The United Nation’s climate change organisation faces a warning over how it uses scientific facts in its influential reports, following the discovery of a series of embarrassing errors in its work.
A review of the practices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been conducted in response to intense criticism of the body, whose reports are used by governments to inform policy decisions on global warming.
The findings of the review are due to be handed to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tomorrow.
Conducted by a committee of representatives from the world’s leading scientific bodies, the analysis is expected to recommend a number of changes to the way the IPCC compiles and checks its extensive 1,000 page reports.
The committee, which is made up of scientific organisations that form the InterAcademy Council, is also expected to recommend changes to help the IPCC keep its reports, which take around six years to complete, more up to date with current science.
Evidence given to the committee has also called for a tightening of the way facts and references are checked before the reports are published.
The IPCC has been under scrutiny after it admitted making an error in its 2007 report, that stated Himalayan glaciers could melt to a fifth of current levels by 2035 – a statement that was wrong by over 300 years.
The panel has also been criticised over the sources of information it used to compile the report after a number of statements were found to be based on information taken from reports by environmental lobby groups, magazine articles and student dissertations.
Climate change sceptics have seized upon the mistakes and non-scientific sources of information, using it to question the validity of the IPCC’s conclusions that humans are causing the climate to change.
Climate scientists insist the conclusions are still robust.
Professor Robert Watson, the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and a former chair of the UN’s IPCC, told the InterAcademy Council’s review committee that more needed to be done to prevent errors appearing in the panel’s reports.
He described the way the IPCC handled the mistakes as “totally and utterly atrocious” and suggested that the panel should consider hiring additional staff to check through the sources of information, or references, to ensure the accuracy of statements made in future reports.
In the evidence he gave to the committee, Professor Watson said: “No error is acceptable, but there is such a thing as human error.
“Is there a better way of checking all the references before they go out? Maybe there is a role for the secretariat, that effectively, by hiring additional staff – maybe even graduate students and post docs (doctoral) – they can follow through the whole reference chain.
“A normal peer review will not have time to do this, so how can we double and triple check the reference chain of any particular statement?”
He added that the IPCC needed to find a way of making corrections rapidly when mistakes are made.
The IPCC, which has started work on its fifth report on climate change, is still to issue a formal correction to the error on the Himalayan glaciers, nearly nine months since it first came to light.
The error emerged after the panel was revealed in January to have used unsubstantiated figures on glacial melting on the mountain range that were contained within a report by conservation charity WWF.
It has been claimed that officials knew about the mistake as early as November last year.
Professor Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, is due to deliver a keynote lecture to the Royal Geographical Society Annual conference this week in which he will call for a dramatic changes to the way the IPCC operates.
Speaking ahead of his lecture, he said: “The IPCC has not sufficiently adapted to the changing science and politics of climate change, nor to the changing expected and demanded role of science and expertise in society.
“The IPCC’s approach of seeking consensus obscures and constricts both scientific and wider social debates about both knowledge-driven and value-driven uncertainties that surround climate change politics.”