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The Role of the IPCC on Climate Change

With the many scientific uncertainties remaining, and the climate change debate still raging in some circles, what should anyone believe, and whose opinion can be trusted? UCS bases its policy positions on the best available science. Obviously, new scientific findings are made every week by researchers, but there are benchmarks that help gauge where the science stands. Probably the most important benchmark comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In order to evaluate the huge amount of published scientific results on climate change science, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme established, in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the latest scientific and technical information about global warming.

The task of the Intergovernmental Panel is to assess the scientific and technical information about climate change in a comprehensive, transparent, and objective manner. The reports of the Panel are made possible through the cooperation of the scientific community around the world. Hundreds of scientific and technical experts were involved in preparing the Panel's 2001 report, and literally thousands more were engaged to provide objective peer review. The participants were drawn from academia, from private and national research laboratories, from industry and from non-governmental organizations. The Panel makes a concerted effort to include the broadest possible range of valid scientific opinion. Indeed, the credibility of the Panel in the eyes of both governments and the scientific community rests on its commitment to providing the most up-to-date, balanced scientific information that truly reflects the state of human understanding of climate change science.

Still, the IPCC has often been accused of being an implacable monolith and of having imposed a dogma of contrived consensus for politically motivated reasons. Some scientists, even within the climate community, have expressed reservations regarding the "consensus science" produced by the Panel. Though the Panel has no apparatus to refute these claims, one may address these concerns by considering the process by which the reports are produced.

The Panel has no permanent bureaucracy except a small Secretariat, which is responsible for logistical coordination. The Panel relies entirely on the support of the scientific and technical communities to produce its reports. Peer review is an essential component of the assessment process. To ensure integrity, participation was considerably expanded for the 2001 Third Assessment to over 2,500 scientists representing more than 100 countries, up from 200 scientists representing 40 countries for the first report in 1990. Among those contributing and reviewing the Third Assessment Report were scientists who generally dissent from the evidence of global climate change.

The conclusions of the report stem from the analysis of over 20,000 articles from the relevant literature. The scientists try to reconcile competing views through workshops and peer review if possible. When they cannot reach consensus, the scientists characterize the disagreements and identify the issues that need clarification through additional research. Thus, the Third Assessment Report should be seen for what it is: a massive, policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive review of the current state of understanding of climate change science. As the new scientific benchmark, it serves as the basis for international climate negotiations.

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