk of losing the participation of the world’s best scientists, due to the massive burdens that participation entails.

The good news is that this is a moment of considerable opportunity for addressing these and other challenges, because the direction of future assessments is now open for discussion and debate. Indeed, as I write this, the 195 member countries of the IPCC are meeting in plenary in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss – among other topics –the future of the IPCC.

A Potentially Important Meeting on Another Continent

Just one week before the Kenya IPCC sessions commenced, another, much smaller meeting took place about 4,000 miles northwest of Nairobi – in Berlin, Germany. Twenty-four participants with experience with the IPCC met in Berlin for a three-day workshop on the future of international climate-assessment processes, from February 18th through 20th. The aim of the workshop was to take stock and reflect on lessons learned in past assessments – including those of the IPCC – in order to identify options for improving future assessment processes.

Participants included social scientists who contributed in various capacities to AR5 and earlier IPCC assessments, users of IPCC reports (from national governments and intergovernmental organizations), and representatives of other stakeholder groups. Participants came from both developed and developing countries, and discussions were held under Chatham House rules, with no public attribution of any comments to individuals.

The workshop (titled “Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy”) was co-organized by four academic and research organizations based in Europe and the United States: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM, Italy), the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (USA), the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC, Germany), and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (USA).  FEEM, the Mercator Institute, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided financial support for the workshop.

Possible Ways Forward for the IPCC

As I noted above, now is a moment of considerable opportunity, because the future of the IPCC is open for discussion and debate, including at the meeting taking place this week in Nairobi. In this context, two of my co-organizers – Carlo Carraro of FEEM and Charles Kolstad of Stanford – and I have written a brief memorandum, based on our reflections on the Berlin workshop discussion. We describe a set of specific challenges and opportunities facing the IPCC, and provide options for improving the IPCC’s process of assessing scientific research on climate change. The complete memorandum is available here for your reading, and so I won’t attempt to summarize the highlights in this blog post, but simply note that our analysis focuses on five areas:

  • Improving integration and coordination across IPCC working groups, and enhancing the interface between scientists and governments;
  • Enhancing the interface between the IPCC and various social scientific disciplines and communities;
  • Increasing efforts – in innovative ways – to facilitate contributions of expertise from developing countries;
  • Increasing the efficiency of IPCC operations and ensuring the scientific integrity of its work products through targeted organizational improvements; and
  • Strengthening outreach and communications.

I should also note that Carraro served as Vice-Chair, and Kolstad and I served as Coordinating Lead Authors, all of Working Group III of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, but our organizing of the workshop and our authoring of this new memorandum were carried out in our roles as researchers, and completely independently of our former official capacities with the IPCC.

The Path Ahead

The memorandum is only the first of several products that will be forthcoming from this initiative. Over the coming months, we will produce a comprehensive report from the workshop (in time for the IPCC’s next meeting in October of this year, as well as the subsequent UNFCCC meeting in Paris in December). When that report is available, I will be pleased to bring it to the attention of readers of this blog.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

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