Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Role of Science in Policy

THIS STORY STARTS IN VILLACH in 1985. There had been several climate change conferences in this lovely Austrian town before 1985, and some elsewhere. The one that year had the advantage of a comprehensive report on all greenhouse gases, by a team led by Professor Bert Bolin (Sweden), for the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). This was bringing the likely time of significant changes in climate much closer than had been previously expected. The scientists at Villach, brought together by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and ICSU, agreed on a concluding statement that read: “Many important economic and social decisions are being made today on long-term projects, all based on the assumption that past climatic data, without modification, are a reliable guide to the future. This is no longer a good assumption.”

This conclusion reverberated in a number of world capitals, and in the sponsoring UN organizations, WMO and UNEP. As a result, these two organizations struck a panel, chaired by Professor Kenneth Hare (Canada) with two eminent climate scientists appointed by each of the three Villach conference sponsors. This Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases produced several valuable reports on implications of the emerging scientific results for public policy.

In the late 80’s, a number of countries, lead by the United States, realized that environmental analysis and especially the topic of greenhouse gases, had major ramifications in terms of the national and world economies. It seemed that leaving such matters in the care of a committee of independent scientists wasn’t entirely in the best interests of the global community. The idea of a much larger, open-ended intergovernmental panel to deal with science assessments on climate change began to emerge. This concept and initial ideas of how it might be structured were developed at the session of the WMO Executive Council held in the spring of that year with discussions prompted by Dr. Richard Hallgren (U.S.). UNEP was invited to be a co-sponsor to which it readily agreed at its intergovernmental session that year.

IPCC is formed

All countries were welcome to attend the creation of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). It was initiated in November 1988, in Geneva. By that point, a minor secretariat had been formed by WMO in Geneva, which was lead by a Dr. N. Sundararaman. At a later date, a certain Sam Tewunga from UNEP was also appointed to help lead. At the panel, there was a general consensus that a great deal of what is known about the issue of climate change is within academic circles, and that these individuals needed to be involved, in addition to both the government and private communities.

It was further recognized that the issue is so broad that a wide range of expertise was needed. This included, not just traditional climate scientists, but oceanographers, biologists, economists, sociologists, glaciologists, paleoecologists, health scientists and many more. The panel would not do research but would assess and synthesize the policy-relevant results of peer reviewed published research. While aiming for policy relevance, it would not be policy prescriptive. Peer review of the assessments and reviews by governments would be required.

The time pressure was on. It was necessary to produce an initial assessment by 1990 for consideration by the already scheduled Second World Climate Conference. That conference, in turn, was planned to lead up to the Earth Summit, World Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Recognizing from the start that they had far too limited resources available to support comprehensive assessments, the UN agencies established a trust fund for voluntary contributions, primarily to assist participation of developing countries in the work. A number of industrialized countries contributed. At the same time, it was recognized that some developed countries would have to undertake and support extensive scientific and technical secretariat work to support the various aspects of the assessment. Given these circumstances, the meeting agreed unanimously to appoint Professor Bert Bolin as overall chair of IPCC, and to divide the work into three working groups: WG I, on Climate Science, would be led by Dr. John Houghton with support of the United Kingdom; WG II, on Climate Impacts would be led by Professor Yuri Izrael and supported by Russia; and WG III, on Response Strategies, to be led by Frederick Bernthal, with U.S. support. Membership in the working groups would be open to qualified specialists named by governments from any country.

These groups, remarkably, produced their First Assessment Reports in less than two years. These then formed a sound basis for the Second World Climate Conference (SWCC) in October-November of 1990. Howard Ferguson (Canada), who had been in charge of organizing the influential Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in the hot summer of 1988, went on to be the chief organizer of the Second World Climate Conference. The 700 plus participants in the scientific part of the SWCC endorsed and augmented the strong IPCC findings especially of WG I on climate science. The political portion of the session called for an international convention to address the threat of climate change. This portion was led by luminaries such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, King Hussein and the President of the Maldives. The Canadian delegation was led by then Environment Minister, Robert de Cotret, and included Paul Martin and Charles Caccia. The international negotiations that followed, after a UN resolution, led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change signed at the Earth Summit in 1992 and ratified in 1994.

The evolving role of IPCC

The IPCC did a partial restructuring when embarking on this report. The second and third working groups had somewhat modified terms of reference and, as the work had matured, co-chairs, one from a developed country and one from a developing country, were appointed to each group. These were:

WG I—Climate Science: J. Houghton (U.K.) and G. Meira Filho (Brazil);

WG II—Impact, Adaptation and Mitigation: R. Watson (U.S.) and M. Zinyowera (Zimbabwe)

WG III—Economic and Social Dimensions: J. Bruce (Canada) and H. Lee (Korea)

In each case, the first named country provided the technical support unit for the working group. Counting multiple authors of each chapter, scientific peer reviewers and government reviewers, several thousand specialists from around the world were involved in the SAR. This report was undoubtedly important in leading to the decision by governments that more action was needed to reduce growth in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and thus to the greater commitments for emission controls contained in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

For the Third Assessment Report (TAR), due in 2001, Dr. Robert Watson (U.S.) formerly chair of WG II, took over from Bert Bolin as overall chair of the IPCC. For this report WG II and WG III terms of reference were again changed to bring economists and social scientists into more direct contact with the other specialists on issues of vulnerability, impacts and adaptation, and mitigation.

The procedures followed, both to ensure unbiased consideration of the full range of scientific results, and to appear to be doing so, were put in place at the beginning but have continued to evolve. In addition to the texts of the chapters, which are extensively peer and government reviewed, Summaries for Policy Makers (SPM) are prepared by each working group and an overall Synthesis Report by IPCC as a whole is produced. These summary reports must be approved line by line at plenary meetings of governments.

The Conference of Parties to the Framework Convention recognizes the role of IPCC in providing the scientific foundation for its work. To this end, it has requested and received from IPCC, both the comprehensive reports and a number of special reports. Among these were reports on the impact of aviation on climate, on land use, land use change and forestry and the role these play and could play in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, on technology transfer to developing countries, and on methodologies for emission inventories. These too underwent extensive peer and government reviews, with Summaries for Policy Makers approved line by line at plenary sessions.

Issues arising in IPCC’s work

Once the special interest groups realized just how much influence the IPCC reports had on government policy through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), they decided it wasn’t in their best interests to sit around. As such, they became extremely active in lobbying for pushing or pulling various issues related to greenhouse gas emissions. This was especially so in reviewing drafts of the Summaries for Policy Makers. This has made for a contentious and difficult approval process for SPMs. Nevertheless, the underlying technical reports remain largely unaffected by the political issues, being the work of the authors and reviewers.

In producing the SAR several contentious issues arose. The great majority of WG I authors were convinced that in 1995, the evidence indicated that a change in climate due to greenhouse gas increases was beginning to emerge from the natural climate variability. After long and arduous debate at a meeting in Madrid, a cautiously crafted, now famous, sentence was agreed upon— “the balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate.” However, after-wards, a few dissenting countries and industrial groups, recognizing the potential power of this finding, disowned the statement and tried to discredit the careful, open consensus process that was followed.

WG III introduced for the first time in the IPCC process a substantial group of the world’s leading economists. The two most contentious issues that arose threatened at times to derail approval of the Summary for Policy Makers. The first was over the extent of “no regrets” measures for most countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “No regrets” actions were defined as those, such as energy efficiency, fuel switching, etc. where the “benefits such as reduced energy costs and reduced emissions of local/regional pollutants exceed their cost to society, excluding the benefits of climate change mitigation.” The WG III experts concluded that this would be the case for 10 to 30 percent of reductions in emissions for most countries. A number of industrial groups have claimed that there are no “no regrets” measures and later rejected this finding. However, the industries’ analyses mostly took into account only their own internal costs and benefits, not the broader societal benefits IPCC cited, especially in reduction of local and regional smog, of toxic metals, and of acid rain by reducing fossil fuel consumption.

The second main WG III controversy, which spilled over into a very public debate, involved the estimation of the social costs of climate change. One of these costs is the number of deaths due to increasing extreme events, sea level rise, spread of tropical disease, etc. Economists have a technique for valuing a “statistical life” which examines how much a society pays to reduce mortality by vaccination programs, emergency care, better road engineering, etc. But such payments are much larger in wealthy countries than in poor ones. Thus, developing countries, quite rightly, objected vigorously to the implication that a life, even a statistical one, in their country was worth less than one in an industrialized country. The conclusion, after much debate, was to insert a carefully negotiated text into the Summary for Policy Makers, which notes that many reject the notion of putting an economic value on a life and that, everywhere, lives have equal value.

The Third Assessment Report, TAR, 2001

This major assessment was in three volumes plus a Synthesis Report designed to draw, from the basic volumes, answers to nine policy-relevant questions developed through the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC.

More recent research tended to confirm and add to earlier assessments. New scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions to 2100 had been developed by IPCC, based on the range of possible global population and economic growth, technology and trade development. This gave a broader range of plausible emission scenarios than had been used earlier. Based on these new scenarios a wider range of global mean temperature projections was foreseen, with a 1.4 to 5.8°C increase to 2100 in addition to the increase to 1990 of about 0.5°C. Working Group I also concluded that “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”

Working Group II pointed out that natural disasters brought about by extreme weather, which resulted in a economic damages worldwide, and risen 10 times in the period from the 60’s to the 90’s. Of course they noted that at least some of these economic losses were almost certainly attributable to the increased frequency and intensity of said disasters. They also pointed out that climate changes observed appeared to have an impact on biological ecosystems in various areas of the planet.

Working Group III on Mitigation concluded that by the year 2010, to meet Kyoto protocol targets, “most of the opportunities to reduce emissions will come from energy efficiency gains and in reducing release of greenhouse gases from industry.” A full emissions trading regime is projected to reduce national costs of emission reduction by 50 percent.

Some lessons for science assessments

From the experience to date, with the IPCC and with other international assessment processes such as that on ozone layer depletion, and the Canada-U.S. science assessment on acid rain, a few conclusions can be drawn.

  • Well-balanced open assessments by the best experts can strongly influence important policies of governments and industry, even though it is probable that those likely to be most adversely affected by the implications of the assessment will attack the process.
  • The assessment process must be open and accessible to all qualified experts and all concerned, to be truly credible.
  • A wide range of expertise, and not just from natural sciences, must be brought to bear on the assessments.
  • Findings must be inclusive, and biases toward scientific and economic results from industrialized countries, even though these are most readily available, must be avoided in global assessments. This presents special challenges requiring active involvement of experts from developing regions.
  • Peer review of the assessments must be provided for, and reviews must be seen to be taken into account in an unbiased manner. To this end, review editors were appointed for IPCC’s Third Assessment Report.
  • If governmental action is involved, and it usually is on environmental issues, governments must be satisfied both with the assessment process and with their ability to have an input into it.
  • Well-founded assessments, especially on global or regional issues, are not inexpensive and require dedication of effective technical secretariats.

Experience has now shown that on contentious environmental issues, there is great merit in having thorough independent science assessments as a foundation for negotiation of governmental and private sector actions. When such assessments are available, political and industrial leaders avoid spending much of their effort and time in arguments about the science and economics, and can then focus on negotiation of appropriate actions.

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Jim Bruce is Senior Associate, Global Change Strategies International and former Co-Chair of WGIII of IPCC.