IPCC calling: Who will head up the UN’s top climate science body?

Three candidates have been nominated to succeed Rajendra Pachauri as chair of the IPCC, with 7 months to the election

Rajendra Pachauri has stepped down as chair of the IPCC. Who's next? (Pic: Flickr/IPCC Photo/David Plas)

Rajendra Pachauri has stepped down as chair of the IPCC. Who’s next? (Pic: Flickr/IPCC Photo/David Plas)

By Megan Darby

It is 13 years since the top job in the world’s leading authority on climate change was last contested.

Rajendra Pachauri, outgoing chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was elected unchallenged for a second term in 2008.

The Indian scientist rode a wave of approval after the organisation scooped a Nobel Peace Prize.

He was always due to step down this year, his departure hastened by the allegations of sexual harassment of a staffer that emerged last month. Pachauri denies the allegations.

Now, the race is on for his successor. In seven months’ time, government representatives meet in Dubrovnik to elect a new figurehead for the science body.

Who is in the running?

Three candidates have been nominated by their respective governments. Another four are understood to be considering the position.

All are male and only one comes from a country classed by the UN as developing: South Korea. Their bios can be found below.

Countries have until a month before the election to put forward any scientist they please. The later they leave it, the less time there will be for campaigning.

The most obvious contenders are the 31 members of the Bureau, who lead the IPCC’s scientific work.

The dearth of women on the shortlist for chair reflects a wider gender imbalance, with only five in the Bureau.

The same cannot be said for the under-representation of candidates from developing countries. IPCC election rules set regional quotas for Bureau positions, which serves to make sure scientists from poorer parts of the world get a voice.

How is the election decided?

The 195 countries that are members of the IPCC each get a vote, cast in a secret ballot at the next summit in October.

There are no official hustings and the result will be determined as much by diplomatic trade-offs as the contenders’ qualifications.

In a nod to transparency, two candidates have already published their CVs and manifestos online.

What does the IPCC do?

The IPCC is responsible for providing authoritative overviews of the latest climate science at regular intervals.

In the past, these have come out every 5-7 years and been split into three workstreams: physical science, impacts of climate change and ways to mitigate it.

Finally, a synthesis report brings the three together.

Each report relies on hundreds of scientists working unpaid to condense the evidence from thousands of scientific studies.

The reports form the evidence base for the politically fraught international negotiations on action to combat climate change.

What is the chair’s role?

The chair must make sure the IPCC’s output is both scientifically rigorous and relevant to policymakers.

It is a role that demands a certain dose of diplomatic skill, as well as sound scientific credentials.

There are also strategic challenges to tackle, such as boosting representation of experts from developing countries and updating the organisation’s clunky communications.

The IPCC is “at a crossroads,” Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor, warns in a recent blog.

“Its size has increased to the point that it has become cumbersome, it sometimes fails to address the most important issues, and – most striking of all – it is now at risk of losing the participation of the world’s best scientists, due to the massive burdens that participation entails.”

Who are the candidates?

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele has been campaigning for months (Pic: Flickr/EC/CE)

Belgian scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele has been campaigning for months (Pic: Flickr/EC/CE)

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (Belgium)

The first to declare his candidacy, in February 2014, van Ypersele has a head start on the competition.

One of three vice chairs of the IPCC, he has been active in outreach. His CV emphasises his communication skills and cites training in chairing meetings and “non-violent communication” above his scientific achievements.

His scientific background is in modelling climate change and its effects on human activities. He is a professor at the Universite Catholique de Louvain.

If elected, he would lobby for more funds to support IPCC authors, outreach and communication efforts – and to elevate the chair role to a full-time position.

He says: “Let’s assess the science of climate change together, in the most balanced, policy-relevant way, in the interest of all!”

Thomas Stocker wants to see the IPCC focus more on regional climate threats (Pic: University of Bern/Adrian Moser)

Thomas Stocker wants to see the IPCC focus more on regional climate threats (Pic: University of Bern/Adrian Moser)

Thomas Stocker (Switzerland)

The second to be nominated, Stocker is one of two co-chairs of the IPCC’s physical science working group.

A contributor to the famous “hockey stick graph”, he specialises in mining historic climate data from polar ice cores.

Based at the University of Bern, Stocker boasts more than 200 publications. He is pushing for the IPCC to focus more on regional climate risks.

He says: “A strong IPCC builds the common ground on which the world develops strategies to confront climate change — one of the greatest challenges of our time.”

Chris Field (US)

The US candidate co-chairs the impacts and adaptation working group and his research has touched on the other strands of IPCC work.

Field is the founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and a professor of interdisciplinary environmental studies at Stanford University.

He matches Stocker for productivity, with more than 200 publications.

He says: “With a genuine acceptance by the governments that reports from the IPCC represent the definitive assessment of what we know and what we don’t know… that is a wonderfully powerful starting point.”

And the unconfirmed runners…

Vice chair Hoesung Lee, a South Korean academic focused on the economics of climate change, is expected to stand for election.

Germany’s Ottmar Edenhofer, a co-chair of the mitigation workstream and expert in technological change and policy, is understood to be considering the position.

Austria and the UK may put forward candidates from outside the Bureau: Nebojsa Nakicenovic and David Griggs. Nakicenovic specialises in energy economics, while Griggs has a meteorology background.

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