The Future Role of Economics in the IPCC

Despite attacks from “climate skeptics” and other opponents of action on climate change, as well as its own missteps, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is broadly viewed as the world’s most legitimate scientific body that periodically assesses the economics of climate change for policy audiences.  But growing inefficiencies and other limitations have made the IPCC an increasingly problematic forum for qualified scholars.  This has been particularly true with regard to expertise from economics.

In an article that has appeared in the journal, Climate Change Economics, “Reforming the IPCC’s Assessment of Climate Change Economics,” my colleagues and I draw on our personal experiences writing the most recent IPCC report to identify some of the main problems faced by this institution and to propose some possible solutions.  My co-authors are, in alphabetical order:  Gabriel Chan (University of Minnesota), Carlo Carraro (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice), Ottmar Edenhofer (Technische Universität Berlin), and Charles Kolstad (Stanford University).

Background and Context

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program to assess and synthesize scientific research on climate change, its impacts, and response options. The IPCC is governed by its Plenary (composed of representatives of member governments), Bureau, Executive Committee, and Secretariat, which have distinct roles to provide oversight, develop procedures, and facilitate operation.

Coverage of the scientific literature is divided into three Working Groups that respectively assess climate change science, impacts and adaptation, and mitigation. Authors are nominated by national governments, and selected by the IPCC Bureau.  Authors serve as Coordinating Lead Authors (CLAs), with responsibility for leading the writing of a chapter, or as Lead Authors (LAs), who serve on a chapter team and participate in the writing process.  CLAs and LAs participate in numerous meetings held at diverse locations around the world.  Other experts serve as Contributing Authors (CAs), but the process for nominating these contributors is less formal, and the CAs typically do not participate in meetings and deliberations.

The assessment cycle for each round of the IPCC begins with a scoping process, with government representatives, together with a large group of scholars and other interested parties, drafting outlines of each chapter of the IPCC. Following the scoping process, the IPCC Plenary approves the outlines, sometimes after some modification.

CLAs and LAs are then nominated and subsequently approved by the IPCC Bureau.  CLAs and LAs serve as volunteer labor (although some have their travel expenses reimbursed).  In the Fifth Assessment Report Working Group III process, Lead Author Meetings (LAMs) were convened four times from July, 2011, to July, 2013.  These meetings took place in Changwon, Korea; Wellington, New Zealand; Vigo, Spain; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Over the course of the LAMs, CLAs led their chapter teams to review relevant literature and prepare chapter text, tables, and figures.

At three points during this process, external Expert Reviewers and government representatives submit detailed comments on subsequent draft. These comments, numbering in the many thousands in AR5, are made public following the assessment cycle, and, are checked by appointed Review Editors, who confirm that authors have replied adequately to comments. After four drafting rounds, the Working Group reports are preliminarily finalized.

Towards the end of the assessment cycles, authors of each Working Group, primarily CLAs, engage in writing two summary documents for each report, a Technical Summary (TS) and a Summary for Policymakers (SPM).   The Summary for Policymakers is subject to line-by-line approval by the IPCC Plenary (that is, the governments).  By the way, in case you’re interested, I have written about these government approval processes at length in previous essays at this blog:  Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken? (April 25, 2014); Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up (May 3, 2014); and The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 – Last Week’s Outcome in Copenhagen (November 4, 2014).

Finally, concurrent with much of the chapter-drafting process, a subset of CLAs and LAs from all three Working Groups convene to draft a Synthesis Report (SYR) and its own Summary for Policymakers.

I’m exhausted, just having written that summary of the multi-year process in which we were engaged in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

Categories of Key Reforms

I hope you’ll turn to our article in Climate Change Economics to read about the procedural and substantive reforms we propose.  So, here I’ll provide just a list as a guide to what you can find in the article.

We propose four potential procedural reforms that could lower the cost for volunteering as an IPCC author:

  • Improving interactions between governments and academics
  • Making IPCC operations more efficient
  • Clarifying and strengthening conflict of interest rules
  • Expanding outreach

In addition, we propose three reforms to the IPCC’s substantive coverage to clarify the IPCC’s role and to make participation as an author more intellectually rewarding:

  • Complementing the IPCC with other initiatives
  • Improving the integration of economics with other disciplines
  • Providing complete data for policymakers to make decisions

Looking Forward

My co-authors and I all found that working for the IPCC was at times enormously frustrating. As an IPCC author, particularly as a CLA, scholars can at times feel as if they are inside a political process, forced to respond to critical government comments based on political sensitivity, and even directly negotiating text with professional climate negotiators during the SPM Approval Sessions.

Despite such distractions and frustrations, however, the group of us believe that the IPCC remains a critical institution for the communication of scholarly knowledge about climate change. Engaging governments in often detailed deliberations over climate science, economics, and policy helps build a knowledge base that is broadly based. And the process of consensus-building around the SPM and the work of the underlying chapters play key motivating roles in driving international climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Going forward, the greatest risk is that scholars with sound and balanced understanding of the relevant literature may be deterred from participating as IPCC authors, and thereby surrender the process to quasi-academics with political motivations.  The potential harm to the policy process (and the reputation of academia) would be very great.

To prevent this from happening, the IPCC needs to reform its operational procedures and substantive scope so that qualified scholars perceive the time investment as authors to be worthwhile. At the same time, scholars of climate change economics should not dismiss the opportunity to provide a significant public service by volunteering for the IPCC in its future assessments.


The IPCC at a Crossroads

Love it or hate it, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) plays a very important role in global climate change policy around the world. This is because its reports enjoy a degree of credibility that renders them influential for public opinion, and – more important – it is because the reports are accepted as the definitive source on all matters climate change by international negotiators working under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In previous essays at this blog, I have written both about problems with the IPCC process (Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?, April 25, 2014) and about its significant merits (Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up, May 3, 2014; The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 – Last Week’s Outcome in Copenhagen, November 4, 2014).

The IPCC is now at a crossroads. Its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is now complete and largely successful (see my previous essays cited above). But, like many large institutions, the IPCC has experienced severe growing pains. Its size has increased to the point that it has become cumbersome, it sometimes fails to address the most important issues, and – most striking of all – it is now at risk of losing the participation of the world’s best scientists, due to the massive burdens that participation entails.

The good news is that this is a moment of considerable opportunity for addressing these and other challenges, because the direction of future assessments is now open for discussion and debate. Indeed, as I write this, the 195 member countries of the IPCC are meeting in plenary in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss – among other topics –the future of the IPCC.

A Potentially Important Meeting on Another Continent

Just one week before the Kenya IPCC sessions commenced, another, much smaller meeting took place about 4,000 miles northwest of Nairobi – in Berlin, Germany. Twenty-four participants with experience with the IPCC met in Berlin for a three-day workshop on the future of international climate-assessment processes, from February 18th through 20th. The aim of the workshop was to take stock and reflect on lessons learned in past assessments – including those of the IPCC – in order to identify options for improving future assessment processes.

Participants included social scientists who contributed in various capacities to AR5 and earlier IPCC assessments, users of IPCC reports (from national governments and intergovernmental organizations), and representatives of other stakeholder groups. Participants came from both developed and developing countries, and discussions were held under Chatham House rules, with no public attribution of any comments to individuals.

The workshop (titled “Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy”) was co-organized by four academic and research organizations based in Europe and the United States: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM, Italy), the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (USA), the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC, Germany), and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (USA).  FEEM, the Mercator Institute, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided financial support for the workshop.

Possible Ways Forward for the IPCC

As I noted above, now is a moment of considerable opportunity, because the future of the IPCC is open for discussion and debate, including at the meeting taking place this week in Nairobi. In this context, two of my co-organizers – Carlo Carraro of FEEM and Charles Kolstad of Stanford – and I have written a brief memorandum, based on our reflections on the Berlin workshop discussion. We describe a set of specific challenges and opportunities facing the IPCC, and provide options for improving the IPCC’s process of assessing scientific research on climate change. The complete memorandum is available here for your reading, and so I won’t attempt to summarize the highlights in this blog post, but simply note that our analysis focuses on five areas:

  • Improving integration and coordination across IPCC working groups, and enhancing the interface between scientists and governments;
  • Enhancing the interface between the IPCC and various social scientific disciplines and communities;
  • Increasing efforts – in innovative ways – to facilitate contributions of expertise from developing countries;
  • Increasing the efficiency of IPCC operations and ensuring the scientific integrity of its work products through targeted organizational improvements; and
  • Strengthening outreach and communications.

I should also note that Carraro served as Vice-Chair, and Kolstad and I served as Coordinating Lead Authors, all of Working Group III of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, but our organizing of the workshop and our authoring of this new memorandum were carried out in our roles as researchers, and completely independently of our former official capacities with the IPCC.

The Path Ahead

The memorandum is only the first of several products that will be forthcoming from this initiative. Over the coming months, we will produce a comprehensive report from the workshop (in time for the IPCC’s next meeting in October of this year, as well as the subsequent UNFCCC meeting in Paris in December). When that report is available, I will be pleased to bring it to the attention of readers of this blog.


The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 – Last Week’s Outcome in Copenhagen

Some of you may recall that following the Government Approval Sessions for the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of Working Group 3 (WG3) of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Berlin last spring, I expressed my disappointment and dismay regarding that process and its outcome in regard to the greatly abbreviated text of the SPM on the topic for which I was responsible, “International and Regional Cooperation.”  I expressed my frustration (and my hopes for the future) in two essays at this blog:

Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?, Posted on April 25, 2014

Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up, Posted on May 3, 2014.

Last week, I was in Copenhagen for what was essentially the final stage of the five-year enterprise of research, writing, and government approval of the various reports of IPCC AR5, namely the government approval sessions for the Synthesis Report (SYR), which summarizes and synthesizes the key findings from the three Working Group reports.

While I was in Copenhagen and since my return, many people have asked me how it went.  “Was it as bad as last time?”  “Was the material on international cooperation that was deleted in Berlin reinserted, or did it remain out?”  “Did other material get deleted?”  This essay provides my response to those and some related questions.

The Outcome in Copenhagen

First of all, here’s the simplest headline statement:  Things improved significantly at the Synthesis Report (SYR) government approval sessions in Copenhagen last week, but in saying this, I am only referring to the material for which I’ve been responsible.  Let me explain.

The relevant section of the SYR is section 4.4.1, “International and Regional Cooperation on Mitigation and Adaptation.”  As the section title implies, we combined material from WG3 Chapter 13 (International Cooperation:  Agreements and Instruments), WG3 Chapter 14 (Regional Development and Cooperation), and various chapters on adaptation from WG2.

Overall, as far as this material (SYR 4.4.1) is concerned, the outcome of the SYR approval process in Copenhagen was much better than the outcome in Berlin of the WG3 approval process.  Part of that may be due to the fact that I learned some valuable lessons from that previous painful experience.  But part was also due to some significant bureaucratic subtleties.

A Positive Outcome, but with Some Important Caveats

I will not drag you through the details of what transpired this past week in Copenhagen (including several sessions that went past 3 am), but here is the bottom-line.

First, the material (from throughout the WG3 report) that was excised from the WG3 Summary for Policymakers (SPM) in the government approval sessions in Berlin was not resubmitted by the Lead Authors in the Synthesis Report SPM for government approval in Copenhagen, because there was clearly no point to doing so.  Hence, that excised material did not re-appear in the approved SYR SPM, but, it would be incorrect to say that it was excised again by the governments.  If anything, this was a case of self-censorship.  (Also, in many parts of the SPM for which I did not have primary responsibility, the government approval process again resulted in substantial revisions.)

For the full Synthesis Report (SYR), however, I was able to reinsert into the draft submitted for government approval in Copenhagen all of the material removed from the text on international cooperation (WG3 SPM 5.2) in the WG3 SPM in Berlin, plus some additional material from the underlying WG reports.

There is a bureaucratic subtlety I need to explain.  For the WG reports, the governments have no authority to approve the actual, underlying reports.  They only approve the SPMs.  But for the SYR, the governments approve the SPM, and also approve the main SYR, but they do so not line by line as with the SPMs, but only section by section.

By working with a number of government delegations in “contact group” sessions over two days, plus holding a series of one-on-one bilateral meetings with nearly a dozen key country delegations over the last few days in Copenhagen, it was possible to revise the text in ways that satisfied the governments (remember, each and every government has something close to veto power), but did not compromise the scientific integrity of the material.  How could that be?

This was accomplished by addressing stated concerns not by deleting text, but by adding scientifically-correct text (and in virtually all cases that text came directly from the underlying WG2 and WG3 reports), carrying out some sensible revisions here and there, and – in just one case – deleting a single sentence that was clearly going to be unacceptable to almost all governments.  Also, I revised (and, in my view, improved) a figure imported from Chapter 13 of WG3.

As a result, in contrast to what happened in Berlin with the WG3 SPM, the full text on international and regional cooperation in the full SYR essentially survived in Copenhagen.

Some More Key Caveats

I need to emphasize again that I am referring only to the part of the IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report for which I had primary responsibility, SYR 4.4.1, “International and Regional Cooperation on Mitigation and Adaptation.”  My fellow SYR Lead Authors, with primary responsibilities for other parts of the work, might have very different assessments of the Copenhagen outcome.  Some might be more positive, and some would surely be quite negative.

It is also important to keep in mind that the text excised through the WG3 SPM government approval process in Berlin last spring was — by-and-large — not reinserted in the SYR SPM submitted to the governments for approval in Copenhagen.  This self-censorship by the Lead Authors, including me, ought to remain an important concern.

A final caveat is in order.  As I emphasized in my two blog posts last spring, the SPM of WG 3 was only one relatively small part of the overall AR5 effort.  The full reports of the three Working Groups (several dozen chapters), as well as their Technical Summaries, were not affected by government interventions (and presumably not by self-censorship), as they did not require government approval.  So, notwithstanding the issues discussed today in this essay, the fact remains that the IPCC’s three-volume reports — including the Fifth Assessment Report — largely succeed in synthesizing the best scientific research. The reports are essential resources for understanding climate change and formulating appropriate responses.

The Path Ahead for Assessment of the Science of Climate Change

It is one thing to complain about the status quo.  It is another thing to seek to identify potential improvements in the process that can lead to better outcomes in the future.

With this in mind, a group of academic researchers who have been engaged in social science assessment within the IPCC process is organizing an academic workshop scheduled to take place in Berlin in February, 2015, in their capacities as scholars, independently of the formal IPCC process.  This workshop on “Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change:  Bridging Research and Policy” will be hosted by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, and co-sponsored by Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, the Mercator Research Institute, and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center.

The aim of the workshop will be to take stock and reflect on lessons learned in past assessments, in order to identify future social science research priorities, as well as options for improving future assessment processes. Workshop participants will include experienced authors and users of IPCC reports, including government representatives; researchers experienced in other social science assessments; and scholars studying the science-policy interface.

I look forward to reporting to you in the future on what I hope will be some constructive outcomes of this new initiative.