The UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is about to undergo some much needed structural change, and new leadership may be an inevitable part of that reform. Hopefully, however, this exercise does not become a triumph of process over content.

The IPCC was created in 1988 by the UN Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organisation to help inform policy decisions through assessments of what is known about the physical scientific aspects of climate change, its global and regional impacts, and options for adaptation and mitigation.

It is a unique and remarkable organisation, involving representatives of 194 participating governments, thousands of volunteers scientists and reviewers — and massive assessment reports of extraordinary detail.

An analysis by the InterAcademy Council, an umbrella group of 15 national academies, including Australia’s, released this week after six months of investigation finds that the IPCC has been a successful undertaking. But it also revealed a fundamental weakness — it was on top of the science but had largely sat out the “governance revolution” in accountability and transparency that other organisations have been dealing with in the two decades, and this had left it poorly equipped to deal with the attacks and criticisms that have intensified in recent years.

The IAC report found problems with the way the IPCC handles reviews of its work, the degree to which it shows fairness when considering areas that are disputed, and the way it communicates the certainty, or lack of it, when it speaks. It recommends the IPCC to butt out of policy advocacy, and it has called for new rules on conflict of interest, a new full-time leadership position and a new executive committee that could make it more responsive and communicative.

It has also recommended limited terms for leadership positions, a recommendation that has been interpreted as a suggestion that the current IPCC chief, Dr Rachendra Pachauri, should perhaps step down before the next assessment report is delivered in 2013 and 2014.

The findings have been welcomed by scientists in Australia and elsewhere. Of particular interest is that the IAC appears to have no criticisms of the first volume of the assessment report, which is the one that deals with the physical science of climate change, but notes many of the IPCC’s problems have centred around “the vagueness” contained in volume two, which deals with the impacts of change.

Steve Sherwood, an expert in physical meteorology and atmospheric climate dynamics at UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, says writing the second volume on climate-change impacts has always been more difficult because impacts are tough to measure and tough to model.

This was the volume containing the well-publicised, but relatively minor, errors that have been the focus of debate and controversy in recent years, and while the IAC recognised the difficulties in dealing with the sheer weight of peer-reviewed comments (there were more than 90,000 of them), it was critical of the vague language in the executive summary of this volume.

Sherwood says one reason for the vague language is the disagreements among scientists and others in wording the final draft. “”In my experience, when writing by consensus in such a situation, contested passages of text will sometimes come out vague or awkward because no clear statement could be found that satisfied everyone,” he says. “I hope the Working Group II can find ways to overcome this problem next time around, since we need clear statements of what we know and don’t know.”

Professor Colin Woodroffe, a coastal geomorphologist at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Wollongong, and a lead author on the IPCC chapter on coastal systems, had a similar concern.

“Scientists undertake scientific research to expand the frontiers of our knowledge about the things we do not know, or incompletely understand. The IPCC process was an innovative approach to collate scientific opinion in a focused way to inform policy makers. It is often succinctly called a consensus, although, of course, science is targeted at discovering new knowledge, and deals with hypotheses and theories, rather than incontrovertible facts.

“Scientists and those who plan to use the science should welcome this greater rigour, despite the considerable additional workload it implies for future assessments. But it will also be important to recognise that the additional process will lead still further to what James Hansen has called ‘scientific reticence’; whereby the projections and forecasts are likely to err on the conservative side. Perhaps the greatest strength of the IPCC and its approach is that it does undertake repeated assessments and so can continually update projections, and respond to the latest scientific findings.”

The findings and recommendations of the IAC review will be considered by the next IPCC plenary scheduled for Busan, in Korea, this October.