Anyone interested in climate change has likely heard about an organization called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which, thankfully, is usually shortened to IPCC). Most recently the IPCC made the news when it (as an organization) was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. But there is also quite a bit of misinformation out there about what exactly the IPCC does so it seems appropriate for this Climate Truth series to give some background.
The IPCC was “established [in 1988] by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.” It is both a scientific body and an intergovermental body. As a scientific body it “reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. ” It is an intergovernmental body in that it is “open to all member countries of UN and WMO,” and representatives from up to around 130 countries participate in the plenary sessions where decisions about adoption of the technical reports are done. Note that the governmental representatives only show up to approve the technical reports; the technical reports themselves are written by scientists expert in the fields pertinent to the particular part of the report being written.
The IPCC didn’t come into existence on a whim or from some political motive. It was begun because there was already vast amounts of empirical evidence suggesting that human activity was causing a dramatic warming of the planet. But this information was spread out in thousands of independent papers and reports all over the world, as well as observations such as retreating glaciers, increasing temperature readings, ice cap extent and volume measurements, and new data from satellites. In short, the IPCC was formed to bring all the data from all these sources together, and summarized into something that could be understood.
It is important to keep in mind that the IPCC staff are actually very few in number (about 10 people). The brunt of the work of the IPCC is done by the scientists who volunteer their time to compile, review, and assess the tens of thousands of peer reviewed and other publications and studies. These scientists generally are academics at various universities or at agencies such as NASA and NOAA. For the last report, AR4, that included “more than 2500 scientific expert reviewers, more than 800 contributing authors, and more than 450 lead authors.” These scientists come from all over the world and work for several years to summarize the data for each report.
These scientists are broken down into teams called “Working Groups” that focus on three main areas of research:
Working Group I: “The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change”
Working Group II: “Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”
Working Group III: “Mitigation of Climate Change”
The IPCC doesn’t conduct any new research itself, it merely is the vehicle for compiling and evaluating all the research being done by scientists all over the world. These scientists review the vast amounts of available information and produce technical reports for each of the three working groups. After the technical reports are completed the IPCC convenes representatives from each group and each country to agree on a fourth volume called the Synthesis Report, which as the name implies, summarizes the three technical reports in a way that government officials and the public can understand. More information on the preparation and review process can be found here.
Since its inception in 1988 the IPCC has published four Assessment Reports, in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007. Each succeeding report incorporates all the new research since the last report (plus a reevaluation of the previous studies), and the more we know and understand the more certain we become about the fact that the planet is warming and the likelihood that we are causing it. The most recent, Assessment Report 4 (AR4), concluded that “the warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” that “[t]here is very high confidence that the net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming,” and “[m]ost of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.” Using the IPCC’s terminology, “very likely” means greater than 90% certainty, “very high confidence” means an at least 9 in 10 chance of being correct, and “unequivocal” means clear and unambiguous (i.e., absolutely certain).
As I’ve discussed before, the process of developing the Synthesis Report requires 100% consensus among the representatives at the plenary session. This is done long after the three technical reports are completed by the scientists. Since some governments (e.g., from petrostates) are based almost solely on income from the fossil fuels that are the primary contributor to global warming, this “100% consensus” process tends to result in estimates that are less dire (NOT more dire) than the science actually supports. In other words, the problem is very likely much worse than the IPCC Synthesis Report suggests. Virtually all of the data collected since the 2007 AR4 report has demonstrated this, i.e., that the problem is going to get much worse, much faster than previously anticipated.
The next IPCC Assessment Report (AR5) is scheduled to be completed in 2014. Authors have been selected and a preliminary schedule has been developed. There will be interim reports by the IPCC and by other scientific bodies as new information is analyzed. But the bottom line is that we already know there is a problem and that we need to take action.
© David K, October 2010This post is part of a series in The Truth About Global Warming, located at climatetruth.gather.com, which is dedicated to explaining what we know, and what we don’t know, about climate change.
I also have set up a separate group called “Exposing Climate Denialism – A Guide to Tactics and Tall Tales,” located at climatelies.gather.com for those who want to read about some of the intentional disinformation used by climate denialists to confuse the public about the state of climate science.