Possible U.N. Review of IPCC Would Break New Ground

The organization that created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says it plans to investigate its controversial offspring. But there's no roadmap for such a review.

A spokesman for the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) has told reporters to expect an announcement next week that would offer a "credible, sensible review of how the IPCC operates." The decision was apparently made during UNEP's meeting this week in Bali, Indonesia, amid growing criticism of IPCC. It would be the most significant review by outsiders, and could therefore have a significant influence in the court of public opinion.

At the same time, it's not clear whether such a review would have any official standing. The regulations of IPCC, which was established by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988, do not mention any mechanism by which UNEP can oversee or influence the climate panel. "The links between the organizations are tenuous," says David Finnigan, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-firm of Mayer Brown and an expert on the organizations. While UNEP and WMO are the parent organizations of the climate panel, "I haven't seen much evidence of them getting involved in the IPCC."

UNEP and WMO provide a handful of staff members and facilities for the climate panel, which employs perhaps 30 people when compiling the reports it publishes every 6 years or so. During the rest of the cycle it relies mostly on volunteer scientist authors and reviewers. While the emblems of both organizations appear on IPCC documents, the organizations have little power to actually change IPCC policy or hire or fire its leaders. For example, there's no mechanism for UNEP to oust IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri, who was reappointed 18 months ago to a second, 5- to 6-year term. Any leadership change would be agreement by a vote of the governments that staff and fund IPCC, presumably at one of the organization's occasional membership meetings.

To be sure, critics of IPCC have repeatedly pressed for an external review of the workings of the influential panel recently. "Scores of groups that come to us and asked us to review the IPCC," says National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone. But such a request would have to come from an official body, he said. The National Academies do, however, sometimes initiate their own studies.

IPCC's leadership is expected soon to announce changes in the way it does business. But it's unclear whether those changes will include any direct shifts in its multilayered review procedures.