IPCC equals completion

Climate change

Thorsten Koska

To person

born 1977, is project leader in the research group "Energy, Transport and Climate Policy" at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. He studied history, sociology and political science at the Heinricht-Heine University in Düsseldorf and the University of California in Davis. His work focuses on transport and climate protection, political instruments for sustainable mobility, the evaluation of measures for climate-friendly transport and the promotion of cycling.

We owe it to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that climate change is on the global political agenda today. With his detailed reports on the state of research, he was able to credibly refute the doubts about climate change.

Keeps the strings in hand: Rajendra Pachauri chairs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (& copy AP)


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) occupies a central position in the debate on man-made climate change. The international committee of scientists publishes status reports at regular intervals, which compile the current state of knowledge on causes, consequences and possible courses of action. These are considered to be an important decision-making basis for national and international climate policy. The fourth assessment report (AR4), published in 2007, made a significant contribution to bringing the issue into the focus of public interest and on the political agenda, for which the IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year.

History and tasks of the IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The IPCC is intended to serve policymakers, industry and the general public as an objective source of information on the complex issue of climate change. The advisory body, whose secretariat is in Geneva, does not conduct its own research, but provides an overview of the findings that have been gained in studies and investigations on climate change around the world - in universities, institutes and other research institutions.

On the basis of these evaluations, it is the task of the IPCC to provide scientific, technical and socio-economic information that contributes to an understanding of the causes, effects and risks of man-made climate change. This information is intended to form a knowledge base for political decision-making. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is therefore an important advisor to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Organizational structure of the IPCC

All 193 member states of the United Nations can participate in the IPCC. 130 countries were involved in the preparation of the fourth assessment report. Delegates from their governments are represented in the plenary session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Central decisions are made there: The plenum elects the board and the chairman, decides on the composition and tasks of the individual working groups, on the budget and the work plan of the IPCC. Finally, the plenum adopts the status reports and influences the formulation of their summaries.

The organizational structure of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Source: www.ipcc.ch/about/how-the-ipcc-is-organized.htm
The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change takes place in the scientific working groups. Working group 1 deals with the scientific principles of climate change, working group 2 analyzes the effects of climate change, the possibilities of adaptation and the vulnerabilities, and working group 3 evaluates the possibilities for reducing climate change through emission reductions. A so-called "Task Force" is developing methods for a standardized inventory of greenhouse gas emissions in the individual countries.

The work of the scientists is directed by the board of directors of the IPCC. The board of directors ("Bureau"), which currently has 31 members, is elected for the duration of the preparation of a report - usually for five years. The chairman of the IPCC is the Indian environmental scientist Rajendra Kumar Pachauri. In addition to its three deputies, the board consists of the chairmen of the individual working groups, at least one of whom comes from a developing country, and their deputies. The IPCC's activities are planned and organized by its secretariat.

The organizational structure shows that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a scientific institution that is linked to politics. The involvement of governments in the plenary ensures a high level of acceptance of the results among political decision-makers. Despite the reports, for which scientists are solely responsible, the IPCC has been criticized in recent years for being exposed to political influence.

Another point of criticism was directed against the reporting process. The reports included publications of varying scientific quality, with individual errors and inaccuracies being included in the reports. There was also the allegation of data manipulation, which has since been invalidated.

Reactions to Criticism: Reforms of the IPCC

In order to respond to the criticism of the scientific quality of the work and possible conflicts of interest in the IPCC, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachaurii commissioned the independent international scientific organization IAC (InterAcademy Council) with a review of the processes and structures .

As a result, the IAC certified that the IPCC had an overall successful scientific work. However, suggestions for improvement were made for individual aspects of the work processes and organizational structure, most of which have already been implemented. The reforms include the following points, among others:

  • The members of the IPCC committees as well as the main authors must disclose possible conflicts of interest in a form.
  • The reviewers who check the quality of the individual parts of the report have a greater influence on the actual implementation of their comments.
  • A guide stipulates how to deal with errors in reports.
  • An interdisciplinary system of terms for the representation of probabilities and uncertainties was developed.

Reports on the state of knowledge in climate research

Every four to six years, the IPCC scientists submit an assessment report (AR) that summarizes the global state of research on climate change.

Each of the three working groups is responsible for part of the report. In the first part, the methods and scientific principles of the greenhouse effect are dealt with, in the second the vulnerability of ecosystems and societies is presented and options for adapting to climate change are discussed, and in the third part possible climate protection measures in all sectors are shown.

When preparing the reports, the IPCC attaches great importance to scientific diligence. Almost all leading research institutions are involved. Over 450 authors worked on the fourth status report, and over 800 authors worked on the current fifth status report.

Process of preparing a progress report

After the meeting of the IPCC has outlined the goal of the next report, governments and non-governmental organizations can make suggestions for authors, the board of the IPCC finally selects them. The individual working groups then determine who will be the main coordinating authors among them. At least one coordinating lead author from a developing country must be involved in each chapter of the report. The authors are recognized scientists from research institutions, but also from industry, international organizations and non-governmental organizations. When selecting experts, it is not their attitude towards climate change that is decisive, but only their scientific qualifications.

The work of the IPCC is based on consensus: each chapter must be accepted by the entire working group, the entire report ultimately requires the formal approval of the plenary. A careful approach is required to build this scientific and political consensus.

Process of reporting by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Source: www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/index.htm
First, the authors prepare a first draft of their chapter on the basis of all relevant scientific publications. The lead authors consult experts who, as contributing authors, can help them with the preparation of the report on individual questions or present specific points of view.

This first draft goes through a two-stage process of assessment by a large number of external scientists - several thousand in each working group. Every comment and criticism must be adequately taken into account by the authors - this is ensured by two scientific editors for each chapter. All comments are also archived publicly in order to ensure the greatest possible transparency (http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu).

The edited draft is then submitted again to the reviewers - and also to the participating governments, which in turn are entitled to have the text scientifically examined. After their comments have also been incorporated, a final draft is presented, which is discussed in the meeting of the working group and changed if necessary. Finally, the draft is approved by the IPCC plenum before publication.

In this way, each of the three working groups publishes a report, a technical summary and a summary for decision-makers. The latter can still be modified by the government representatives in the plenary session of the IPCC. After all reports have been completed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finally publishes a synthesis report that brings together the statements of all reports. Overall, the status reports of the IPCC are several thousand pages long. They not only record the scientific consensus on the state of climate research, but also all outstanding questions, uncertainties and critical positions.

Contents of the reports of the IPCC

Although the IPCC reports consist of three parts, the first part regularly receives the greatest attention: the knowledge about the physical aspects of climate change, about its causes and, above all, about the assumed extent of future climate change. The IPCC creates these climate projections in various scenarios. These scenarios outline various possible developments in climate change on the basis of different assumptions about future political, economic and social developments that influence the emission of greenhouse gases.

Consolidation of the findings: from the first to the third assessment report

The IPCC published its first climate report in 1990, two years after it was founded. The report played a major role in the creation of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as part of the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The scientists determined that human activity had increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and put this in context with the global rise in temperatures in the 20th century. The first scenarios about the effects of the future greenhouse effect were also drawn up. However, the many uncertainties that scientists have about the climate system are also mentioned. The influence of clouds, oceans and polar ice sheets is not yet sufficiently understood, which is why there is still uncertainty about the exact extent and regional distribution of climate change.

The second assessment report from 1996 substantiated and reinforced the statements of the IPCC with regard to the scope and effects of climate change. It made an important contribution to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The third report also confirmed and specified the findings. He achieved a very high level of acceptance within climate research.

The findings were confirmed again in the third assessment report. The human impact on the climate could be identified with a higher probability than before because the climate models had improved. The report published in 2001 already achieved a very high level of acceptance within climate research. Public awareness: the fourth progress report

Public awareness: the fourth progress report

The fourth status report from 2007 (www.ipcc.ch) attracted the greatest public attention to date. He removed the remaining scientific doubts about climate change. The report rates it as very likely (probability greater than 90 percent) that most of the warming observed since the mid-20th century has been caused by humans. The report describes future climate change most dramatically so far: In the worst scenario, warming between 2.4 and 6.4 degrees Celsius is to be expected by 2100. A great danger of this temperature increase is seen in irreversible climatic consequences, such as the melting of the polar ice sheets, which further intensifies climate change and leads to a rise in sea levels.

The worst effects could therefore only be prevented if global warming is limited to a maximum of two to three degrees Celsius. The efforts required for this cost significantly less, at a maximum of three percent of the global gross national product, than the consequences of unchecked climate change. However, a trend reversal in the emission of greenhouse gases must be achieved in ten years. However, this trend reversal has not yet been achieved - on the contrary, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

Work in Progress: the fifth status report

Work on the fifth status report began in 2009 and should be completed gradually in 2013 and 2014. The report places a greater emphasis on the possibilities of mitigating climate change and adapting to the expected effects of climate change. Another challenge is the integration of the scenarios of the three working groups. The scientific climate models, the models for the effects on ecosystems and society as well as the assessment of the scenarios are to be linked even more closely. Among other things, the options for action, costs and risks in the various scenarios are assessed.

Assessment: Political impact of the work of the IPCC

The IPCC reports reflect the consensus in climate research: climate change is largely human-made, and its future consequences will be dramatic if action is not taken soon.

With its reports, the IPCC has given significant impetus for climate protection policy - even if the political decisions made so far are not sufficient. The adoption of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol would hardly have been conceivable without the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The goal set by the European Union in 1996 to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius is also based on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In addition, the IPCC is working specifically on the implementation of climate policy: The body provides the facts to determine the "adequacy of commitments" according to Art. 2 of the UNFCCC and develops standards for calculating national emissions. The IPCC also makes an important contribution to addressing climate change in the public debate.

This effect of the committee is made possible primarily due to its special position between politics and science. As a scientific institution, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change enjoys a high level of credibility, as it prepares its reports with the help of several thousand renowned scientists. Because these reports are also decided by political representatives of the participating states, even climate-skeptical governments find it difficult to evade the judgments of the IPCC.

Sources and Literature

Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety: IPCC. Status: May 2011; available online at: www.bmu.de

Edenhofer, O., Seyboth, K .: "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change", In: Shogren J.F. (ed): Encyclopedia of energy, Natural resource and environmental economics (accepted), Elsevier, San Diego 2013

IPCC website (with the original version of the reports): www.ipcc.ch

Müller, Michael / Fuentes, Ursula / Kohl, Harald (ed.): The UN World Climate Report. Report of a haltable disaster. Cologne 2007

Union of Concerned Scientists: The IPCC: Who Are They And Why Do Their Climate Reports Matter ?, available online at: www.ucsusa.org