by Judith Curry
Many of the more worrying impacts of climate change really are symptoms of mismanagement and underdevelopment. – Richard Tol
Excerpts from Richard Tol’s essay:
In September 2013, I stepped down from the team that prepared the draft of the Summary for Policy Makers to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This attracted worldwide media attention in April 2014.
As a Convening Lead Author of one of the chapters, I was automatically on the team to draft the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM). AR5 is a literature review of 2,600 pages long. It assesses a large body of scholarly publication. In some places, the chapters are so condensed that there are a few words per article in the learned literature. The SPM then distills the key messages into 44 pages – but everyone knows that policy and media will only pick up a few sentences. This leads to a contest between chapters – my impact is worst, so I will get the headlines.
In the earlier drafts of the SPM, there was a key message that was new, snappy and relevant: Many of the more worrying impacts of climate change really are symptoms of mismanagement and underdevelopment.
This message does not support the political agenda for greenhouse gas emission reduction. Later drafts put more and more emphasis on the reasons for concern about climate change, a concept I had helped to develop for AR3. Raising the alarm about climate change has been tried before, many times in fact, but it has not had an appreciable effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
The international climate negotiations of 2013 in Warsaw concluded that poor countries might be entitled to compensation for the impacts of climate change. It stands to reason that the IPCC would be asked to assess the size of those impacts and hence the compensation package. This led to an undignified bidding war among delegations – my country is more vulnerable than yours – that descended into farce when landlocked countries vigorously protested that they too would suffer from sea level rise.
The SPM omits that better cultivars and improved irrigation increase crop yields. It shows the impact of sea level rise on the most vulnerable country, but does not mention the average. It emphasize the impacts of increased heat stress but downplays reduced cold stress. It warns about poverty traps, violent conflict and mass migration without much support in the literature. The media, of course, exaggerated further.
Alarmism feeds polarization. Climate zealots want to burn heretics of global warming on a stick. Others only see incompetence and conspiracy in climate research, and nepotism in climate policy. A polarized debate is not conducive to enlightened policy in an area as complex as climate change . The IPCC missed an opportunity to restore itself as a sober authority, accepted (perhaps only grudgingly) by most.
The IPCC does not guard itself against selection bias and group think. Academics who worry about climate change are more likely to publish about it, and more likely to get into the IPCC. Groups of like-minded people reinforce their beliefs. The environment agencies that comment on the draft IPCC report will not argue that their department is obsolete. The IPCC should therefore be taken out of the hands of the climate bureaucracy and transferred to the academic authorities.
Excerpts from Robert Stavins’ essay:
Over the past 5 years, I have dedicated an immense amount of time and effort to serving as the Co-Coordinating Lead Author (CLA) of Chapter 13, “International Cooperation: Agreements and Instruments,” of Working Group III (Mitigation) of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Several of the CLAs present with me in Berlin commented that given the nature and outcome of the week, the resulting document should probably be called the Summary by Policymakers, rather than the Summary for Policymakers.
The process of the government approval sessions was exceptionally frustrating, and the outcome of that process – the final SPM – was in some regards disappointing. Two weeks ago, immediately after returning from Berlin, I sent a letter to the Co-Chairs of Working Group III — Ottmar Edenhofer, Ramon Pichs-Madruga, and Youba Sokona — expressing my disappointment with the government approval process and its outcome in regard to the part of the assessment for which I had primary responsibility, SPM.5.2, International Cooperation. At the time, I did not release my letter publically, because I did not want to get in the way of the important messages that remained in the SPM and were receiving public attention through the Working Group III release.
Excerpts from Stavins’ letter to the IPCC leadership:
In this letter, I will not comment on the government review and revision process that affected other parts of the SPM, other than to note that as the week progressed, I was surprised by the degree to which governments felt free to recommend and sometimes insist on detailed changes to the SPM text on purely political, as opposed to scientific bases.
The general motivations for government revisions – from most (but not all) participating delegations – appeared to be quite clear in the plenary sessions. In these contact groups, government representatives worked to suppress text that might jeopardize their negotiating stances in international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
To ask these experienced UNFCCC negotiators to approve text that critically assessed the scholarly literature on which they themselves are the interested parties, created an irreconcilable conflict of interest. Thus, the country representatives were placed in an awkward and problematic position by the nature of the process.
Over the course of the two hours of the contact group deliberations, it became clear that the only way the assembled government representatives would approve text for SPM.5.2 was essentially to remove all “controversial” text (that is, text that was uncomfortable for any one individual government), which meant deleting almost 75% of the text, including nearly all explications and examples under the bolded headings. In more than one instance, specific examples or sentences were removed at the will of only one or two countries, because under IPCC rules, the dissent of one country is sufficient to grind the entire approval process to a halt unless and until that country can be appeased.
I understand that country representatives were only doing their job, so I do not implicate them personally; however, the process the IPCC followed resulted in a process that built political credibility by sacrificing scientific integrity.
No institution can be all things for all people, and this includes the IPCC. In particular, in the case of the IPCC’s review of research findings on international cooperation, there may be an inescapable conflict between scientific integrity and political credibility. If the IPCC is to continue to survey scholarship on international cooperation in future assessment reports, it should not put country representatives in the uncomfortable and fundamentally untenable position of reviewing text in order to give it their unanimous approval. Likewise, the IPCC should not ask lead authors to volunteer enormous amounts of their time over multi-year periods to carry out work that will inevitably be rejected by governments in the Summary for Policymakers.
More broadly, I urge the IPCC to direct public attention to the documents produced by the lead authors that were subject to government (and expert) comment, but not subject to government approval. I believe that tremendous public good would arise from publicizing the key findings of the Technical Summary and the individual chapter Executive Summaries, instead of the Summary for Policymakers. I know that as the leaders of the IPCC, you see it to be your responsibility to convey to the public (and policy makers) the results of the hard scientific work that the hundreds of lead authors put into the report over the past five years, and not simply the constrained version of the Summary for Policymakers produced over the past week.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been collecting material for a post on WG3; I’ve collected an overwhelming amount and following my original plan for a post seems too daunting. Tol and Stavins clearly describe what is wrong with the SPM process.
I’ve read about half of the WG3 report. My comments in two words: readable and enlightening. Unlike the WG1 report with its turgid and indecipherable prose, the WG3 report is actually readable and understandable, and well organized. I particularly liked the first 2 chapters.
Upon reflecting on the 3 IPCC reports, a picture is emerging of a very complex climate system linked to complex environmental issues and socioeconomic problems. True to its classic wicked messiness, there is no unambiguous way to separate natural from anthropogenic climate change, or to separate climate change impacts from other confounding factors, or to separate the solutions from the broader issues of population increase, underdevelopment, mismanagement, and corrupt governments.
Of the three WGs, I would say that WG2 and WG3 showed maturity in attempting to deal with these issues, whereas WG1 dropped the ball with its ‘extremely likely’ and ‘don’t mention the pause’.
Apart from the obvious politics that polluted the SPM process, I am even more dismayed by public statements from the IPCC leadership that has spun the AR5 message into the usual alarmist meme.
I am wondering if the IPCC will attempt an integration report? I believe that they did this for the AR4. What is now needed is sober assessment and interpretation of the assessments. Given the complexity, ambiguity and incompleteness of the evidence and understanding, multiple perspectives are not only to be expected but are desired.