Friday, 10 September 2010

Interview: IPCC Coordinating Lead Author

Today I interviewed Dr. Pete Smith, Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Review and professor at the University of Aberdeen. I wanted to better understand the Assessment Review process. I've been curious about how it all happens, from selection of scientists to published report. Dr. Smith was kind enough to walk me through the whole thing.

I think there's some suspicion about how these things are done. There seems to be a suggestion of a sinister nature or some less than scientific agenda that drives the reports. After hearing about it all, I am quite impressed with the process that these reports go through and I think if people knew about it, they'd probably be less suspicious of them.

About the IPCC

This body was established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization with the purpose of being the leader in assessing climate change. In its efforts to do this, it releases assessment reports every five years which review the available literature on climate issues. Over two thousand volunteer scientists who officially and thousands more who unofficially, upon request, along with government agencies participate in the production of each report. All countries who are members of the United Nations and World Meterological Organization are welcome to partake. Scientists are nominated by their countries to participate in the writing of the report. The world’s leading scientists on the subject areas covered participate in areas of their expertise. The selection process is carefully designed to ensure balanced representation from developed and developing countries and to ensure that the report is as balanced and inclusive as possible. All peer-reviewed scientific studies are considered and included within the reports, even when two or more present conflicting findings. A scale of low to high confidence is used to help clarify the level of certainty in the statements made. There are two drafts which are circulated widely before a final draft is presented to the government bodies. The comments made on each draft must be addressed by the chapter’s lead authors before it can go to a second draft. Once the report is compiled by the scientists, it goes to the governments for acceptance, debate over language, the opportunities for countries to pick out specifics they disagree with, and then it is released to the general public. With all of the hands and eyes that work on the reports, it is nearly impossible to have them overly representative of one perspective.

Some climate skeptics and deniers call these reports alarmists, but in fact, being alarmist in the scientific community is looked down upon. The scientists who work on these reports are often conservative, not wanting to stick their necks out for fear of them being discredited potentially leading to an inability to continue working. Also, if extreme and unfounded views were being expressed, it would be picked up on by other authors, scientists and governments and would be addressed.

Recent events such as “Climate Gate” the leaking of e-mails from a leading climate research institute and a mistake about Himalayan glaciers melting have fueled skepticism, but neither invalidates the rest of the report as a whole, which consists of three volumes and few thousand pages. To date, it is the most comprehensive and authoritative document on climate change and will continue to be until the IPCC publishes the Fifth Assessment Report in 2012.

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