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Climate panel needs new management, report says

Recent errors prompt call for reform

Under Rajendra Pachauri, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been embarrassed by a variety of errors, among them a report that incorrectly asserted the Himalayan glaciers, which provide water to more than a billion people in Asia, would disappear by 2035, hundreds of years earlier than other information suggests. Under Rajendra Pachauri, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been embarrassed by a variety of errors, among them a report that incorrectly asserted the Himalayan glaciers, which provide water to more than a billion people in Asia, would disappear by 2035, hundreds of years earlier than other information suggests. (Subel Bhandari/ AFP File Photo)
By Seth Borenstein
Associated Press / August 31, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Scientists reviewing the acclaimed but beleaguered international climate change panel called yesterday for a major overhaul in the way it’s run, but stopped short of calling for the ouster of its leader.

The independent review of the UN climate panel puts new pressure on chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who has been criticized for possible conflicts of interest, but shows no sign of stepping down.

“It’s hard to see how the United Nations can both follow the advice of this committee and keep Rajendra Pachauri on board as head,’’ said Roger Pielke Jr., a frequent critic of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The professor at the University of Colorado praised the review as a way to save the climate panel with “tough love.’’

The InterAcademy Council, a group of the world’s science academies, outlined a series of “significant reforms’’ in management structure needed by the Intergovernmental Panel, a body that won a Nobel Prize with former Vice President Al Gore in 2007.

Last year, a batch of errors embarrassed the authors of the climate report. Among the most prominent were misleading statements about glaciers in the Himalayas. The Intergovernmental Panel incorrectly said they were melting faster than others and that they would disappear by 2035, hundreds of years earlier than other information suggests.

“Those errors did dent the credibility of the process, no question about it,’’ said former Princeton University president Harold Shapiro, who led the review of the Intergovernmental Panel.

The InterAcademy Council said the climate change group overall has done a good job. But the council said it needs a full-time executive director, more openness, and regular changes in leadership.

It also called for stronger enforcement of its reviews of research and adoption of a conflict-of-interest policy, which the Intergovernmental Panel does not have, even though its parent agencies do. The conflict-of-interest issue was raised because of Pachauri’s work as adviser and board member of green-energy companies.

Pachauri said he has been cleared of any conflict claims, especially since he gave away all the money he was paid to sit on companies’ boards.

Climate-change science took a parade of public hits last winter, starting with the release of hacked e-mails from a British climate center. Then there was the failure of a summit in Copenhagen to come up with mandatory greenhouse-gas pollution limits, followed by the mistakes discovered in the report. On top of that, the winter seemed unusually cold in many places, undercutting belief in global warming.

The mood seems different now. Several outside reports — including those by the British, Dutch, and American governments — have upheld the chief scientific finding of the climate panel: that global warming is man-made and incontrovertible. This year is on target to be the hottest on record with a number of extreme weather events.

Pachauri, an academic from India who is a professor at Yale, said many of the recommendations outlined are steps he has already started. Critics have called on him to resign, but yesterday he gave no indication he would.

“This has nothing to do with personalities,’’ Pachauri said. “I think we’re jumping the gun if we’re talking about taking any action before the IPCC takes a look at the report.’’

Shapiro said if fundamental changes are made, the Intergovernmental Panel — created in 1989 by the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization — can regain its credibility. The panel involves scientists mostly volunteering work with only 10 staff. Even Pachauri is a part-time volunteer.

The 113-page review was requested by the Intergovernmental Panel and the United Nations after the errors were found. It did not study the quality of the science itself, although Shapiro said the key recommendations in the climate report “are well supported by the scientific evidence.’’

Still, he said the way the report expressed confidence in scientific findings was incomplete and at times even misleading. In the panel’s first report, which addresses the physical causes of global warming, scientists may have underestimated how confident they were in their conclusions, Shapiro said.

In the second report, about effects on daily life, in at least one instance they may have overestimated the scientific backing for their conclusions, he suggested.

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