Explained: History of IPCC, the international body that reviews climate change effects

The body meets next week to vet and validate a summary of part one of its first major assessment in seven years.

Explained: History of IPCC, the international body that reviews climate change effects

Representational image. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, addresses the Copenhagen meeting in 2014. Image: IPCC

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) compiles comprehensive reviews of scientific literature on climate change, past and future.

The body meets next week to vet and validate a summary of part one of its first major assessment in seven years. Here’s a thumbnail profile of the panel.

History

The IPCC was set up in 1988 by the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and Environment Programme (UNEP).

Its mandate is to give policymakers neutral, science-based updates about global warming — physical science, climate impacts, and scenarios for bringing the problem under control. Providing explicit policy recommendations is not part of its mandate.

An intergovernmental body, the IPCC currently counts 195 member countries.

Organisation

Based in Geneva, the panel is chaired by South Korea’s Hoesung Lee, an expert on the economics of climate change.

Its reports are compiled by thousands of atmospheric scientists, climate modellers, oceanographers, ice specialists, economists and public health experts, mostly drawn from universities and research institutes. They work on a volunteer basis.

The IPCC does not conduct new research but trawls through thousands of published studies and summarises key findings, indicating degrees of likelihood and confidence.

It is often described as the biggest peer-review exercise in the world.

Assessment reports

Every five or six years the IPCC produces vast overviews, typically several thousand pages long. The first came out in 1990, the most recent in 2014.

Three separate teams, or “working groups”, look at the physical science of global warming, climate change impacts and options for tackling the problem. Each working group’s report is published separately, followed by a final “synthesis report”.

The sixth assessment cycle, like those before it, will produce reports in four instalments: working group one’s findings will be made public on August 9; working group two’s in February 2022; working group three’s in March 2022; and a final synthesis in the autumn of 2022.

Summary for policymakers

The IPCC concludes each review with a crucial summary for policymakers that undergoes multiple rounds of editing, first by scientists and then by government officials.

The last draft is submitted to an IPCC plenary, which vets it line-by-line before approval by consensus.

Governments can seek amendments to the summary, which are approved if the argument is supported by what is in the underlying report written by the scientists.

Special reports

Member nations can request so-called “special reports” between major assessments. Since 2014, there have been three.

A special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius came out in October 2018; one on land use, agriculture and food security in August 2019; and another on oceans and Earth’s frozen regions, known as the cryosphere, in September 2019.

Nobel prize & critics

Defenders of the IPCC say that its exhaustive work, and a summary for policymakers endorsed by the world’s governments, give it exceptional clout.

“It’s unique in science, and it’s uniquely powerful in science,” Peter Thorne, a lead author of the sixth assessment and a professor at Maynooth University in Ireland, told AFP.

“There is no other field that has for decades undertaken such a robust assessment process.”

Its 2014 report provided the scientific underpinning for the landmark Paris Agreement, inked outside the French capital in 2015.

The 2007 edition earned the IPCC a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, alongside former US vice president and climate campaigner Al Gore.

The IPCC’s image was later dented by several minor errors uncovered in the report that provided ammunition for sceptics who claim the IPCC is flawed or biased.

More recently, some scientists have said the panel is too conservative, leading it to underestimate the climate change threat.

The last published report, for example, did not factor in potential contribution to sea-level rise — widely recognised today — from melting ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland.