The Dutch view on the future of the IPCC – what it does and what it does not say

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Guest post by Hans Custers. Dutch version is here.

The IPCC invited the governments of all participating countries to give their view on the future of the climate panel. The IPCC is a complex organization, dealing with a very complex subject, so perfection will be impossible to achieve. Or, from an optimistic point of view: there’s always room for improvement. And of course, a transparent process of self-reflection is a very good start for improvements. But well, this is the IPCC, so there is a catch. Whatever happens in this process, it will be spun by the anti IPCC and anti climate science campaign as ‘evidence’ for their claims. Every bit of criticism on the IPCC’s procedures and methods will be spun as substantial criticism on the scientific content of the assessment reports. And if governments would be reluctant to criticize, because they know it will be taken out of context, it would be seen as ‘evidence’ for the huge climate conspiracy.

The Netherlands has finished their submission and it was published (pdf) on KNMI’s website early last month. In my opinion they did what they should have done: they presented a straightforward view, not worrying about the inevitable spin by the skeptic campaign. And, oh yeah, inevitable it was. The next quote appeared in internet discussions again and again, after skeptics found the submission:

The IPCC needs to adjust its principles. We believe that limiting the scope of the IPCC to human-induced climate change is undesirable, especially because natural climate change is a crucial part of the total understanding of the climate system, including human-induced climate change. The Netherlands is also of the opinion that the word ‘comprehensive’ may have to be deleted, because producing comprehensive assessments becomes virtually impossible with the ever expanding body of knowledge and IPCC may be more relevant by producing more special reports on topics that are new and controversial.

Skeptics don’t seem to understand, or don’t want to understand, that this is about the IPCC organization only, and not about the content of assessment reports, or even climate science in general. They suggest the Dutch government thinks that natural influences and controversial topics may have been underestimated in previous assessments. There are some things they overlook.

First of all,  the IPCC has only about a dozen of employees on their payroll, and exactly zero of them are climate scientists. The panel does not pay for any climate research, and doesn’t have any influence on any scientific research in any way. The idea that many thousands of scientists all around the world would follow the orders of this organization is utter nonsense. The authors of the Dutch submission are well aware of this, so we can be absolutely sure they’re not talking about the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming in general.

Secondly, anyone who has ever seen a Working Group 1 (WG1, the one that deals with the physical science basis) report, knows it is not limited to human-induced climate change. This is obvious to anyone who knows a little about climate science. In climate, everything is connected to everything. So it’s simply impossible to isolate one factor, and forget about the rest. It would hardly be science, I’d say. Again, we can be absolutely sure the quote is not about the assessment reports.

The one, big question that remains: then, what is it about? I thought the best way to find out was asking someone who should know. So, I mailed KNMI’s Rob van Dorland. And I got a reply that’s crystal clear (and hopefully still is in my translation).

“The IPCC mandate (Principles governing IPCC work) states:

“2. The role of the IPCC is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of *risk of human-induced climate change*, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. IPCC reports should be neutral with respect to policy, although they may need to deal objectively with scientific, technical and socio-economic factors relevant to the application of particular policies.”

This only (specifically) mentions the human factor. We think it’s important to widen the scope, and include natural variability in the IPCC’s mandate.

In reality, the IPCC assessment reports (WG1 and WG2) do already deal with climate change caused by both human and natural factors, simply because the human factor can only be weighed against the natural changes. So, in fact there will hardly be any change in the focus of the assessments.

With the Dutch proposal, the IPCC’s mandate will be much more in line with what is already common practice for years.”

The Principles governing IPCC work can be found here (pdf).

So far for the first bit of the quote. The rest is quite easy to understand. I think most people agree it’s impossible to produce a comprehensive assessment. And the word “new” cannot be left out from “IPCC may be more relevant by producing more special reports on topics that are new and controversial”. So, we can be sure this is not about all those skeptical arguments that may have been considered controversial 30 or 50 years ago. Climate science does have its controversial topics, as all other living fields of science do. One example is the debate on how the decline of the arctic sea ice might or might not be a cause of recent extreme weather events on the Northern hemisphere.

Now, let’s have a brief look at the full submission, instead of focusing on just one paragraph. The 6 main points of the proposal are:

  • The IPCC should adjust its focus and organisation to policy and societal needs.
  • The IPCC needs to adjust its principles.
  • The IPCC needs more transparent, focused and up-to-date assessments.
  • The IPCC should focus more on interactions with societies.
  • The IPCC should reconsider the regionalisation of the assessments, aiming for an efficient division of work among relevant organisations.
  • A task group needs to be formed on the future of the IPCC.

Let me try to put it even shorter, in just a few words: faster, more efficient and more accessible. These words are the starting point for the proposed changes in the IPCC organization. (So, it is not a personal attack on the chairman, although that’s what some people made of it.) If WG1 would be more independent of the other working groups, not just on substance, but also in the organization, they could release new assessments, updates or special reports in their own pace.

The proposal shows that the Dutch government is very determined to keep the IPCC’s scientific assessments as independent as possible. I’d like to be a “fly on the wall” in a meeting on these proposals, just to see if all countries value independence as much as The Netherlands does.

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