Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?

Over the past 5 years, I have dedicated an immense amount of time and effort to serving as the Co-Coordinating Lead Author (CLA) of Chapter 13, “International Cooperation:  Agreements and Instruments,” of Working Group III (Mitigation) of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  It has been an intense and exceptionally time-consuming process, which recently culminated in a grueling week spent in Berlin, Germany, April 5-13, 2014, at the government approval sessions, in which some 195 country delegations discussed, revised, and ultimately approved (line-by-line) the “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM), which condenses more than 2,000 pages of text from 15 chapters into an SPM document of 33 pages.  Several of the CLAs present with me in Berlin commented that given the nature and outcome of the week, the resulting document should probably be called the Summary by Policymakers, rather than the Summary for Policymakers.

Before returning to the topic of today’s blog entry — the SPM process and outcome — I want to emphasize that the IPCC’s Working Group III “Technical Summary” and the underlying Working Group III report of 15 chapters were completely untouched by the government approval process of the Summary for Policymakers.   So, the crucial IPCC products – the Technical Summary and the 15 chapters of WG 3 – retain their full scientific integrity, and they merit serious public attention.  Now, back to the SPM process and outcome …

The process of the government approval sessions was exceptionally frustrating, and the outcome of that process – the final SPM – was in some regards disappointing.  Two weeks ago, immediately after returning from Berlin, I sent a letter to the Co-Chairs of Working Group III — Ottmar Edenhofer, Ramon Pichs-Madruga, and Youba Sokona — expressing my disappointment with the government approval process and its outcome in regard to the part of the assessment for which I had primary responsibility, SPM.5.2, International Cooperation.  At the time, I did not release my letter publically, because I did not want to get in the way of the important messages that remained in the SPM and were receiving public attention through the Working Group III release.

With two weeks having passed, it is now unlikely that the broader release of my letter will obscure the news surrounding the Working Group III release, and – importantly — it could be constructive to the process going forward, as the IPCC leadership and others think about the path ahead for future climate assessments.  Rather than summarizing or annotating my letter, I believe it makes most sense simply to reproduce it, and let it stand – or fall – as originally written.  It follows below.


From: Stavins, Robert
Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2014 4:06 PM

TO: Ottmar Edenhofer, Co-Chair, Working Group III, AR5, IPCC

        Ramon Pichs-Madruga, Co-Chair, Working Group III, AR5, IPCC

        Youba Sokona, Co-Chair, Working Group III, AR5, IPCC

 CC:  Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman, IPCC

          Jan Minx, Head of Technical Support Unit, Working Group III

 FROM:   Robert Stavins

 SUBJECT:     Thoughts on the Government Approval Process for SPM.5.2 (International Cooperation) of the Summary for Policymakers of Working Group 3, Fifth Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Dear Ottmar, Ramon, and Youba:

I am writing to you today to express my disappointment and frustration with the process and outcome of the government approval meetings in Berlin this past week, at which the assembled representatives from the world’s governments, considered and, in effect, fundamentally revised or rejected parts of the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of IPCC Working Group 3 over a period of five long days (and nights).  My focus in this letter is exclusively on one section of the SPM, namely SPM.5.2, International Cooperation.  I am not representing nor referring to any other parts of the SPM.

Also, none of what I have to say should be taken as reflecting negatively on you (the Co-Chairs of Working Group 3), the WG 3 Technical Support Unit (TSU), nor the overall leadership of the IPCC.  On the contrary, I thought that all of you did a remarkable job over the five years of work on AR5, as well as during the week in Berlin.  The problems about which I’m writing arose despite, not because of your excellent leadership and support.

More broadly, the problems I identify in this letter are not a consequence of personal failings of any of the individuals involved.  My intent is not to criticize the country representatives, the IPCC leadership, the TSU, the Lead Authors, or the Coordinating Lead Authors.  The problems I seek to identify are structural, not personal.

Further, as Co-Coordinating Lead Author (CLA) of Chapter 13 (International Cooperation:  Agreements and Instruments) of the underlying report, I had primary responsibility – together with my Co-Coordinating Lead Author, Dr. Zou Ji – for drafting the text for Section SPM.5.2 (International Cooperation) of the SPM, and nothing in this letter should implicate Zou Ji, for whom I have great respect and with whom I have enjoyed working.  He may or may not share any of the views I express below.

Another caveat is that none of the problems I describe in this letter apply to either the Technical Summary nor the underlying Chapter 13.  Indeed, because of the problems with Section SPM.5.2 on international cooperation in the SPM, it is important that interested parties refer instead to the Technical Summary, or better yet, the original Chapter 13.

In this letter, I will not comment on the government review and revision process that affected other parts of the SPM, other than to note that as the week progressed, I was surprised by the degree to which governments felt free to recommend and sometimes insist on detailed changes to the SPM text on purely political, as opposed to scientific bases.

The general motivations for government revisions – from most (but not all) participating delegations – appeared to be quite clear in the plenary sessions. These motivations were made explicit in the “contact groups,” which met behind closed doors in small groups with the lead authors on particularly challenging sections of the SPM. In these contact groups, government representatives worked to suppress text that might jeopardize their negotiating stances in international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

I fully understand that the government representatives were seeking to meet their own responsibilities toward their respective governments by upholding their countries’ interests, but in some cases this turned out to be problematic for the scientific integrity of the IPCC Summary for Policymakers.  Such involvement — and sometimes interference — with the scientific process of the IPCC was particularly severe in section SPM.5.2 on international cooperation.  It is to that section of the SPM that I now turn.

In the early morning of Monday, April 7, 2014, a draft of SPM.5.2 was completed and approved by the assembled team of CLAs in Berlin.  The draft, a copy of which is attached as Item A, had been extensively revised over the preceding months in response to comments received from governments around the world (to whom multiple drafts had been sent as part of the normal IPCC process). The draft in Item A was sent to governments on April 7th through the IPCC’s PaperSmart system.

The plenary session of government representatives turned their attention to SPM.5.2 at approximately 10:00 pm on Friday, April 11th.  When it became clear that the country delegates were unwilling to move forward with the consideration of the text in plenary, you established a contact group to work on acceptable text.  You gave the group 2 hours to come up with acceptable text.  That group began its work at approximately 11:00 pm (and continued past 1:00 am on Saturday, April 12th).

The contact group included representatives from of a diverse set of countries, ranging from small to large, and from poor to rich.  Hence, I do not believe that the responsibility for the problems that arose are attributable to any specific country or even set of countries.  On the contrary, nearly all delegates in the meeting demonstrated the same perspective and approach, namely that any text that was considered inconsistent with their interests and positions in multilateral negotiations was treated as unacceptable.  In fact, several (perhaps the majority) of the country representatives in the SPM.5.2 contact group identified themselves as negotiators in the UNFCCC negotiations.  To ask these experienced UNFCCC negotiators to approve text that critically assessed the scholarly literature on which they themselves are the interested parties, created an irreconcilable conflict of interest.  Thus, the country representatives were placed in an awkward and problematic position by the nature of the process.

Over the course of the two hours of the contact group deliberations, it became clear that the only way the assembled government representatives would approve text for SPM.5.2 was essentially to remove all “controversial” text (that is, text that was uncomfortable for any one individual government), which meant deleting almost 75% of the text, including nearly all explications and examples under the bolded headings. In more than one instance, specific examples or sentences were removed at the will of only one or two countries, because under IPCC rules, the dissent of one country is sufficient to grind the entire approval process to a halt unless and until that country can be appeased.

I understand that country representatives were only doing their job, so I do not implicate them personally; however, the process the IPCC followed resulted in a process that built political credibility by sacrificing scientific integrity.  The final version of SPM.5.2, as agreed to by the contact group, and subsequently approved in plenary (at approximately 3:00 am, April 12th), is attached to this letter as Item B.

No institution can be all things for all people, and this includes the IPCC.  In particular, in the case of the IPCC’s review of research findings on international cooperation, there may be an inescapable conflict between scientific integrity and political credibility.  If the IPCC is to continue to survey scholarship on international cooperation in future assessment reports, it should not put country representatives in the uncomfortable and fundamentally untenable position of reviewing text in order to give it their unanimous approval.  Likewise, the IPCC should not ask lead authors to volunteer enormous amounts of their time over multi-year periods to carry out work that will inevitably be rejected by governments in the Summary for Policymakers.

I hope I have made it clear that my purpose is not to condemn the country representatives, the IPCC leadership, the TSU, the Lead Authors, or the Coordinating Lead Authors.  The problem is structural, not personal.  In my view, with the current structure and norms, it will be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to produce a scientifically sound and complete version of text for the SPM on international cooperation that can survive the country approval process.

More broadly, I urge the IPCC to direct public attention to the documents produced by the lead authors that were subject to government (and expert) comment, but not subject to government approval. I believe that tremendous public good would arise from publicizing the key findings of the Technical Summary and the individual chapter Executive Summaries, instead of the Summary for Policymakers.  I know that as the leaders of the IPCC, you see it to be your responsibility to convey to the public (and policy makers) the results of the hard scientific work that the hundreds of lead authors put into the report over the past five years, and not simply the constrained version of the Summary for Policymakers produced over the past week.

The mission of the IPCC is important, and the scientific work carried out by the hundreds of lead authors of AR5 Working Group 3 was solid and important, as validated by the Technical Summary and the underlying chapters.  I hope this letter can be constructive and helpful for the future work of the IPCC.

Best wishes,


Robert N. Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business & Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Director, Harvard Environmental Economics Program
Director of Graduate Studies, Ph.D. Programs in Public Policy and Political Economy & Government
Co-Chair, Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs
Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements
Blog: An Economic View of the Environment          SSRN Paper Downloads
Mail: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 79 JFK St., Room L-306, Box 11, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone: 617-495-1820   E-Mail:
University Fellow, Resources for the Future Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research



Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

13 thoughts on “Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?”

  1. Your letter has put flesh on the intuitive skeleton in my mind.
    It seems to me that no objective scientific information can
    survive such a convoluted process and the only possible means
    of obtaining any useful scientific guidance, is to take up your
    You have written a very measured letter (in my opinion) which
    would only upset someone who was incensed by receiving any
    communication other than a congratulatory note.
    Your action is to be admired and supported.

  2. Good statement. I was in Berlin as one-man delegation of Czech Republic. In fact, the WGIII is not my cup of tea, I am climatologist. So I did not discuss about it in plenary. As one-man delegation I was not able to take part in any contact groups.

    But I am convinced the SPMs is not good text because of country delegation approve process. I will suggest to IPCC not to produce SPM, but stay with TS as science text without any governmental approving.

  3. Robert All of the efforts of the WG3 group are based on the temperature forecasts made by the WG1 climate modelers. It is now abundantly clear that these models are inherently useless for climate forecasting and that the work of the WG3 group as a whole has no empirical scientific basis in addition to the particular problems with the SPM which you have outlined .
    Similar discrepancies exist between the WG1 science and WG1 SPM sections. For example in the AR5 Summary for Policymakers the IPCC glossed over the developing pause and indeed cooling trend in global temperatures suggesting several ad hoc epicycle like reasons for the lack of warming over the last 16 years.
    In spite of this , while forecasting about the same amount of future warming as the 2007 AR4 report , the AR5 SPM report irresponsibly raised the certainty of the IPCC forecasts and attributions from 90 – 95% in order to give the impression of more certainty after another 6 years of new data and work.
    Again – the key factor in making CO2 emission control policy and the basis for the WG2 and 3 sections of AR5 is the climate sensitivity to CO2 . By AR5 – WG1 the IPCC itself is saying: (Section
    “The assessed literature suggests that the range of climate sensitivities and transient responses covered by CMIP3/5 cannot be narrowed significantly by constraining the models with observations of the mean climate and variability, consistent with the difficulty of constraining the cloud feedbacks from observations ”
    In plain English this means that the IPCC contributors have no idea what the climate sensitivity is and that therefore that there is no credible basis for the WG 2 and 3 reports and that the Government policy makers have no empirical scientific basis for the UNFCCC process and for the politicians economically destructive climate and energy policies.
    The entire UNFCCC – IPCC circus is a political exercise with no connection to the real climate.
    Other forecasting methods are required in order to provide a basis for policy discussion. For forecasts of the probable coming cooling based on the natural 60 year and 1000 year quasi-periodicities in the temperature data and the use of the neutron count and 10Be record as the best proxy for solar “activity” see several posts over the last couple 0f years at
    It is really amazing that the WG2 and WG3 authors have been all working earnestly away on the basis of a future warming when it is more likely that the world will cool for the next 20 years and perhaps for hundreds of years beyond that. If we want to worry about extreme events the record of the Dansgaard – Oeschger events in the last glacial period and the 8200 year cooling event and the LIA in the Holocene should provide enough concern to keep the doom-lovers busy.

  4. “In my view, with the current structure and norms, it will be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to produce a scientifically sound and complete version of text for the SPM on international cooperation that can survive the country approval process.”

    Indeed, since the SPM is supposed to be the raw material for policymakers to use to form their opinions and policies, allowing delegates to force conformity with their pre-existing positions utterly defeats the purpose.

  5. Professor Stavins,

    You may or may not be aware that your post (which contains some excellent points) has already been seized upon by right-wing media, who are enthusiastically presenting it as evidence that the IPCC is fundamentally corrupt and that the underlying science they have worked to prepare is therefore somehow suspect. As someone who has followed the IPCC’s work closely for years, I consider this dangerously close to a distortion of your comments.

    Without holding you to any uncomfortable specifics: in your professional opinion, do you consider the bulk of the work done by IPCC contributors to be sound, and thus do you consider anthropogenic climate change to be the major concern that the IPCC’s multiple reports clearly indicate?

    My reasonable assumption (and, I would hope, the assumption of most of your readers) is that the considerable body of evidence supporting AGW is in your academic opinion sound, and that the actual work of IPCC contributors and the data they have collected and presented is largely beyond reproach. Would you agree in principle?

    Honestly it pains me a little to have to ask this, but any time anyone speaks up with criticism of the IPCC, there is inevitably a groundswell of concerted attempts to paint such criticism as invalidating the entire body of work the IPCC has worked for years to compile. It would be enormously helpful (and to some unfortunate degree, necessary) if you would clarify that your contention here lies not strictly with the findings of the IPCC team, nor their broad concerns regarding the danger presented by AGW, but the attempt to legislate and control the _presentation_ of these findings, evidently for political purposes.

    Thank you for your time, and thanks for your efforts in assisting the IPCC with their report.

  6. To the unaided eye, this just looks like the text was shortened by 60%. All main points still seem to be there, yet with references to the main text replacing verbose descriptions and examples.

    How exactly do these changes compromise “scientific integrity”? What are the main messages that you wanted to get across, but which have been removed or watered down?

  7. Do you have any thoughts on Richard Tol withdrawing from the writing team? I was in front of an environmental economics class today talking about Nordhaus’ book and wondering aloud if economists are becoming “fringe” views.

  8. Dear Robert Stavins,
    Thanks for bringing attention to this very critical issue. I do share your views and concerns about the IPCC Government Approval. Your comments have reminded me about trade-off analysis in policy evaluation, which in this case suggests that governmental approval is gained but at the expense of hard scientific work. When dealing with the media (and students) in past weeks here in Sweden/Germany, I’ve referred extensively to the Technical Summary. However, there has been a constant interest to discuss and dig deep into the SMP. One reason seems to be that the SMP is, relatively speaking, ‘easy-to-follow’ but paradoxically also more vulnerable to criticism and controversy (which is always a point of interest for the media), compared to the documents that were subject to expert review. Your specific recommendation about raising public attention/awareness about the documents that were NOT subject to government approval (like the TS) is very valid. Communicating complex science in simple (policy) terms is fundamentally important these days.

    Luis Mundaca (LA Ch3)

  9. The links to the texts don’t function, but they can be found at and

    My impression is that a many considered approaches to international co-operation (eg fixing in trade agreements) were removed from the SPM for no comprehensible reason and so will be less likely to be seen by policymakers or become policy. I would echo DW, and dispute Norman Page’s contrarian approach to WG1.

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