IPCC future hinges on greater relevance, amid tricky politics.

ipcc authors meeting

March 2, 2015

The unique intergovernmental panel has forged scientific consensus on climate change by steering clear of hot-button issues. Will new leadership find a way to address the most critical issues for curbing global warming?

By Marianne Lavelle
The Daily Climate

While news was breaking that the IPCC chairman had been caught up in a sexual harassment scandal, two-dozen climate science experts were meeting in Berlin to discuss a question likely of far greater importance to the panel's future:

Was the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change capable of tackling the most critical questions the world faces as it grapples with global warming? Or was the IPCC hopelessly hamstrung by politics?

"The IPCC is at a crossroads... It is at risk of losing the participation of the world's best scientists."

"The IPCC is at a crossroads," said a memorandum developed by the group, led by scientists from Harvard, Stanford, and leading academic institutions in Italy and Germany. Although the academics praised the IPCC for performing important functions "in a scientifically-informed manner," they said the panel "does not always address the most critical issues, and it is at risk of losing the participation of the world's best scientists due to the burdens that participation involves."

The key recommendation from the group, which included social scientists who had seen their work deleted from last year's IPCC summary reports, was that the panel should find a way to better integrate social sciences like economics and international relations into its work.

The memo, like so many that have been written in the realm of international climate discussions, is worded cautiously and stresses steps that seem uncontroversial, like better coordination among groups and improved feedback. But the very exercise by some of the IPCC's most outspoken members and advocates reveals a growing concern shared by many supporters of the Nobel Prize-winning panel's work. The worry is that the IPCC – and the world leaders who are its audience – must move beyond discussion of the physical sciences, like how much carbon has built up in the atmosphere or how much sea level will rise.

Robert Stavins_550

"It is no longer fundamentally a question or a surprise that increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing climate change," said Harvard University economist Robert Stavins, one of the participants in the Berlin meeting. "The fundamental question is what to do about it."

Abrupt resignation

While the social scientists were delivering their challenge, the IPCC itself was mulling its future in a plenary session in Nairobi, Kenya, that had been rocked by the abrupt resignation of its chairman and most visible ambassador for eight years, Indian engineer and economist Rajendra Pachauri. His departure came after a 29-year-old female employee at his research institute in Delhi filed sexual harassment charges against him. Pachauri has denied the accusation through a spokesman, saying he had been the victim of an email hacking. But facing court proceedings, Pachauri said he could not provide the leadership the IPCC needs.

The IPCC leadership quickly moved to appoint one of its vice chairs, Sudan's Ismail El Gizouli, as acting chair. He is expected to serve through October, when the panel was already preparing elections for new leadership. Pachauri had announced his intention to step down last fall.

Stavins said that while the nature of the accusations against Pachauri make his situation "quite tragic," he believed the IPCC would not be harmed in the long-term, because the panel was already preparing for his term to conclude.

"All of us who have been involved in the IPCC hope fervently that there are some really strong candidates for chairman," Stavins said. "The IPCC does face challenges, and an innovative and creative new chair could help to lead the needed improvements to strengthen an institution that I consider to be quite important."

Governments 'freak out'

In the view of Stavins and some other social scientists, the IPCC undercut its own usefulness last year when it deleted key passages from the summary of its latest assessment of the state of climate science. Stavins wrote about the episode extensively on his blog last year. One section that ended up on the cutting room floor, from a chapter that Stavins led, dealt with the ineffectiveness of the world's most important agreement thus far aimed directly at curbing carbon emissions, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. 

David Victor_550

"What do we know about the design of international treaties, and what influences their effectiveness? What do we know about whether the treaties we've had so far, like the Kyoto Protocol, have had any impact on behavior?" asked David Victor, an international relations professor at University of California, San Diego, and one of the participants in the Berlin meeting of social scientists. "Those are classic social science questions. We have a lot of research tools to answer questions like that, and when we provide the answers, the governments freak out."

Also excised from the final IPCC summary last year was a section from a chapter Victor helped lead, noting that past ways of looking at the world – as collections of “industrialized” and “developed” countries – were inadequate for capturing the current reality. The greatest growth in carbon emissions, the text indicated, was coming from countries with fast-growing economies. The issue is a crucial one in negotiations now underway for a new climate treaty by December in Paris, because a key sticking point has been the divide between rich and poor nations, and what their obligations should be to mitigate carbon emissions.

When we provide the answers, the governments freak out.
- David Victor

"We wrote it very carefully in a way that hopefully would not offend anyone, and we got a grand total of zero comments that were critical in the formal reviews," Victor said. "And then when the governments showed up [for the final sessions to approve the summary text], a handful of them, led by the Saudis, freaked out, and got it all cut."

Effective veto power

The IPCC, which was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), brings together thousands of scientists from around the world to produce enormous volumes every five to seven years assessing the state of climate science. Its aim, the IPCC says on its website, is to produce work that is "policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive." And the important "summaries for policymakers" the panel produces – probably the most widely read portion of the IPCC's work – are subject to line-by-line review by all 195 IPCC member governments.

This effective veto power makes the IPCC unique, and also lends its work authority, even while virtually ensuring it will steer a conservative path.

"The unique value that the IPCC adds is not the brilliance of the individual authors," said Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, who served as co-chair of the IPCC's working group on climate impacts, and who is a possible candidate to replace Pachauri. "What's unique is the systematic monitoring, review, and consensus of scientists with approval by countries. 

Chris Field_550

"So the final documents are produced by scientific communities, and co-owned by governments," Field said. "It's a fabulous process. We don't have anything else like it. We want to preserve that, and want to be careful about adding anything else that could erode that core value that the IPCC provides."

Part of the beauty of the process, and also part of its weakness is that we can't add value to every question.
-Chris Field

Field said that certain subjects – perhaps like evaluation of the Kyoto Protocol – might be too much about the political process for the IPCC to take on. "Where you can't get government co-ownership, the IPCC should acknowledge it, and say there's a lot of interesting stuff to know, but it's not an area where we can add value," Field said. "Part of the beauty of the process, and also part of its weakness is that we can't add value to every question. We have to be smart about the ones we can."

He said it was important to note that the IPCC has addressed, and can continue to address issues of great controversy – through effective leadership and negotiation, arriving at language that the governments can accept as a consensus.

And indeed, last fall, in the IPCC sessions that led to adoption of the final report of its Fifth Assessment – the volume meant to synthesize the work of all its working groups – Stavins described in his blog that the outcome was much improved. He credited one-on-one bilateral meetings with nearly a dozen government delegations to arrive at text, mainly by adding what he said were "scientifically correct revisions," that satisfied the governments.

The memo from the social scientists' Berlin meeting, clearly drawing on this experience, concludes that in order to stay "policy-relevant," while steering clear of policy prescriptions, the IPCC should not keep scientists and governments at arm's length. The memo urges "more interaction between governments and scientists," driven by policy questions governments want answered and issues scientists feel need addressing.

Little looking backward

Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton University, who also has been a lead IPCC author, said he thinks the IPCC would be on "treacherous footing" if it attempted to take on social science assessments of past international action on climate change. "There's very little looking backwards in politics, except by your enemies," Oppenheimer said. He said he felt some institution should indeed do a systematic assessment on the effectiveness of international treaties, but he was not convinced it should be the IPCC.

Oppenheimer said he believed that the most important change that the IPCC should make to maintain its relevance in the future is to spend less time on the big, sprawling assessments of the overall current state of climate science, and instead spend more time on shorter reports on the discrete scientific issues that are front and center in the policy discussion. 

The big assessments, they're great, but they suck the oxygen out of the room.
- Michael Oppenheimer

"The big assessments, they're great, but they suck the oxygen out of the room," Oppenheimer said. "I think it would be for the benefit of both the scientific and policymaking communities to have the big major assessments only when the governments really insist on it, or when there have truly been new major developments that demand it."

The IPCC has done shorter special reports before, on extreme weather and other events (Oppenheimer was one of the lead authors) and on renewable energy. The government of Monaco has asked the IPCC to do a special report on the oceans, and Oppenheimer said there are numerous other subjects that would lend themselves to assessments: the impact of methane release and feedback loops, the effect of aerosols, like soot, on warming, and coastal flooding and sea level rise. Only last week, a commentary in Nature Climate Change argued that the IPCC's conservative and limited treatment of sea level rise had failed to give adequate guidance to coastal risk managers, because the IPCC's reports have excluded the potential of extreme sea level rise in their analyses.

Staying the course

But at its meeting in Nairobi, the IPCC agreed for now to continue on its course of preparing comprehensive assessment reports every five to seven years, while taking into account the process of treaty negotiations in deciding the timing of future reports. In response to concerns about the time and attention that the process consumes for scientists, most of whom are volunteering their time, the IPCC agreed to stagger the different parts of its reports somewhat in the future, instead of releasing them within the course of a few weeks, as it did last year. IPCC secretary Renate Christ at a news conference left open the possibility of the panel doing shorter, more frequent reports, but said there were "practical limitations."

How best to manage the time of the thousands of scientists who work on the IPCC may sound like a minor bureaucratic issue. But it can have profound consequences. "Scientists who are at the top of their game are usually working in controversial areas, because that's where new knowledge is being produced," said Victor. "If you get them engaged in IPCC, they're going to want the IPCC to talk about the newest science and areas of controversy. And yet, those are the very areas where the consensus-oriented process tends to drive the IPCC into convoluted writing, or avoiding problems, and not dealing with them head-on. And that's just contrary to what an ornery, disagreeable, innovative scientist wants.

"It's really a culture clash," he said.

Victor said the very structure of the IPCC that led to the deletions of controversial sections in the past make it hard for the panel to make dramatic changes in the way it does business in the future.

"There are all sorts of proposals, but I would guess that the most likely outcome … is going to be very small changes at the margins, and they're just going to keep doing what they're doing," Victor said. "That will be OK, because the IPCC is the most legitimate game in town when it comes to climate science. The report they issue will be fine. But it won't have a lot of content that relates to the social sciences."

Victor said the social science is making its way into the climate treaty negotiations in any case, although not in any systematic way.  One manifestation of that may be that the current talks for a treaty in Paris are aimed not at repeating the structure of the Kyoto accord, but at requiring that every nation – industrialized, developing, and fast-growing – come up with a plan for contributing to the effort to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

More openness?

Oppenheimer said he believes that one step that would begin to address many of the concerns about the IPCC's lack of relevance would be to become more transparent – allowing expert observers to attend its author meetings, and allowing the press to attend plenary sessions.

"They like to be able to guard the way decisions are made, but I think in this day and age, that's not a helpful attitude," Oppenheimer said. "Not only does it engender suspicion, it means you've reduced the likelihood of learning something from what other people see about the way you are doing business.

"My fear is that the IPCC becomes an institution like all institutions – slow, stodgy, and concerned mostly about its own prerogatives," Oppenheimer said. "The IPCC has been terrific. It's managed to assess in a credible way this huge body of ever-changing knowledge. It ought to keep doing that as the knowledge keeps flowing in, but it's going to have to be fleet on its feet. And the best way to do that is to be open to change."

Marianne Lavelle is a staff writer for The Daily Climate. Follow her on Twitter@mlavelles. The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news site covering energy, the environment and climate change.

Photo of lead authors' meeting of the IPCC, Changwon, Korea, July 2011, Benjamin Kriemann/IPCC. Top: Photo of Robert Stavins by Martha Stewart. Middle: Photo of David Victor. Bottom: Photo of Chris Field, David Plas/IPCC.

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