Creating the IPCC: How to Speak Truth to Power

August 28, 2013 | 3:04 pm
Spencer Weart
Former director Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unlike any other scientific body in the world. Its reports, which help set the agenda for international climate policy negotiations, are produced by scientists and vetted through government representatives in a process that is notoriously long and labor-intensive. As we look forward to the next round of IPCC reports, it’s worth looking back on how the institution was created.

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Since the 1960s scientists had convened study groups and workshops on climate change, for example under the supervision of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. These bodies would then issue dry reports. As a result, governments recognized that climate change was an important issue and accordingly, they increased spending for research. However, few governments adopted policies that would reduce emissions or increase capacity for adaptation.

25 years ago, a call to action

In 1988, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) convened a “World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere” in Toronto. This was a meeting by invitation, dominated by scientists. There were a few high-ranking government officials among the 300 attendees, but most countries were represented by relatively junior staff.

The Toronto conference’s report concluded that the changes in the atmosphere due to human pollution “represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe.” For the first time, a group of prestigious scientists called on the world’s governments to set strict, specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Immediate action was needed, they said, to negotiate an “international framework convention” to set the terms for national legislation.

Creating a new, fully independent group to address climate change

Who would coordinate such an initiative? The conservative Reagan Administration might have been expected to oppose the creation of a prestigious body to address climate change. However, they feared still more strong pronouncements on environmental policy from independent scientists like those at the Toronto conference. The Reagan Administration, and some other governments, were also wary of control by the WMO or any other body that was part of the United Nations structure. Better, they concluded, to form a new, fully independent group under the direct control of representatives appointed by each government—that is, an intergovernmental body.

Responding to this pressure from the United States and others, in 1988 the WMO and UNEP collaborated in creating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unlike earlier conferences, National Academy panels, and the like, the IPCC was in the hands of people who participated not only as scientists, but as official representatives of their governments. The IPCC was neither a strictly scientific nor a strictly political body, but a unique hybrid. It could issue reports only with the firm agreement of essentially all the world’s leading climate scientists plus the consensus of all participating governments without exception. Importantly, it would put policy options on the table, but would not make explicit policy recommendations.

Why the IPCC has authority on climate change

The IPCC’s constitution should have been (and perhaps was intended to be) a recipe for paralysis. Instead, the panel turned its procedural restraints into a virtue: whatever it did manage to say would have unimpeachable authority.

Experts contributed their time as volunteers, writing working papers that drew on the latest studies. These were debated at length in correspondence and workshops. The IPCC scientists, initially 170 of them in a dozen workshops, worked hard and long to craft statements that nobody could fault on scientific grounds. The draft reports next went through a process of peer review, gathering comments from virtually every climate expert in the world. It was much like the process of reviewing articles submitted to a scientific journal, although with far more reviewers. All this followed the long-established practices, norms and traditions of science. The scientists found it easier than they had expected to reach a consensus. This undertaking was the first of its kind in terms of breadth, and the exhaustive level of review and revision. The First IPCC Assessment report was released in 1990, with major reports since then every five to seven years.

Any conclusions had to be endorsed by a consensus of government delegates, many of whom were not scientists at all. The elaborate IPCC process, however, had educated many bureaucrats and officials about the climate problem, and most were ready to accept the scientific consensus and consider policy options based on it.

In the face of opposition from the immensely powerful fossil fuels industry and its many allies, the IPCC would issue what was arguably the most important policy advice any body has ever given; by 2001 it made it clear that avoiding the many risks of a changing climate would require nothing less than a dramatic shift in the energy sources upon which we rely. As a result, communities would face stark choices about their way of life as the climate changed around them. Governments are still divided on if, how and when to respond to climate change, but the IPCC has succeeded remarkably in fulfilling its declared purpose of providing advice that helps set the baseline for decision-making around climate change.