Climate Change and the Assessment of Expert Knowledge: Does the IPCC Model Need Updating?

Bridges vol. 40, July 2014 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Silke Beck, Maud Borie, Alejandro Esguerra, Jason Chilvers, Katja Heubach, Mike Hulme, Rolf Lidskog, Eva Lövbrand, Elisabeth Marquard, Clark Miller, Tahani Nadim, Carsten Nesshöver, Josef Settele, Esther Turnhout, Eleftheria Vasileiadou, and Christoph Görg

Featured in GAIA 2, 2014: Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society
Select here for further reading

Climate Change and the Assessment of Expert Knowledge:
Does the IPCC Model Need Updating?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The Panel is recognized today as a pioneer in providing policy-relevant science to global policy: it has conducted the most comprehensive orchestration of scientific knowledge to date and has managed to include experts from around the world in assessment activities. In doing so it has spoken on behalf of global science with one voice, thereby acquiring a reputation as the epistemic authority in knowledge matters relevant for climate policy. It was jointly awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with former US Vice President Al Gore. The previous IPCC assessment report in 2007 had already signaled that scientific controversies over the existence of global warming have effectively been settled and that human influences on the climate system are real and significant. The IPCC has thus accomplished a core part of its original mission, namely to provide sound scientific evidence about the causes of human-induced global climate change. Nevertheless, many of the characteristics and consequences of future climate change at sub-global scales, as well as their interactions with other drivers of change in the world, are still poorly understood. Because much has changed since the establishment of the IPCC in the late 1980s, discussions about the need for, and design of, future assessments beyond 2014 are back on the agenda of the IPCC plenary sessions (Stocker 2013).

In the following we discuss the responsiveness and organizational reflexivity of the IPCC. We briefly illustrate how the IPCC has responded to particular challenges, such as demands for political relevance, the integration and representation of diverse and distributed knowledge and calls for public accountability and participation. We thus propose more substantial changes to constructively address the realities of climate change and to meet the changing geopolitical and public conditions of its debate. We make suggestions for more substantial changes to ensure that future assessments of climate change knowledge are more representative, reflexive and accountable.

How Knowledge is Never Neutral For Policy

The ‘global average temperature’ has long been the organizing device for the IPCC around which both scientific knowledge has been assessed and different policy options evaluated. Framing climate change in this way, as a universal risk that can only be reduced through collective action, creates the need for consensus-based knowledge production and decision support. It has been difficult, if not impossible, for the IPCC to break away from the early framing of climate change around global average temperature as the pre-eminent indicator of risk. The IPCC thereby reduced the diversity of political drivers of climate change and the complex breadth of values underlying climate policy to a singular index of change and policy ambition: limiting global warming to no more than 2°C above nineteenth century temperature with its respective carbon budget. 

By creating knowledge which serves this single science-based climate policy objective, the IPCC has implicitly limited the range of options available to policy-making at the international and national level. As a result, the political discussions about climate change, along with popular perceptions of ‘global warming’, have become unnecessarily selective and restrictive. A broad spectrum of potential policy options is narrowed down to improving climate predictions and creating new economic policy instruments (Reisinger 2011) to secure the 2°C target, thus neglecting policy alternatives such as local adaptation, energy innovation or human development (Prins et al. 2010).This has been shown to be problematic in the international political sphere. The history of the 2°C objective clearly demonstrates that the establishment of a strict numerical target per se contributes little to effective risk management (Geden 2013).


The IPCC’s approach to knowledge assessment has also largely failed to engage with alternative forms of expertise – e.g. local knowledge (Ford et al. 2012) – or evaluate and facilitate more radical forms of civic action (e.g. Jamison 2010). This has closed off some forms of political response, for example political challenges to economic rationalities, state power or consumption-based welfare. Some have even argued that as a result of making knowledge in a certain way the IPCC has contributed to climate change becoming a ‘post-political’ technocratic issue which limits opportunities for democratic debate (Machin 2013).

Evaluating and Reforming the IPCC

Starting out with relatively few formalized rules of procedures for conducting the assessment and review processes in 1988, the IPCC has gone through three major revisions of these rules, in 1993, 1999 and 2010.As a response to the controversial release of climate scientists’ e-mails (the so-called ‘climategate’ affair) and arguments about errors in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, the alliance of national scientific academies – the InterAcademy Council (IAC) – was commissioned in March 2010 to conduct an independent evaluation of the IPCC. The IAC focused on processes of assessment and quality assurance rather than on the content and quality of IPCC reports. In August 2010, the IAC devised a set of recommendations aimed at strengthening the IPCC’s processes and procedures so as to be better able to respond to future challenges and ensure the quality of its reports. The report recommended that the IPCC needed to be as transparent as possible in detailing its processes, particularly its criteria for selecting experts, in particular Lead Authors (LAs) and Contributing Authors (CAs) and the type of scientific and technical information to be assessed. The IPCC had to revise its review process and to set up a comprehensive communication strategy, one that emphasizes transparency, rapid and considered responses, and relevance to stakeholders (IAC 2010: 26-69).

IAC points to the need for the Panel to review and adapt its processes and procedures in the light of the novel demand for accountability and transparency. The events surrounding ‘climategate’ raised important questions about the process of knowledge production rather than seriously challenging the core substance of that knowledge (Hulme 2010). What these events showed was that in terms of public value it is the social practices and quality of knowledge making that matter as much as the content of the knowledge itself. The Council acknowledged that the IPCC therefore has a growing obligation to account for its workings and conclusions, not least because the Panel is highly exposed to public scrutiny and is effectively operating ‘under the public microscope’ (IAC 2010). Experts have to be responsive to the ways in which scientific knowledge is validated and made authoritative for public use. The IAC also emphasized that in its present form the Panel was no longer able to cope adequately with the challenges it faced (IAC 2010: 6).

In October 2010, the IPCC initiated steps to implement the IAC recommendations. The negotiations over IPCC reform have recently focused on improving scientific quality by reviewing specific procedures (from the selection of authors and review procedures to the way errors are dealt with in published assessment reports). The latest revisions, following the November 2011 plenary session, endeavor to ensure that IPCC internal procedures are more transparent to parties already participating in the organization, such as contributing scientists and national governments. As a result, the IPCC processes remain confidential and are not opened to the public. The emphasis on making the IPCC’s internal procedures more transparent do not necessarily lead to public accountability. The main problem remains, namely, that these internal processes and procedures are still conducted behind ‘closed doors.’ They are protected from rather than opened up to broader audiences such as the UN, IPCC observer organizations, the scientific community, non-governmental organizations and the wider public (IPCC-XXXIV/Doc. 20).

Although a perceived lack of public accountability is certainly one reason for the public controversy that followed 'climategate', mechanisms of disclosure are still in their infancy. This narrowing of the outcomes of reform negotiations has been closely associated with the Panel’s consensus-based decision-making procedures. Whenever matters of negotiation have been contested, consensus-based negotiations have led to a “lowest common denominator” – a minimum outcome accepted by all parties at that time. The requirement of unanimity and the orchestration of procedures, however (so runs the argument), leads to the fact that scientific findings and views that deviate from the mainstream are systematically ignored or excluded (PBL 2010). So far, no debate has ever taken place about the IPCC’s relationship to public policy and to its various global ‘publics’ or about its normative commitments in terms of accountability, political representation and legitimacy. We argue, however, that ‘business as usual’ or incremental adjustments of the procedures and institutional design are not enough to adequately address novel challenges (IAC 2010). 

As a result, the IPCC reforms address not so much the causes of the problem (such as the perceived lack of public accountability), but the symptoms only (e.g. the lack of transparency of existing procedures). The IPCC has framed the question of public trust as a matter of the technical integrity of science. The events surrounding ‘climategate’, however, show that trust does not necessarily flow from the scientific quality of the IPCC reports: ‘Telling people “Hey, I’m an expert — you need to trust me”, is just no longer enough.’Trust is not just a function of providing information that matters, but is part of an evolving relationship between experts and the public. The IPCC therefore faces two significant challenges: not only to produce the highest quality information about climatic change, (incl. impacts, vulnerabilities, adaptation, mitigation), but also to build public trust into and to build ownership with its workings.

These difficulties also point to the more profound problem of how climate change issues are framed. The framing of climate change by the IPCC as a universal global risk reinforces the assumption that more and better consensual decision support will lead to public trust and political action. This assumption is not necessarily the solution to political action, but might itself contribute to the problem of political inertia. Our point is that the IPCC has bought into a very specific framing of 'the problem' that has rendered climate policy ineffective and has foreclosed the possibility of public consent. If climate change risks were framed differently then different forms of political action would open up – in relation, for example, to regional adaptation, local air quality, and energy services for the poor. Opening up the issue of climate change to different ways of framing is part of an enhanced reflexivity and social learning process. To overcome this situation, we suggest that the Panel needs to continuouslyreview its own procedures, performance and underlying assumptions.

Updating the IPCC Model

The question then is how the Panel best can navigate the difficult matter of political representation and public accountability. Is it to be a closed conversation between experts and policy-makers (Lövbrand 2014)? Or do the views of the public matter (Beck 2012)? It is these choices and normative criteria in the selection of experts and the institutional design of expert advice themselves that, once chosen, must be made explicit and subject to regular deliberation and re-appraisal.

  • Political Relevance: When the IPCC was formed in 1988, it fitted neatly into the UN’s multilateral order based on national representation and the search for internationally negotiated solutions. At a time, however, when UN climate multilateralism has lost momentum, the Panel now faces the challenge of adjusting to a changing geo-political architecture characterized by a more fragmented, polycentric order in which (climate) governance occurs at more than simply the level of nation states alone (Ostrom 2010). Given these novel constellations the IPCC reform debate cannot relate only to procedures and management structures to improve the transparency of its processes. It has to also address its broader institutional settings such as the post-Kyoto architecture where policy needs to engage diverse citizens with multiple beliefs, values and sources of knowledge (Hulme 2010). To maintain its policy relevance, the Panel should respond to the changing information needs of its primary audience, such as national governments, and recognize the diverse knowledge needs from a much broader group of stakeholders. We contend also that it may not be practicable for one expert panel under sole ownership – that of the world's governments, but operating under the delegated management of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) -- to deliver an exhaustive, fully integrated, universally credible assessment of all relevant climate-change knowledge. The issues facing the world today are probably not going to be resolved by producing yet more mega-global assessments – perhaps a larger number of distributed assessments are needed.
  • Public Accountability and Participation: The events surrounding ‘climategate’ demonstrated that public trust cannot be reduced to a function of the quality of science or the breadth and depth of consensus on science alone, as the IPCC had assumed. ‘Climategate’ showed that trust in science is related to the performance and persuasive power of the people and institutions who speak for science—and that not all countries interpret or trust the IPCC in similar ways (Hajer 2012). The IPCC’s chosen style of risk assessment and communication has also contributed to a unitary approach to representing scientific consensus as a single voice. Not acknowledging or inviting diverse voices to speak will fail to assuage the sense of mistrust. In response, the IPCC plenary has not yet adopted a process of full public disclosure and it continues to rely upon its existing knowledge-making processes mediated by national delegations (Beck 2012). In addition, current discussions about the future of the IPCC continue to be conducted largely behind closed doors, even if the formal positions of countries are somewhat more transparent. It is very likely that in the future the Panel will be exposed to scrutiny from more diverse and lively publics and that it will have to respond to forms of distributed or uninvited public participation (Lidskog & Sundqvist 2011, Wynne 2007).

Many of the issues we raise are empirically open questions, but it is fair to assume that the IPCC’s future performance will depend on how thoroughly it responds to the sorts of challenges raised above.

Concluding Remarks

An overly narrow focus on changing procedures and management structures – as adopted by the IPCC following the IAC review – is not sufficient to the tasks and challenges the organization will face in the future. Instead, a more ready and open acknowledgment of the organization’s normative commitments and alternative institutional design options may help to render its expertise more responsive and effective. This turn implies an opening up of perceptual horizons to recognize different models of ‘ownership’ (state/non-state/UN) and to legitimize multiple knowledges and diverse standards of evaluation. This kind of active ‘opening up’ of political space and a ‘pluralist’ approach to knowledge offer a more robust basis for the governance of expertise.

Of course, such calls for a more reflexive and accountable IPCC process are not new (Hulme et al. 2011). Neither can it solve all difficulties, nor can it automatically guarantee better results. Constraints will remain in terms of available capacity to address emerging tasks, trade-offs between conflicting aims (e.g. between demands for broad participation and for scientific integrity) and political expectations that may constrict the selection and implementation of institutional design options. However, throughout all processes of negotiation and review it is crucial to confront the reality of uncertainties, political antagonisms and power struggles in order to render them open to change, rather than simply ignoring them. To do justice to the issues we raise above it is necessary to challenge the underlying assumptions (such as the ideal of neutral scientific advice) and institutional dynamics (such as intergovernmental status and consensus-based procedures) that drive such organizations toward premature closure or even organizational paralysis.

We call for generating a broad range of visions, pathways and ways of responding that leave room for choices about how the IPCC should be governed and about how it assesses knowledge. This is particularly important as the IPCC acts as the main reference point for the development of institutions of global environmental governance (for example: the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services - IPBES). For this reason we encourage experimentation with new forms and formats of governing expertise by bringing in largely neglected sources of knowledge, voices and options. The more perspectives are available to political actors, the wider the range of policy options that will be conceivable.A more reflexive and inclusive form of expertise – based upon a more plural and participatory normative and epistemic framework – can make knowledge about environmental change more useful. It can increase politicians’ and the general public’s willingness to adopt new policies. For example, a different frame for apprehending the challenges of a changing climate would emphasize the need to reduce the dangers of weather and climate extremes for those people, places and things which are valued most highly or are most deserving protection; what has in recent years come to be known as the provision of climate services (e.g. Hewitt et al. 2012). In this case the needs of society would best be served by improving the accuracy of near- to medium-term climate predictions, by analyzing migration scenarios and by identifying what adaptive interventions might be robust against a range of outcomes.

Or to make a broader argument: the IPCC should recognize that different people in different cultures possess different ways of seeing and knowing nature and society: science published in the “conventional style” (journals, books etc.) is not the only valid knowledge about climate and its changes. This might then contribute not only to mapping out different possible future trajectories of environmental change, but also to investigating a wider set of policy choices and interventions and constructing alternative framings and visions for society in the future.


Beck, S. 2012. Between Tribalism and Trust: The IPCC under the "Public Mircoscope". Nature and Culture 7/2: 151-173.

Ford, J. D., W. Vanderbilt, L. Berrang-Ford. 2012. Authorship in IPCC AR5 and its implications for content: climate change and Indigenous populations in WGII. Climatic Change 113/2: 201-213.

Geden, O. 2013. Modifying the 2°C Target. Climate Policy Objectives in the Contested Terrain of Scientific Policy Advice, Political Preferences, and Rising Emissions. SWP Research Paper 2013/RP 05.

Hajer, M. A. 2012. Living the Winter of Discontent: Reflections of a Deliberative Practitioner. In: Futures of modernity : challenges for cosmopolitical thought and practice. Edited by M. Heinlein, C. Kropp, J. Neumer, A. Poferl, R. Römhild. Bielefeld: Transcript. 77-94.

Hewitt, C., S. Mason, D. Walland. 2012. The Global Framework for Climate Services. Nature Climate Change 2/ 12: 831–832

Hulme, M. 2010. Problems with making and governing global kinds of knowledge. Global Environmental Change 20/4: 558-564.

Hulme, M. et al. 2011. Science-policy interface: Beyond assessments. Science 333/6043: 697-698.

IAC (InterAcademy Council). 2010. Climate change assessments: Review of the processes and procedures of the IPCC. Amsterdam: InterAcademy Council.

Jamison, A. 2010. Climate change knowledge and social movement theory. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews-Climate Change 1/6: 811-823.

Jasanoff, S. 2012. Science and public reason. New York: Routledge.

Lidskog, R. and G. Sundqvist (eds) 2011. Governing the Air. The Dynamics of Science, Policy, and Citizen Interaction, Cambridge. MA: MIT Press.

Lövbrand, E. 2014. Knowledge and the Environment. In: Advances in International Environmental Politics. Edited by M.M. Betsill, K. Hochstetler and D. Stevis. Forthcoming. 2e. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Machin, A. 2013. Negotiating Climate Change: Radical Democracy and the Illusion of Consensus. London: Zed Books.

Miller, C. 2009. Epistemic Constitutionalism in International Governance: The Case of Climate Change. In: Foreign policy challenges in the 21st century. Edited by M. Heazle, M. Griffiths, T. Conley. Cheltenham; Northhampton: Edward Elgar.

Ostrom, E. 2010. Polycentric systems for coping with collective action and global environmental change. Global Environmental Change 20/4: 550-557.

Prins, G. et al. 2010. The Hartwell Paper: a new direction for climate policy after the crash of 2009. Institute for Science, Innovation & Society, University of Oxford.

Reisinger, A. 2011. Interdisciplinarity: are we there yet? An editorial comment. Climatic Change 108/1-2: 23-30.

SAB. 2014. UN Scientific Advisory Board convened for the first time – in Berlin. (accessed 14.3.2014).

Stirling, A. 2010. Keep it complex. Nature 468/7327: 1029-1031.

Stocker, T. F. 2013. Adapting the assessments. Nature Geoscience 6/1: 7-8.

Vasileiadou, E., G. Heimeriks, A. C. Petersen. 2011. Exploring the Impact of IPCC Assessment Reports on Science. Environmental Science and Policy 14/8: 1052-1061.

Wynne, B. 2007. Public participation in science and technology: performing and obscuring a political–conceptual category mistake. East Asian Science, Technology and Society 1/1: 99-110.