Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Fairy Tales on the Road to Rio

Next week another save-the-world convention will commence. Many of the same people who attended the UN’s climate summit in Durban last December and the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit last month will rub shoulders yet again in London at the Planet Under Pressure conference.

Dignitaries and activists will once more insist that the situation is dire. They’ll further declare that hellfire and damnation await if we don’t renounce our sinful ways.

These people have a plan. They’re also relentless. Think I’m joking? Surf on over to the policy briefs section of the conference website. Each of these nine briefs informs us, at the bottom of its first page, that it was commissioned by organizers of the London event, but that its ultimate purpose is to influence still another meeting – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development scheduled for June in Rio de Janeiro. (This is colloquially referred to as Rio +20, since the Earth Summit was held there 20 years ago, back in 1992.)

We’re advised, on the website, that these briefs

specifically target policy-makers in the Rio+20 process, aiming to give them access to the latest scientific thinking on sustainable development issues.

We’re also assured that the documents have been “produced by the scientific community.” But the truth is rather different. Indeed, there are three significant problems with this collection of documents.

Brief #1, for example, declares that humans

are putting unprecedented pressure on our freshwater resources. We simply cannot continue to use water as wastefully as we have in the past… [backup link here]

If one looks closely, however, the final page of that document admits that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, produced by scientists. Instead, it was compiled by the Earth System Governance Project – a social science network that explores “political solutions” to environmental issues (backup link). The brief’s lead author is Frank Biermann – a “professor of political science and of environmental policy.”

Brief #3 was also written by the Earth System Governance Project with Biermann as lead author (backup link). It includes dramatic, declarative statements such as:

human-induced environmental degradation is reaching unprecedented levels. Human societies must change course and steer away from critical tipping points in the earth system that might lead to rapid and irreversible change… (p. 1)

We need to have a ‘constitutional moment’ in world politics, akin to the major transformative shift…that led to the establishment of the United Nations… (p. 8)

The phrase governments must is used five times in this document. We’re also told what societies, institutions, treaties, and regimes must do. In other words, some of these documents aren’t about science at all. They’re pure politics. They’re all about how societies should behave, about the sorts of decisions we might hypothetically and collectively make.

Another concern is that some of them were written by individuals affiliated with UN bodies. Brief #4, which deals with biodiversity, was compiled by staff members from three organizations (backup link). The Scientific Committee of DIVERSITAS is listed first. It’s partially sponsored by UNESCO. Next are two sections of the Global Environmental Facility – which is made up of at least five UN organizations. Finally, there are the staffers from the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity.

Quick summation: a brief that we’re told represents the latest scientific thinking has actually been written by UN employees. The UN is orchestrating the entire affair. There may be lots of chatter in these documents about the importance of democracy, but what we see here is UN personnel deciding in advance what solutions should be pursued. Ideas aren’t bubbling up from the grassroots. They’re being selected – and promoted – by UN personnel well in advance.

Similarly, among the seven authors of Brief #2 we find two UN employees. Leo Horn-Phathanothai is a policy specialist with UNEP.  Keith Wiebe is an agricultural economist with the Food and Agricultural Organization. Did I mention that three of the eight documents in this brief’s reference list were produced by the UN itself?

Brief #7 is also of concern. It grandiosely declares that “Humanity is at a crossroads” and uses the word must 17 times. Who wrote it? People associated with the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change – which happens to be sponsored by the United Nations University. This means that the UN’s fingerprints are all over a document that declares:

An urgent need for a new economic model exists…The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has addressed this urgent need by proposing a ‘green economy’.

In Brief #6 the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) is a player once again. In spades. Here are the authors in the order in which they appear at the end of this document:

Every last one of the authors of this brief – which bears the title Human well-being for a planet under pressure is, therefore, affiliated with the UN (backup link). It’s difficult to believe that this is an accident.

Still another over-arching problem with these nine documents is the quality of their authors. In Brief #5 we find a familiar – and controversial – name. Sari Kovats was mistakenly considered a world-class expert by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It recruited her to help write major reports published in 1995, 2001, and 2007 – despite the fact that she didn’t receive her PhD until 2010.

As if that weren’t enough, Kovats also worked on Brief #9. In that instance she was joined by another infamous IPCC author, Tony McMichael. He’s the gent who cut-and-pasted sections from his own polemical work into the IPCC’s first health chapter.

Brief #2, discussed above, has Alison Misselhorn listed amongst its authors. She, too, was considered a world-class expert by the IPCC before she received her environmental science doctorate in 2006. For good measure, she is also among the dozens of IPCC authors who have formally linked their scientific reputations to the activist World Wildlife Fund (see the discussion here and here).

These nine documents are not, therefore, what they seem to be. Many of the authors are not scientists in the way that term is normally understood. They are communications managers, economists, sociologists, and political science professors. Moreover, a significant number of them are affiliated with the UN. Since the stated purpose of these documents is to influence the behaviour of world leaders at a UN-sponsored gathering, this is a serious problem.

Nor is there any reason to believe that these people are representative of the scientific community. They have, instead, been hand-picked. They have been chosen carefully (by whom remains unclear). In some cases they are exactly the same people that the IPCC has used since the mid-1990s to pronounce on exactly the same matters.

Much of what is being discussed in these documents is not science at all. Particular political choices are being advocated here. The word must does not get used repeatedly in dispassionate scientific papers.

To claim that these nine briefs represent the latest scientific thinking is a grotesque distortion.

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