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Ice patterns and icebergs are seen in Croaker Bay near Devon Island in Canada's Arctic, July, 2008. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ice patterns and icebergs are seen in Croaker Bay near Devon Island in Canada's Arctic, July, 2008. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe Editorial

Pour more cold water on the IPCC Add to ...

Some shabby half-truths, passed off as climate science, have tested the public's confidence. A new review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contains some smart institutional reforms, but this response is too timid if the IPCC is to bulletproof itself from the small group of dissenters that attack it daily. Given what's at stake, the IPCC needs to be unassailable.

The IPCC is the UN-sanctioned authority whose influential quadrennial reports are based on the work of hundreds of scientists. But the 2007 report included a howler, saying the Himalayan glaciers would likely vanish by 2035, though the available data did not support this. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon asked the InterAcademy Council, a group of national science academies, to review the IPCC's structure.

It is hard enough for lay people to understand climate change. To describe it with scientific accuracy is a monumental task, involving studies of forests and deserts, diesel and manure. And because climate change is perhaps the greatest public policy challenge of our time, it needs a peerless research infrastructure to match.

Many of the IAC task force's proposals - to codify conflict of interest guidelines, on how to choose lead authors (the senior scientists who take the lead in drafting IPCC chapters), to explicitly say that a range of scientific viewpoints has been considered, and to create a strong executive committee to guide the IPCC's work - are all overdue.

But the task force shied away from bolder moves that would boost public confidence. The IPCC consists of three working groups - dealing with physical climate science; the ecological and social effects of climate; and ways to mitigate or reduce climate change and its impacts. While these groups should communication, the latter two have more to do with social than physical sciences. Because they deal with policy questions, they should not be part of the IPCC.

The task force also recommended avoiding statistical statements (that, for instance, a prediction has 90-per-cent probability) in favour of statements that say there is "high" (or low) agreement, with much (or little) evidence. While the statistical approaches of the scientists should be standardized, statistics should not be disposed of altogether - otherwise, naysayers will seize on what they think are weasel words.

Finally, the IPCC cannot sit back as its own work is spun beyond recognition. It needs to be more nimble, pronouncing more often on important research findings as they are published and controversies as they emerge.

The IPCC is still a valuable tool to evaluate the state of the world's climate. But more reform is needed: the stakes are too high to get the narrative wrong.

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