Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
The IPCC documents most likely to be read by outsiders – the Summaries for Policymakers – are not scientific statements at all. Rather, they are the result of a messy, arduous political negotiation that pits scientists against politicians.
It is often often said that television destroyed American Senator Joe McCarthy back in the 1950s. Initially, the public was sympathetic to his Cold War concerns that Communists might covertly be filling senior government positions. But after he turned the matter into a witch hunt – and after his Senate hearings began to be televised – everyone saw clearly that he was an obnoxious bully. Public support evaporated and he died shortly thereafter, of medical conditions aggravated by alcohol abuse.
For years, we’ve been told the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific body comprised of the world’s top experts and best scientists. We’ve been told these preeminent minds have studied matters carefully and concluded that human-caused global warming is real and dangerous.
But there is the truth – and then there is the whole truth. Every government in the world belongs to the IPCC. Included in the mix are affluent democracies, military dictatorships, Communist states, religious theocracies, long-simmering conflicts, political intrigue, and blocs that vote together. In other words, rather than being insulated from crass political considerations, the IPCC is a manifestation of the most politically-riven body the world has ever known – the United Nations.
The experts who write IPCC reports are nominated not by science academies but by Environment Ministry bureaucrats. In some countries this means skeptical scientists are frozen out by the sort of self-selected true-believers one would expect to find in government departments focused on the environment. In corrupt and impoverished nations cronyism – rather than expertise – accounts for the presence of some of the nominees (more on that here).
The issues that are examined (and ignored) by the IPCC aren’t selected solely on scientific grounds. Rather, there is a “scoping process” in which Environment Ministry bureaucrats tell the scientists what kind of information would be most useful (see the final quote near the end of this blog post).
Topic choices reflect national agendas. They may also strengthen the position of Environment ministries in internal power struggles. (In many European coalition governments, for example, the Environment Minister is one of the few Green Party members elected. Since the Environment portfolio typically doesn’t carry the same prestige as Finance/Treasury or Justice, Environment Ministers inevitably strive to make themselves more important and influential. A crisis that threatens life-as-we-know-it fits that bill nicely.)
If the IPCC were solely a scientific organization the scientists would write a report, hand it over to governments, and that would be the end of the matter. But that’s not what happens. After IPCC reports are finished, a series of meetings take place. Called plenaries, they are attended by some of the senior authors/scientists as well as by representatives of the world’s governments (again, these are often Environment Ministry people rather than normal diplomats).
During the plenaries, all the governments present must accept, adopt, and approve the IPCC reports (see the definitions on page 2 here). There must be unanimous agreement that the information these reports contain is true and correct. Why? Because, as I’ve previously reported, IPCC reports serve a dual purpose.
The public has been told these reports establish what is known about climate change. But they also pave the way for a political goal. Before a treaty mandating new measures to fight climate change can be negotiated it is necessary that all the world’s countries first “buy in” to a particular set of scientific conclusions.
For each of the IPCC’s three working groups, a Summary for Policymakers is drafted by IPCC scientists. But the wording of these documents is not considered final until the text has been unanimously agreed to at a plenary.
It is important to understand that the 2007 IPCC report is 3,000 pages long. The only documents that decision-makers such as legislators, policy wonks, and regulators (in addition to opinion-makers such as journalists) are ever likely to read therefore are these Summaries.
This means that the most influential IPCC documents are not scientific statements at all. Rather, they are the result of a messy, arduous process that pits scientists against politicians. They are the result of a process in which the integrity of the scientific message is wholly dependent on the ability of individual scientists to stand firm in the face of a political onslaught.
These plenaries – in which the scientist-authored IPCC summaries are actively re-written – take place behind closed doors and drag on for days. To my knowledge, no video records are kept. That is unfortunate. Because it seems to me that a few television cameras would destroy – decisively, once and for all – the fiction that the IPCC is a scientific body.
In the absence of such cameras, we must settle for the next best thing. Last year 232 people filled out a questionnaire distributed by an external committee investigating the IPCC. Those answering the questionnaire were asked specifically for their thoughts on the plenaries. A selection of their responses appear below.
(All answers, minus the names of the respondents, are collected in a massive 678-page PDF here. The remarks below come from IPCC insiders – authors, review editors, and bureau members. All bolding has been added by me.)
First, some general impressions to set the stage:
I suspect that…anyone who has not been involved in this process would scarcely believe how this meeting is managed; the expense, the length of the sessions, and the apparent pickiness of some of the discussion would strike many as a very poor way to conduct international business. (p. 114)
For [Working Group 2 in 2001 and 2007], this was an agonizing, frustrating process, as every sentence had to be wordsmithed on a screen in front of representatives of more than 100 governments, falling farther and farther beyond a realistic schedule by the hour. In Brussels in 2007, the process ran all night on the two final days. (p. 334)
IPCC Plenary meetings where Reports are approved are organized chaos. The hour by hour tensions are extraordinary and the process is dominated by countries that can send big delegations (so that members can spell each other). It is always sad to see paragraphs being debated while delegates from the countries whose interests are central try (vainly sometimes) to stay awake in the middle of the night. Authors sometimes want to drop heavy books just to wake up the house. (p. 344)
Every IPCC plenary that I have attended has been among the most physically and mentally challenging moments of my life… (p. 47)
From the viewpoint of an author, the adoption process which requires unanimous word-by-word agreement by more than [a] hundred governments is a most painful (and very inefficient) procedure. (page 2)
As a [coordinating lead author], I have observed the behaviour of the delegations from individual countries which certainly reflects a completely different mindset than my own as a scientist. The political intrigues which appear to be well known on the international scene are popping up again and again… (p. 43, a few typos edited out)
This is where I think the process fails. In my experience the summary for policy makers tends to be more of a political process than one of scientific précis. (p. 278)
When I attended the plenary, I felt that the compromise between scientific conclusions and the governments’ views were sometimes very difficult. (p. 154)
This is a very problematic process. Each country in the IPCC plenary is there to defend [their] own interest, not the collective interest or the science behind it. This is a pure political process that must be avoided. I was at the meeting were the IPCC  report was accepted. The process was really terrible for all points of view. Negotiations drive[n] by purely political issues is the main issue here. This must be changed. (p. 373)
Opinions about whether or not governments distort the IPCC’s scientific conclusions are mixed. In some people’s view, this is a non-issue:
I was surprised that science was never compromised by politics. (p. 36)
Governments tried to get the scientists to change their conclusions to some extent, but less than I had thought beforehand…Through the process the scientists had full control of the end product and got their will through. There is no basis in claims that the science was changed due to political pressure. (p. 112)
In the end, the [Summary for Policymakers] adopted did closely resemble the draft prepared by the scientist authors. It was fully consistent with the main report… (p. 85)
For a scientist it is a strange procedure but I can see that it serves a useful political role to do it this way…The science survived this process intact. (p. 395)
There is no doubt that governments try to get changes made to the Reports to suit their political views…In my view this has not succeeded as the scientists have held firm against such changes. (p. 61)
Others say that attempts to tamper with the science are usually – but not always – successfully resisted:
I’ve been involved with two of these [plenaries]. In both cases the [Working Group 1] chairs ran the plenary quite well and kept government mischief to a minimum… (p. 4)
In my experience…the efforts of certain governments to bias the result were largely successfully rebuffed… (p. 7)
A painfully slow process…which often debates semantics and national agendas rather than addressing the validity of the statements, but one which…very seldom in my experience results in a substantial distortion of the message. At worst it leads to “lowest common denominator” statements – how diluted does the statement need to be before it can attract consensus. (p. 281)
Every one I went to went well (although messy) – I saw the overall process as improving the [Summary for Policymakers]…For the most part I have seen the governments take a fairly careful “hands-off” approach when scientific decisions are being made, but not always. (pp. 19-20)
In many cases individual country interests conflict with some phrases in some reports which need to be changed or diluted, of course with the approval of the lead authors and without changing the scientific statement. I think this slightly affects the strength of this summary report when adopted. (p. 94)
Yet another group of people believe that government interference does, in fact, alter IPCC documents substantially:
This process really has got to change. The requirement of unanimous line-by-line approval of the summary for policy makers by member states is very disruptive and can undermine the scientific process if special interests become involved. There has been some legitimate criticism of the IPCC process regarding certain member states attempting to water down some of the conclusions in the summary for policy makers in final plenary. (p. 73)
…often we see in the discussion that scientific merit gives way to political priorities. (p. 109)
This is an awful procedure and should be changed. It has far too much politics and the final version has little relation to the one suggested by the scientists…While the scientists ensure that what is there is accurate, the balance can change and the overall message can get distorted. (p. 139)
…the line-by-line negotiation of the [Summaries for Policymakers] and the Synthesis Report brings in political considerations that are often not presented in the underlying science. Thus, the politics curtails the science. This has to be minimized. (p. 161)
Too much policy influence plays through this process. Countries can really change a message. (p. 296)
The political involvement when the report is adopted by IPCC plenary is too strong, in my opinion. (p. 318)
This process is too influenced by political considerations. In my experience, [Summaries for Policymakers] tend to be somewhat biased and do not reflect the substance of the chapters. (p. 233)
Others point out that the plenary process practically invites errors into what is supposed to be an authoritative scientific document. Some plenary participants end up agreeing to particular wording not because they’re convinced it’s accurate but in the interests of moving the meeting along. Material appearing toward the end of a summary document may also have been rushed through due to time constraints:
This process needs [a] considerable re-look since the policymakers summary finally passes via the process of ‘attrition’ [rather] than ‘reason’. The time management of the process is poor, at best. The dialogue is more political than scientific. The summary for policymakers therefore comes out as a very diluted (and compromised) document. (pp. 79-80; a few typos edited out)
It was a bitter process [in 2007], especially for [Working Group 2]…At the end when time was out and everybody was tired something was changed and passed in a hurry and carelessly. (p. 578)
Precious time was wasted by unnecessary comments at the last plenary and resulted in a rush to finish the report. (p. 134)
For [the Working Group 2 portion of the 2007 report] there was simply too much material to cover in five days. This needs to be planned in a much more realistic way. (p. 148)
…tends to be very slow at first, but then to proceed in spurts, with a major acceleration towards the end as minds are focused on the need to approve an assessment before the Plenary time runs out! This may have the undesirable effect of subjecting material in the latter part of an [Summary for Policymakers] to less scrutiny than that in the early part… (p. 293)
We have been told that IPCC reports are the careful, considered opinion of the world’s best scientists. But this is not the case.
First, the process by which those scientists are selected is biased. Second, the topics they examine are not chosen on scientific merit alone, but are influenced by Environment Ministry bureaucrats who may have their own (political) motivations. Third, the IPCC documents most likely to be read by outsiders – the Summaries – are produced via a flawed, blatantly political negotiation that involves the participation of the entire United Nations.
This is not science. It is politics disguising itself as science.