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The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, held last week (5-7 February), is in its 16th year and is a slick, formidable affair. It felt like an inspired combination of activism, research seminar and symbolic communication. It is plastic-free, vegetarian and managed to attract an array of heads of state and celebrities (including Arnold Schwarzenegger!) to its opening ceremony.
For me though, the summit’s enduring value was best captured by a session I attended on the future of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It was relevant, connected and pulled no punches.
The session featured three former IPCC report authors, climate negotiators and some from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, which is primarily tasked with sharing climate science with policy audiences.
There were some reasonably radical ideas on offer.
Climate change is the only multilateral negotiating process underpinned by a scientific partner (the IPCC) that has secured moral authority and academic respect equally — so there might not be much appetite for big changes. Yet it is this success that presents the overwhelming concern: more than once at the summit, delegates noted that science had ‘won’ and the challenges of climate change now lie elsewhere.
It was this concern about enduring relevance that underpinned many of the ideas floated during the session. Here are a few of them:
1. Communication

Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC and director-general of TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute, which organised the summit), said the panel’s Fifth Assessment Report, which was released last year, has data and analysis that is important for mitigation and adaptation strategies, suggesting that questions over the IPCC’s continuing relevance are misplaced. What his rebuttal proved most effectively is that the IPCC has a fundamental challenge around its brand. Currently, it is simply known as the panel that set out the overwhelming evidence that climate change is happening. There were suggestions in the session that the IPCC conduct more digitally aware communication campaigns or publish more prescriptive reports. But these are all part of a broader argument that the IPCC needs a more versatile brand.
2. Regionalisation

Nearly everyone agreed that the reports need to be more geographically granular. A planner from India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change made an impassioned plea for the authors to develop reports that would be meaningful in his constituencies. From this, it’s clear that the way the IPCC’s reports have tried to geographically differentiate impacts have not resonated and need to be presented differently and more clearly. Arvid Hallén, director-general of the Research Council of Norway, pointed out that this would include getting better at engaging the social sciences to assess the feasibility of scientific interventions in various social contexts. (This has some methodological implications, but we’ll come to that.)
3. Research updates

A number of speakers noted that in many ways the schedule of the panel’s assessment reports is decidedly awkward. They often come in too quick a succession to capture substantive incremental shifts in scientific knowledge, and the schedule is quite disconnected from both global and national policy deliberations. To combat this, there was a suggestion that a parallel reporting process could capture breakthroughs in climate science as they occur. Eswaran Somanathan, a former IPCC author who works at the Indian Statistical Institute, thought these updates would allow a shorter review process. Of course, the panel will never have the flexibility of your average research consortium, but there is no fundamental reason why it has to stick to producing only the large and time-consuming assessment reports.
4. Content focus

Two suggestions were made about where the IPCC’s focus should be.

The first was for more attention on monitoring, including of financing. Related to this was a suggestion that the methodological focus should shift from computer modelling to physical observation. This might be useful in that it would leave the panel less vulnerable to constant challenges about the reliability of climate models, although it could bring a new kind of awkwardness, in that the observations might give the panel more of a ‘naming and shaming’ role.
The second idea was about better integration, not just between the panel’s various internal working groups, but also with the science community working at the interface with development studies. It was clear for instance, that Peter Holmgren, who heads the Center for International Forestry Research, had a mission to press for a closer working relationship between the consultative body CGIAR and the IPCC. (Efforts towards integration might even be smoothed by the update reports suggested above.)
5. Inclusivity

This is perhaps the most confounding challenge for the panel. Many of the authors present, notably the women, said the IPCC needs to do more about including work by developing world researchers. The exclusion is a natural consequence of relying on the existing research establishment — after all less than one per cent of authors in top journals are based in the developing world. While this is understandable, not addressing it will be a missed opportunity for the IPCC. Purnamita Dasgupta, another of the panel’s report authors, suggested restructuring the panel to allow more plurality as a way to address this challenge.
Academia is a conservative enterprise, so radical reform is regarded with suspicion. But since our responses to climate change will require profound societal changes, the scientists and negotiators involved might expect that fervour will be necessary at some point.