IPCC Needs Greater Transparency, Oppenheimer Tells Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Igor Heifetz ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Process (IPCC) provides vital, regular assessments of scientific literature. Yet greater transparency is needed, Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer told the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in Washington, D.C.

Testifying before the Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Thursday, May 29, Oppenheimer examined the process behind the UN’s IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, published earlier this year. The IPCC is a scientific community comprised of representatives from 195 governments that develops reports about the current state of climate change.

Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School and director of the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy stressed the importance of briefer, more frequent reports, which would likely be of more immediate interest to policy makers. He also urged the IPCC to open its plenaries to the press and experiment with other assessment processes.

In calling the hearing to order, Chairman Lamar Smith, R.-Texas, said the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report appears to spread “fear and alarm” among Americans. He said the committee has concerns about such reports and the process IPCC uses to evaluate data, including the group’s lack of transparency, author selections and findings.

The first to testify was Richard Tol, a professor at the University of Sussex, who previously served as a lead author of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. Oppenheimer then provided his recommendations, followed by Daniel Botkin, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and finally Roger Pielke Sr., professor emeritus at Colorado State University, who all agreed that IPCC reports need to be more frequent.

All witnesses were questioned by the committee, which is comprised of 40 members with a Republican majority. The committee, which focuses on research and development, has jurisdiction over all energy research, development and demonstration, including programs at NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, among others.

When asked to clarify why briefer reports may be beneficial, Oppenheimer explained the “painful” review process in place with the IPCC. Each report receives 50,000 comments – more than 1,000 comments per chapter, per review round (three are three review rounds for each chapter). The authors must address all comments, which can hold up the completion of a chapter until all comments are addressed. This is one of the many reasons he thinks the IPCC should “lighten the burden” for the scientific community and its author-experts. By expediting the process, immediate issues can be brought to the surface more quickly for policy makers.

In his written testimony, Oppenheimer stresses that, by and large, the IPCC has been a highly successful experiment in science-policy interaction. However, such experiments present pitfalls, he writes, including contentiousness over the final products of the process. But transparency could help, he notes, and one way is by including a record of divergent viewpoints among IPCC authors and identifying those holding each view.

Researchers should also be allowed to study the IPCC thoroughly, he writes, including how decisions are reached by author-experts, in order to better understand how the process works and could be improved. Overall, a more thorough study and review of the IPCC’s procedures may spark the necessary improvements presented by the hearing’s witnesses.

“The world needs an IPCC, and the IPCC needs to continually improve its performance to meet this need,” said Oppenheimer. “Our ability to appropriately deal with the risk of climate change depends on it.”

For more information on the May 29 hearing, click here.

Oppenheimer comments on President Obama’s new EPA greenhouse gas regulations in this NPR interview.