Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up

A week ago, I wrote at this blog about my recent frustrations with the government approval process of one part of the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Working Group III (WG3) report, namely the section in the Summary for Policymakers (SPM.5.2) on “International Cooperation,” for which I had major responsibility.

In that post, I described how the government approval process, which took place in Berlin in early April, had led to the deletion of a significant fraction of the text of SPM.5.2, not because governments questioned its scientific validity, but because they found various passages to be inconsistent with their respective positions and national interests within the ongoing international climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  (That post took the form of a letter to the co-chairs of WG3 – Ottmar Edenhofer, Ramon Pichs-Madruga, and Youba Sokona.  They have since sent a thoughtful response and agreed for me to provide a link to their letter here.)

Why a Follow-Up Post?

My first post has been widely reported in the press.  Some of this coverage was accurate and reasonable.  Pilita Clark of the Financial Times, in particular, wrote an excellent article that accurately presented my views and conveyed some additional useful insights.  Other press coverage, however, inaccurately stated or suggested that my critique of the IPCC process was much broader than it was.  This was despite my very careful caveats in the first blog post, in which I tried hard to communicate clearly the limited focus of my critique, namely the effects of the government approval process on one section (SPM.5.2) of the Summary for Policymakers.

Some in the more fringe elements of the press and blogosphere quickly capitalized on the situation by distorting the message of my original post to meet their own objectives – by stating or implying that I found fault with the overall IPCC process and reports themselves, that I have positioned myself as an opponent of the important work of the IPCC, and/or that I am a skeptic of the science of climate change!  Because of these over-the-top distortions, I am writing this second post to place my original critique in the context of the overall IPCC process and of the IPCC’s recent Fifth Assessment Report.

Understanding the IPCC Process and Reports

The central purpose of the IPCC Assessment Reports is to survey and synthesize the best published research on climate change, including its causes, consequences, and potential mitigation.  Each of the last several reports has therefore consisted of three volumes, prepared by separate scientific working groups, which address respectively:  (1) research from the natural sciences on climate change itself — whether, how, and to what extent it is happening; (2) the impacts of climate change on natural systems and on human society — and how society might adapt to climate change; and (3) approaches to the mitigation of climate change, including, importantly, policy options for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.  The chapter of which I was a Co-Coordinating Lead Author, “International Cooperation:  Agreements and Instruments,” fell into this third volume. (See my previous post for further details.)

Hundreds of the world’s leading scientists conducting research on the various topics addressed by the IPCC’s Assessment Reports spend countless un-compensated hours over several years preparing the reports, motivated only by a commitment to scientific rigor and the desire to better understand climate change and its implications.  A core principle of the IPCC process is that the reports should be “policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive” and should synthesize the peer-reviewed literature as objectively as possible.

The IPCC’s three-volume reports — including the recent Fifth Assessment Report — largely succeed in accurately and objectively synthesizing the best scientific research. The reports are, as a result, absolutely essential resources for both understanding climate change and formulating responses to it.

In addition to being divided into three volumes along substantive lines, the recent Fifth Assessment Report is presented in three different “packages”:  (1) the full volumes, each of which consist of multiple chapters totaling about 2,000 pages; (2) the Technical Summaries (TS), which condense the full volumes into documents of less than 100 pages each; and (3) the Summary for Policymakers (SPM), which at one-third the length of the TS, was the focus of my previous blog post.

I emphasized in that post that none of the deletions and revisions I described regarding the section on international cooperation in the 33-page SPM had any effects whatsoever on the key, foundational products of five years of work on AR5 WG3:  the Technical Summary (three times the length of the Summary for Policymakers, but no more “technical” than the SPM), and – most important – the 2,000 pages of the 15 underlying chapters, including Chapter 13, “International Cooperation:  Agreements and Instruments” (with 79 pages of text, and 57 pages of references).  Only the SPM is subject to the (line-by-line) government approval process.

Furthermore, even the severe cuts to the section on international cooperation in the SPM – the focus of my concerns – should be understood in context.  The governments never added text to the section; rather they deleted text, because in the line-by-line approval process they could not agree among each other.  As I explained in my previous post, the government representatives were doing their job – looking out for the interests of their respective countries.  Any text that was considered inconsistent with their countries’ interests and positions in multilateral negotiations was treated as unacceptable.

Overall, my serious concerns about the effects of the government approval process on one section of the SPM should be considered in the much larger context of what is an exceptionally valuable scientific resource for those concerned with climate change.

A Word on the Government Approval Process

Notwithstanding the problems and challenges of the government approval process, which I highlighted in my previous post, it is important to note the merits of the process, as well, because there are some distinct advantages of the IPCC being an intergovernmental organization and having some aspect of the Assessment Reports requiring government approval (namely, the SPM).

First, as I emphasized in my previous post, government approval has brought political credibility to the IPCC that it would probably not otherwise enjoy.  Second, this process forces member governments to pay attention to the reports, and agree that a substantial body of research on climate change is valid (which would not be the case with a non-governmental organization). It is hardly trivial that the world’s governments have formally (and unanimously) agreed — through the IPCC process — that climate change is real, caused by human activity, and poses significant threats.

My Bottom Line

In the short term, I am continuing to work within the IPCC, as I currently serve as a lead author of the AR5 Synthesis Report, which brings together the essence of the reports of Working Groups 1, 2, and 3.  That work will be completed in October of this year.

In addition, I hope to work constructively with my colleagues within the IPCC, its member governments, and others to address our shared concerns about the SPM approval process — particularly with regard to policy-relevant material in the third (Working Group III) volume of the assessment reports, and most especially in regard to text on international cooperation, which is so intimately connected with the UN climate negotiations in which those same governments are deeply involved.

I conclude this post with the final paragraph of my previous one, which featured my letter to the IPCC WG3 leadership:  “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.”

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, 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.