The IPCC is the global authority on the science of climate change, humanity’s role in it, and actions that can address the problem.
The United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 to provide scientific assessments of climate change.
More specifically, the IPCC examines whether human activities lead to changes to the global climate, and identifies the impacts of climate change, and what can be done to reduce the threats posed.
The IPCC gathers thousands of scientists to periodically review the state of the world’s knowledge about different aspects of climate change and make recommendations to governments.
The panel does not conduct new research but assesses previously published work to draw its conclusions.
The IPCC is divided into three working groups. Working Group I considers the science of climate change. Working Group II focuses on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation. Working Group III looks at mitigation (how to limit climate change).
Every few years the IPCC produces an Assessment Report, the most recent being the 4th Assessment Report in 2007. These reports are also published as separate sub-reports from each working group, as well as a shorter synthesis report for policymakers.
Before these reports are published they are reviewed both by scientists and by governments. The IPCC also produces occasional special reports on specific topics, such as the 2005 report on carbon capture and storage.
The panel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its efforts, but has at times also come in for heavy criticism. Some critics have accused the IPCC of being alarmist, while others say the panel has been too conservative in its conclusions.
Over the years the IPCC has often been criticised for both the contents of its reports and the way it works.
Critics include people who do not believe that climate change is a real issue (who may have political motivations for saying so) as well as climate scientists who believe the problem is real but are concerned with how the IPCC operates.
The biggest criticisms came after the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report included the erroneous claim that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 because of rising temperatures. The date that should have appeared in the report was 2350.
This error arose when the IPCC cited a report by the environmental organisation WWF, which itself had made a mistake in citing another document.
Critics said the IPCC should only cite peer-reviewed academic research and not ‘gray literature’ such as reports from advocacy groups.
The IPCC defends its use of gray literature, and points out that for many developing countries there is hardly any research which has been published in peer-reviewed journals.
In 2010, the glacier error and other concerns about the IPCC led the UN Environment Programme to set up and independent review of the panel and its practices. This review – by the InterAcademy Council – will be published in August 2010.
In July 2010, another inquiry by the Dutch government found that the IPCC had made “no errors that would undermine the main conclusions” but it did conclude that the panel should be more transparent.
Other critics of the IPCC say it has underestimated the threat of rising sea levels and other aspects of climate change because it tends to be conservative in its conclusions. Another issue is that the long time taken to produce each Assessment Report means that the findings are quickly superceded by newer research.
The IPCC website has some pages for journalists, which include press releases, information about meetings, and fact sheets.
In July 2010, the chair of the IPCC Rajendra Pachauri wrote to the 831 researchers who will contribute to the panel’s Fifth Assessment Report and asked them to “keep a distance” from reporters.
Pachauri said that he wanted media enquiries about the IPCC to be handled by the panel’s secretariat and the co-chairs of each working group, and that individual scientists should talk to the media about their own work but not that of the IPCC.
This move (reported here by Andy Revkin at the New York Times) was heavily criticised by journalists who felt that the IPCC should be opening up more rather than trying to control communications about its work.
There are other ways for journalists to get ready access to climate-scientists, including many IPCC members.
For instance, the American Geophysical Union has created an online initiative to connect journalists with climate scientists around the world.
Other resources that can aid journalists who report on the IPCC and its findings include the US Department of Energy’s guide called Reporting on climate change: understanding the science [PDF].
A key point for journalists to consider is the question of balance. For years, many media reports on climate change would strive to balance the views of a scientist who said the problems was real, with a scientist (or other source) who said climate change was not real.
While this may appear to be balanced reporting, in reality the vast majority of climate scientists agree that climate-change is real and that human activities are partly to blame.
Media outlets that balanced such views with those of a small minority who disagreed have misinformed their audiences about the level of scientific agreement.
A 2010 research paper concluded that not all climate researchers are equal in scientific credibility and expertise. It suggested that journalists need to do more to judge the authority of scientists they quote.
For a journalist’s analysis of this paper and its implications, see this article in the Columbia Journalism Review, by Curtis Brainard.