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How to improve the IPCC

Code of conduct and rapid communication are key, scientists tell review panel.

Robert Watson wants the IPCC to quickly correct its errors. Credit: Defra

A former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that the organization should adopt a code of conduct and develop a mechanism to fix errors more quickly.

On 15 June, Robert Watson, who chaired the IPCC from 1997 until 2002, testified before an independent review committee tasked with improving the credibility of the United Nations' group.

The 12-person panel of scientists and economists, chaired by Harold Shapiro, a former president of Princeton University in New Jersey, was asked by the UN to review the IPCC, which has faced numerous criticisms in recent months (see: IPCC flooded by criticism). In particular, the organization has admitted to making an error in its last comprehensive report, released in 2007, which said that the Himalayan glaciers could melt completely by 2035. 1

"To me the fundamental problem was that when the error was found it was handled in a totally and utterly atrocious manner," Watson told the committee, gathered at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, by teleconference. "The IPCC needs to find a mechanism so that if something needs to be corrected there is a rapid way to get a correction made. That is something that needs to be looked at very carefully," said Watson.

When the error was found it was handled in a totally and utterly atrocious manner. Robert Watson , Former head of the IPCC

"The IPCC was never prepared for the situation that someone would come up with criticism that could be perceived as credible," comments climate scientist Hans von Storch, a director of the Institute for Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany, and a contributor and author on the IPCC's second and third assessment reports, respectively. "The IPCC is really amateurishly organized in this regard."

Shades of grey

The use of 'grey literature' in IPCC reports, such as literature which is not peer-reviewed or not published in scientific journals, is under particular scrutiny, in part because it was the source of the glacier error. But many believe some of it to be valuable. "People automatically think that grey literature is [only] from activists and non-governmental organizations' reports. In fact, it includes reports from national academies of sciences, and reports from the International Energy Agency," says Chris Field, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford University, California and the co-chair of the working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability for the IPCC's upcoming fifth assessment. Field also testified before the committee.

"It is the responsibility of the IPCC reviewers and authors to carefully assess every source that is cited, whether it is journal- or non-journal-based literature, and the scrutiny of the non-journal-based literature should be greater," Field adds.

At around the same time that the glacier error was uncovered, Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, was accused of benefiting from his work because the institute he directs, the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, has ties with companies that could benefit from climate policies. Many have suggested that the IPCC develop a clear code of conduct for its officials to avoid any perception of conflicts of interest in the future. That sentiment was echoed at Tuesday's meeting, and carries a strong chance of being included in the committee's recommendations.

Wiki wanted

John Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, has previously been critical of the IPCC, calling the product and process "prone to politicization and bias". Christy, who was a lead author of the third assessment report, published in 2001, recommended lead authors be nominated by learned societies and selected for overlapping rotating terms. He also proposed the creation of a climate Wiki that would include a "fuller expression of uncertainty and disagreement" over the publication of lengthy reports (see IPCC: cherish it, tweak it or scrap it?).

The review committee will meet one more time — at the Royal Society's Kavli Centre in Chicheley Hall, UK, in July — before preparing its report and submitting this to the InterAcademy Council for peer review. The final report will be submitted to the UN at the end of August.

Although the IPCC has already planned for the next assessment report, known as AR5, to follow the same basic outline as its last one, some elements of the recommendations made in the review group's report might make it into the process. The next plenary session of the IPCC panel, which would need to approve any structural changes, will take place in October in Busan, South Korea.

The UN-commissioned review "is a wonderful opportunity to overcome a somewhat entrenched situation", von Storch says. "This might provide the right type of wake-up call, allowing the IPCC to reflect upon itself more carefully."


  1. Cruz, R. V. et al. in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Parry, M. L., Canziani, O. F., Palutikof, J. P., van der Linden, P. J. & Hanson, C. E.) 469–506 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

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Hoag, H. How to improve the IPCC. Nature (2010).

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