Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the main United Nations authority on climate science. We review its origins, functions and working groups. How does the IPCC prepare its Assessment Reports? What are its scientific views on our climate crisis? What do critics say about the IPCC? We explain all you need to know.
IPCC Conference
Photo: © IPCC

What Is The IPCC?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the UN agency responsible for reviewing and assessing climate science, so as to provide a scientific view on the current state of global warming, and its impact on environmental and socio-economic concerns. 1

Created in 1988, the IPCC’s initial brief was to make recommendations for a future conference on climate action – a conference which became the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Since then its task has been to furnish policymakers with scientific reports on man-made greenhouse gas emissions – and other causes of climate change – along with recommendations about how to minimize their impact on Earth’s biosphere.

The IPCC’s governing Panel is composed of members representing 195 countries. Its 13-member secretariat is located in Geneva, Switzerland, in the building of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Due to their rigorously methodical (some say conservative) approach, IPCC’s reports have won the support of leading climate scientists and the consensus of participating governments. In 2007, in recognition of its unique contribution to Earth science, the IPCC was a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize along with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore. 1

For details of UN negotiations on global warming, see: UN Climate Talks and Timeline.

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What Is The Origin Of The IPCC?

The history of the IPCC 2 begins in 1985, when a small group known as the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases, was set up by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in conjunction with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the International Council of Scientific Unions, to provide advice on the prevention of global warming. This was in anticipation of an international convention to agree restrictions on greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, an idea strongly supported by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

However, the conservative Reagan Administration was concerned that this small group of scientists was too ill-equipped to deal with the multi-disciplinary nature of climate science, and would therefore be too vulnerable to pressure from independent scientists or from UN agencies like UNEP and the WMO. This would be bad news for the economic prospects of the U.S. fossil fuels industry, as well as the electricity supply companies.

The U.S. government therefore pushed for the formation of an autonomous intergovernmental body composed of scientists who would participate both as scientific experts, and as representatives of their governments, to produce more measured assessments of climate change, that would have the firm support of the global scientific community. And so, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was born – not as an obscure, understaffed UN agency but as a combination of prestigious scientific body and intergovernmental political organisation.

What Does The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change Actually Do?

The function of the IPCC is to furnish top policymakers – through the auspices of the United Nations – with impartial, scientific advice on the causes and effects of global warming, along with a range of possible climate solutions. According to the official “Principles Governing IPCC Work”, approved at the Fourteenth Session (Vienna, October 1998), the role of the IPCC is to “assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis” of global warming, as well as options for climate adaptation and mitigation.” (Mitigation reduces the causes of climate change, such as the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; adaptation reduces the impacts of climate change, like coral bleaching, polar ice melt.) The IPCC remains neutral with regard to policy: its job is to report the science.

To fulfill this function, the IPCC creates scientific reports that represent the definitive statement of climate change science. They also state where there is agreement in the scientific community on certain aspects of warming, and also where more research is required.

  • IPCC reports fall into three categories: (1) Assessment Reports (ARs) (2) Special Reports (SRs) and (3) Methodology reports (MRs).
  • Assessment Reports appear roughly every six years, at the end of each “Assessment Cycle”. Since 1988, the agency has had five Assessment Cycles and has published five comprehensive ARs: First AR (1990), Second AR (1995), Third AR (2001), Fourth AR (2007) and Fifth AR (2014). Each AR assesses the current state of knowledge about climate change, and evaluates options for reducing the rate at which it is occurring.
  • A good example of the influence and attention these reports gain, is the Fifth Assessment Report (2014), which stated there was a 95 percent certainty that global warming was being driven by human activities. It also projected that warming in the 21st century will end up between 1.5-4 degrees Celsius. These conclusions exerted a significant influence on the outcome of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. 2
  • IPCC’s Special Reports are prepared in response to requests for information on specific climate concerns, usually emanating from the UNFCCC, as well as governments and international organizations. The best-known special report of the current cycle is probably the “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C3, published in October 2018. [3] This special report was a key scientific input into the Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland in December 2018, when government signatories assessed progress under the Paris Agreement.
  • The other two special reports were: the “Special Report on Climate Change and Land” (SRCCL) (August 2019) 4, also known as the “Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems“, and the “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate” (SROCCC) (September 2019). 5
  • Lastly, the IPCC produces a number of Methodology Reports advising how national governments should calculate and report their greenhouse gas emissions. An example is the 2019 Refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.
IPCC 5th Assessment Report Findings
Summary of key findings by IPCC 5th Assessment Report. Source: NASA
See also: What’s the Difference Between Climate and Weather?

How Does The IPCC Work?

At the beginning of each new Assessment Cycle the ruling board of IPCC appoints a 34-member Bureau to oversee and run its work program. In addition, it appoints a large number of eminent scientists to work on the program for the duration of the cycle. They include experts in environmental science, ecology, meteorology, physical oceanography, marine biology, chemistry, maths, physics, aeronomy, computer science, statistics or other disciplines, depending on the work program of the Cycle.

IPCC scientific staff are divided into three Working Groups: Group I deals with “The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change6; Group II deals with “Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability7; and Working Group III covers “Mitigation of Climate Change8. Each of these groups has two co-chairs – one from a developing country and one from a developed country. They are supported by the IPCC’s full-time Secretariat, along with numerous unpaid researchers and other experts. 9

IPCC Assessment Reports are prepared in several stages with microscopic attention to accuracy and detail. Lead authors, researchers and a wide range of specialist contributors are involved – sometimes in a line-by-line, word-by-word editing process to ensure the most open, thorough and objective outcome possible. Even those who disagree with their analysis can see exactly how the scientists involved arrived at their conclusions. In addition, each IPCC AR contains a section entitled “Summary for Policymakers”, which is subject to line-by-line approval by delegates from all 195 member countries. It’s a laborious, six-year process, but one that is respected around the world.

Note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not conduct its own research. Instead, its experts critically review and analyse the best examples of the latest technical literature, including peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications. In addition, it organizes specialist meetings and workshops on various topics to buttress its work program, and publishes the results of these meetings.

Sixth Assessment Cycle

The IPCC embarked on its sixth assessment cycle in 2015. It has already published several special reports on land use and land use change, the oceans and the cryosphere, as well as its landmark report on restricting global warming to 1.5°C. Its agenda also includes the publication of the Sixth Assessment Report in 2022.

Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change: Criticism

There are four main criticisms of how the IPCC operates.

First, that IPCC reports tend to be too conservative: they consistently underestimate the pace of global warming. This is undoubtedly true, but some scientists actually cite this as one of its strengths.

Second, that because of the laborious process involved in the production of its reports, its advice is out of date. Given that climate science is an area of knowledge where our scientific understanding is rapidly changing, this weakness has been hailed as a serious failing in a body which is supposed to be the authoritative voice on the subject. Supporters claim that this minimizes the back-tracking and zig-zagging common to more cutting-edge commentary and actually lends weight to IPCC conclusions.

Thirdly, the IPCC’s international conferences necessitate the attendance of thousands of delegates, plus thousands of plane journeys, taxi rides and hotel rooms. The carbon emissions of these meetings now exceed all reasonable standards. This criticism has a point. Although any attempt to create an international event necessarily involves carbon emissions, one might ask whether these events are not becoming counter-productive from a PR standpoint.

Fourthly, the IPCCC talks the talk, but doesn’t achieve very much. This criticism perhaps misses the point. The point is, global warming is a hugely complex problem with enormous economic and political ramifications. The ethics of climate change – involving questions like Who should pay the costs of climate mitigation and adaptation? and How should global emissions be divided? – are also daunting. But see also: Our Climate Plan Can’t Cope.

Thus, it requires a global solution, involving all nations. This means a consensus is needed, and this is fundamentally a diplomatic task which only the United Nations, or an equivalent body, can handle. The IPCC’s role is to establish what the science is – nothing more, nothing less. And if the U.N. does proceed with glacial speed, it merely reflects the unwillingness of governments to acknowledge the gravity of our climate crisis, and take action to prevent irreversible damage to Planet Earth.

References

  1. About the IPCC: IPCC [][]
  2. History of the IPCC: IPCC [][]
  3. IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15): IPCC []
  4. IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land []
  5. IPCC Special Report on The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate: IPCC []
  6. IPCC Working Group I. The Physical Science Basis: IPCC []
  7. IPCC Working Group II. The Impacts, adaptation and vulnerabilities related to climate change: IPCC[]
  8. IPCC Working Group III. Mitigation of Climate Change: IPCC []
  9. For the structure of the IPCC, see: IPCC structure. []
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