Amid scorching heatwaves from Europe to China and the United States, governments will this week pick a new leader for the UN’s flagship science panel on climate change – with pressure to name a woman for the first time in its 35-year history.
The new chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in 1988, will oversee mammoth reports in the next few years by hundreds of scientists, meant to guide a shift from fossil fuels to limit worsening global warming.
June was the hottest month on record around the world, and swathes of southern Europe, the United States and China have been hit by sweltering weather, wildfires, droughts and floods.
The IPCC, which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its work, will meet in Nairobi from July 25-28 to choose a chair from four eminent scientists – two women and two men, all aged over 60 – who will be tasked with leading the studies, likely to be published in the late 2020s.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the last series of IPCC reports – published in 2021-23 under the chairmanship of South Korea’s Hoesung Lee, and thousands of pages long – as “code red” for the planet.
Gender equality and diversity have long been challenges in climate science – and all the IPCC’s chairs have been men.
A 2019 report found that the proportion of female scientific authors working with the IPCC had risen to about 30% from just 10%.
“This is the first time a woman has even been nominated – in 35 years,” said Debra Roberts, a South African professor and IPCC veteran who is one of the two female candidates alongside Brazil’s Thelma Krug.
If selected, they would also be the first chairs from Africa or Latin America.
On Friday, as Roberts headed to Nairobi for the IPCC chair’s selection meeting, she said on Twitter that she had received the endorsement of the 55-nation African Union for her candidacy. Overall, the IPCC has 195 member governments. The two male scientists vying for the post – Belgium’s Jean-Pascal van Ypersele and Jim Skea of Britain – both said they would work hard for gender balance in other leading IPCC roles if elected.
“I am a feminist man,” said van Ypersele, who has a campaign video that includes a 2020 photo of him on the summit of Mont Blanc, at an altitude of 4,808 metres (15,774 ft), holding a banner emblazoned: “I am ready to lead the IPCC to new heights”.
“We need to do an awful lot more. The issue of gender in IPCC is critical,” Skea added, saying he would work to make the body “inclusive and truly representative” while coming up with practical solutions, led by deep cuts in emissions.
Krug did not respond to a request for an interview.
The IPCC’s secret ballot is hard to predict – nations have tended not to vote in large blocs, for example developing versus developed nations. If no candidate secures a majority in a first-round vote, the top two go to a runoff.
Sir Robert Watson, a British-US citizen who chaired the IPCC from 1997-2002, said the thorniest problem for an incoming chair was that average surface temperatures are on track soon to breach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times and could go up to 3C higher by 2100.
The 2015 Paris climate agreement, backed by all governments, set a goal of limiting global warming to “well below 2C” while “pursuing efforts” for 1.5C. Temperatures are already up 1.2C.
Watson said the IPCC should be more critical of governments’ broken promises of drastic cuts in emissions.Alister Doyle, "As world swelters, will new IPCC climate science chief be a woman?," Business recorder. 2023-07-25.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Global warming , Climate change , Fossil fuels , Climate science , IPCC