This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
Why does the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) exist? What purpose does it serve? According to the first paragraph on an explanatory page on its website, it is:
…the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. It was established…to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts. [bold added]
But if one persists all the way through to the fifth and final paragraph on that page, matters get a bit more complicated:
By endorsing the IPCC reports, governments acknowledge the authority of their scientific content.
This sentence makes it clear that, despite the lofty rhetoric about knowledge and science, the IPCC actually serves a political purpose. It is a means to an end. It is the process by which the nearly 200 governments who belong to the United Nations agree on a single, official climate science perspective.
By taking part in the IPCC, all governments “acknowledge the authority” of the IPCC’s conclusions. Why does that matter? Why go to the trouble?
Because, if you’ve put the cart before the horse, if you already believe that humans are responsible for climate change, you also likely believe that coordinated international measures are called for.
Before an international treaty can be negotiated everyone needs to be on the same page, so to speak. Otherwise, negotiating sessions will degenerate into never-ending arguments about what one country’s scientific experts think versus what those from another country think.
In court cases here in Canada a similar device is used. It’s called an Agreed Statement of Facts. Both parties sign a document that enumerates which matters are not in dispute. This helps keep the discussion focused on the remaining issues.
This approach is efficient. It is sensible. But it is an administrative maneuver employed by people who are intent on achieving a larger goal. Inducing 200 countries to hew to a single party line makes perfect sense if you are a bureaucrat or a politician.
It should, however, be an absurd idea if you are a scientist. Because there is nothing tidy, or final, or official about knowledge. It is organic. It pops up in unexpected places. It reveals itself to investigators whether or not those investigators are approved of by the authorities.
I have recently been reading the remarks of scientists who have served as IPCC “insiders.” These are people who’ve been contributing authors, lead authors, coordinating lead authors, and review editors for IPCC reports. Many of these people have also, at one time or another, filled a seat on the 31-member IPCC bureau (a group responsible for overall coordination of the reports).
I’m sorry to say that large numbers of these remarks are disheartening. One may be a brilliant scientist and yet still be rather clueless regarding the implications of certain behaviour. It seems to me that many scientists participated in the IPCC in good faith without looking too closely at the larger political machine in which they were merely cogs. It seems to me these scientists swallowed some rather suspect rationales for why things should be done the IPCC way.
The remarks below are collected in a massive 678-page PDF here. They represent answers to a questionnaire distributed by an external committee that investigated the IPCC last year. The names of the respondents were removed before this document was made public. All bolding has been added by me.
Now remember, these are scientists talking:
International action on climate change needs universal government “buy-in” on the state of knowledge. The purpose of the IPCC is to provide the mechanism for this and, overall, it does this quite well. (p. 672)
This is the key objective of the IPCC: to achieve ‘buy-in‘ by all countries to a common view of the current state of knowledge. (p. 670)
Government buy-in is the main raison d’etre of the IPCC. (p. 173)
The line-by-line approval sessions…ensure that there is no more discussion about the science in the climate negotiations… (p. 583)
The process is difficult, but I see that it serves its purpose of binding governments to the scientific facts. (p. 112)
Without this consensus process that ensures buy-in from all participating national delegations the value of the IPCC products would be diminished. (p. 588)
…the intergovernmental part of the IPCC is essential. Countries need to buy into the conclusions word for word if they are to be the basis of subsequent negotiations. (p. 344)
The IPCC is a successful organization that with scarce resources produced policy relevant assessments, which are critical for the climate change negotiation… (p. 199)
If IPCC was a purely scientific body, then there would be no reason for countries to ‘buy in‘ to the conclusions, and the possibility for misinterpreting the conclusions (or simply ignoring them) would be high. (p. 451)
There are obvious concerns with regard to line by line approval of the summary of a scientific document by government representatives. However, on the other hand the key reason for IPCC‘s influence has been engagement and buy in by the governments. I am much less concerned, compared to others, about this aspect of the IPCC process. (p. 365)
The IPCC is a strange hybrid. Therefore necessarily messy. But also necessary to get buy in. (p. 413)
Although I have been critical of the nature of the governmental input to IPCC in the past, I now regard it as necessary, if governments are going to buy in to the conclusions of the assessments. (p. 668)
…governments are absolutely in charge of the IPCC process and clearly want to control it themselves and will continue to do so. One could imagine a scientist-controlled Panel…but it is not going to happen. The great advantage of the current government-controlled IPCC is that the governments cannot easily reject the IPCC findings after the fact…As a prime example, every word of the Summaries for Policymakers has been unanimously approved by all governments. The price paid for this government buy-in can be steep, but that is just a fact of life. (pp. 85-86)
This is one of the strong points of the process. Because of government involvement, IPCC reports the politically-relevant questions, which are often not the most scientifically relevant questions. Given the purpose it serves, political relevance is more important than scientific relevance. (p. 44)
When people repeatedly use a term such as “buy-in” they are speaking the language of politics. The scientists who work on IPCC reports may be accomplished in their own field, but there is no reason to believe they are any more politically sophisticated than the average person.
Which means there’s a real possibility that the IPCC will one day be seen in a rather different light. It may be viewed as a textbook case of how badly things can go wrong when political amateurs are recruited and manipulated by UN-grade political operatives.