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Time for a Little Reinvention

September 5, 2013 – Imagine you are a member of a group that consists of 1,300 people.  You have all been given an important task to complete.  In order to enhance the group’s functionality, you are divided up into smaller groups.  A work schedule has been laid out, with small groups reporting to the heads of each group, and small group heads reporting to the director of the entire project.  Because group members live in different countries, a great deal of communication is handled via email.  Because group members are not paid for their work, it must somehow be fit into already busy schedules.

 This is my abbreviated, concocted idea of how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) works.  Every six or seven years, the IPCC is mandated by the United Nations to issue a report defining global climate risks.  This year’s report is due out later this month in Stockholm.  Partly as a result of their expert analysis, climate change  science is now widely accepted.  The overall picture has become much better understood.  Because of the pace at which climate change is proceeding – faster than many had at one time thought – increasing numbers of scientists believe it would now prove more fruitful for the IPCC’s research to focus on specific problems.

 The governing body of the IPCC will meet in October to discuss possible changes to the report.  The United States and some European countries are pushing the hardest for re-evaluation.  Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, says “I think myself that the IPCC has outgrown its usefulness in the way in which it does things … we can’t wait seven years between assessments.”  Because of the observed extent of climate change, some scientists are pressing for more specifically-targeted reports that would come out every couple of years.  The reports would focus on certain regions or problems.

 The IPCC began operation in 1988, when it was tasked with providing the most authoritative climate change information and analysis available, so that governments could prepare for climate change in all its manifestations: droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, straight-line winds, and so forth.  The organization shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore.  Given the overwhelming size of their job – the colossal numbers of articles that have to be read and evaluated, for instance – it’s likely that more specific tasks with smaller groups of scientists assigned to them might provide more bang for the buck.

Thomas Stocker, a climate scientist at the University of Bern (Switzerland) and a co-chair of the UN climate panel, framed the question clearly and bluntly.  “ … can the scientific community do that still on a voluntary basis, with basically no institutional support other than the support you have for carrying out your research as you would do normally?”  We owe these scientists an enormous debt of gratitude.  Perhaps some of the panel’s original members need to make way for younger scientists with fresh ideas.  It will be very interesting to see how this problem is addressed.  Stay tuned!

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