A silhouette of media representatives stand in front of the IPCC Working Group III's conference

Organizations working to solve global challenges have struggled to replicate the IPCC model for comprehensive scientific assessments.Credit: Steffi Loos/Reuters

When it comes to getting decision makers to pay attention to scientific evidence, there are few better — or perhaps better-known — examples than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its summary reports on climate science, impacts and adaptations are read by a wide range of people, in bodies as disparate as companies and campaign groups, as well as, of course, their primary audience: decision makers. Produced every six or seven years, the main IPCC studies have an extra-ordinary reach, informing everything from global climate agreements, such as that negotiated in Paris in 2015, to the school climate-strikes movement Fridays for Future.

This is no small achievement for what is, at its core, a network of hundreds of researchers working in the early or late hours for no payment. They read and summarize thousands of research papers to answer questions such as how much the planet has warmed; what the future projections are for Earth’s climate; what the impacts of warming are; how to mitigate climate change; and how the world can better prepare for a warmer future.

A similar but less well-known IPCC-style network of researchers is the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Established in 2012, its studies helped to underpin the Kunming–Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which aims to stem our destruction of nature and was signed in December last year. But when it comes to other great global challenges, which are embodied by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals — inequality, say, or water or food security — there’s no advisory research body on a similar scale or with comparable impact, and none on the immediate horizon. And this is not for want of trying. So why has the model proved so difficult to replicate?

Product of its time

A new book that takes an in-depth look at the IPCC helps to explain why the climate panel and IPBES remain two of a kind — and why we might not see their like again. A Critical Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in December 2022 and edited by political scientist Kari De Pryck at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and human geographer Mike Hulme at the University of Cambridge, UK, was written collaboratively with 33 other social scientists. It includes chapters on the IPCC’s formation and governance, who participates in it and what its future might be: an IPCC-style assessment of the IPCC itself. The authors describe an organization that was a product of a particular set of circumstances, some of which cannot be recreated easily — if at all.

Although the IPCC was established in 1988, the seeds had been sown several decades earlier by researchers who were becoming concerned about the implications of putting vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. A series of climate research programmes and conferences were co-organized by the World Meteorological Organization, the International Council of Scientific Unions and the UN. By the late 1970s, studies were starting to accumulate describing projected warming due to atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Those who would eventually establish the IPCC realized that the findings of such studies could not just be one-offs, and that periodic assessments were needed to keep a closer eye on how the climate was changing. These studies needed to include the science of greenhouse-gas emissions; the nature and composition of greenhouse gases; and the all-important question of the extent to which human activities (particularly the burning of fossil fuels) were responsible for climate change. The last of these was not settled until the mid-1990s, and was reported in the IPCC’s second assessment report in 1995, with the now-famous phrase “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate”.

The novelty of the IPCC approach is that researchers employed by participating governments are among the members of the teams reviewing the literature. Scientists representing governments sign off the ‘summary for policy-makers’, which synthesizes the research into a booklet using language that can be understood by non-experts.

The IPCC’s founding researchers considered government involvement to be essential to both attracting decision makers’ attention to the body’s findings and gaining their trust. But there are good reasons that other research networks cannot replicate this level of involvement.

Scientists working for governments were among the founders of the IPCC because they were already involved in climate science. These were the employees of official weather-data centres, or meteorological offices. They were among the first researchers to have access to the kind of computing power needed for climate simulation studies — which governments tended to have. This meant that it wasn’t much of a stretch to include more of them on assessment teams working with researchers at universities.

Many of these government scientists also had strong links to departments for defence — for which accurate weather forecasting is a must — and, through that, had access to some of the most senior people in government. In the United Kingdom, for example, the IPCC’s first assessment report (in 1990) was presented in a special seminar to then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Other scientific networks do not have the same degree of access. Even if they did, such involvement would be more complicated to navigate now than in the 1980s. The book’s authors detail how, over time, IPCC meetings became more politicized as government representatives — mainly, but not exclusively, from oil-producing states — interfered in the scientists’ discussions.

The IPCC’s creation was an inventive response by researchers to the challenge of communicating climate science to decision makers. It has brought knowledge of the latest climate science to millions of people. Its reports confirmed a human fingerprint in global warming and, in that regard, have been pivotal to the creation of international climate agreements. From early on, scientists from low- and middle-income countries were invited to join the leadership of the IPCC’s writing groups, an unusual move for its time. Nonetheless, the IPCC has struggled to properly represent female researchers, scientists from lower- and middle-income countries, and Indigenous people.

Today’s myriad global challenges need research-based evidence more than ever, and it’s clear that faster, more focused and more inclusive assessments — such as those that the IPCC and IPBES are starting to do — are the way forward. The world might never again see a research assessment on the scale that the IPCC pioneered, but that is far from the only way for policymakers to access — and act on — scientific evidence.