Image: Rajendra K. Pachauri
Tariq Mikkel Khan  /  AP
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N. climate panel, has seen the volunteer group come under fire in recent months.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/10/2010 1:31:43 PM ET 2010-03-10T18:31:43

The world's biggest scientific guns are being called in to mop up after a trickle of unsettling errors in the reports written by the U.N. climate panel.

The United Nations and the beleaguered Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said Wednesday that a Netherlands-based group of 15 national academies of science will study how the warming panel does its job.

The independent review will be finished by the end of August, said Robbert Dijkgraaf, co-chairman of the group, the InterAcademy Council.

"Let me be clear — the threat posed by climate change is real," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters alongside IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. "Nothing that has been alleged or revealed in the media recently alters the fundamental scientific consensus on climate change."

But, he added, "we need to ensure full transparency, accuracy and objectivity, and minimize the potential for any errors going forward."

Climate ConnectionsPachauri, who has been resisting pressure from critics to resign, said he expected the review "will help us in strengthening the entire process by which we carry out preparation of our reports."

Neither Pachauri nor Ban took questions from reporters.

A panel of experts created by the InterAcademy Council will try to figure out how better to catch and correct errors, Dijkgraaf said. It will also consider whether the climate panel should use non-peer reviewed literature, how governments review IPCC material, and even how the IPCC communicates with the public.

Mistakes in the IPCC reports, found in recent months, don't undercut the broad consensus on global warming, but they have shaken the credibility of climate scientists and given skeptics ammunition.

Dijkgraaf said the review, which will be funded by the U.N., is "a forward-looking report" but will also examine the errors already found as "case studies."

Vow of 'truly independent'
The review will involve a mix of outside experts and climate scientists who have worked with the IPCC before but are "far enough removed to be truly independent," Dijkgraaf said. The idea is to have expertise and insight into how the IPCC works without including current leaders, he said.

"The full panel needs gravitas and I think scientific stature," Dijkgraaf said. The members of the panel haven't been chosen, but it will likely be 10 scientists.

The evaluation group will be chosen when the InterAcademy's board meets on March 22, Dijkgraaf said. The InterAcademy has done science reviews before for the United Nations.

"The (review) panel will have great liberty to function and work and write a report with an open mind," Dijkgraaf said. And the conclusions of the panel itself will be peer-reviewed by outside scientists.

Picturing Climate ChangeThe IPCC was formed in 1989 by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization to study global warming and its causes and effects. It shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with former Vice President Al Gore.

The IPCC, which is mostly a collection of scientists volunteering their work, produced reports that had several errors, among them: mistaking how much of the Netherlands is below sea level and botching how fast glaciers in the Himalayans are expected to melt.

The errors cropped up in a report of more than 3,000 pages that cited more than 10,000 scientific papers. The next IPCC update on climate change will be published in 2013.

Its 2007 report wrongly said Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2035, a prediction derived from articles that hadn't been reviewed by scientists before publication. An original source had spoken of the world's glaciers melting by 2350.

"In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly," the IPCC said in a statement earlier this year.

Welcomed on both sides
Both critics and supporters of the IPCC process cheered the outside review.

"The idea sounds fine. I hope people like me have input. Otherwise it's just the usual members of the establishment defending to themselves what's been done," said researcher John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, a prominent IPCC critic and warming skeptic.

Calculate your carbonProminent mainstream climate scientist Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research said "climate science has become a political hot potato." He said the reviewers should not just look at the IPCC but the standards of its critics.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., last month called problems with the IPCC "the makings of a major scientific scandal."

Stanford scientist Stephen Schneider, another IPCC co-author, called independent review a great idea. "Everybody knows there's a tiny error rate," Schneider said. "Any error rate that can be fixed should be fixed."

"It's to be welcomed," added IPCC co-author and Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer. "It's a step in the direction of re-establishing the IPCC's credibility with the general public. I, as an IPCC scientist, welcome this kind of check on things."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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