Climate Change: Science in the Theater of Political Intrigue

On March 13-16, Paris hosted the 47th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which celebrated the panel’s 30th anniversary. In past decades, this community of scientists has managed to create the unique precedent of science laying the foundation for world-scale decision-making. With the Paris Agreement approved in 2015, the IPCC’s role is shifting gradually, but its importance in efforts to solve the climate change problem will only grow.

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to prepare assessment reports on the current state of climate change science. The reports are unveiled once every six or seven years; the sixth report to be published in 2021 or 2022 is being drafted now. The IPCC does not conduct any research of its own, its mission being to generalize scientific conclusions drawn from journals it reviews. Its independence from politics and the maximum transparency of its conclusions are based on a strict selection of regularly rotated authors, decision-making by consensus within teams of authors, and a multi-level reviewing system that includes hundreds of experts and replies to thousands of comments.

The IPCC includes three Working Groups (WG) engaged in assessing the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change, the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, and options for mitigating climate change, respectively. Each WG prepares one volume of an assessment report (AR) that in combination provide a maximally complete picture of modern scientific knowledge on the climate change problem. Each AR includes a synthesis report for decision-makers. The IPCC offers no political recommendations but it responds to requests formulated as part of climatic talks. At the 2015 Paris Summit, for example, the IPCC was asked to make a special report on the consequences of an average temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the likelihood of this scenario, and its comparison with the much more likely 2 degrees warming (many scientists believe that even this scenario is excessively optimistic).

The IPCC is a unique example of how a team of scientists from different fields of knowledge can influence global politics. Its conclusions that human activity contributes the most to climate change played an important role in promoting international cooperation and encouraging national policies aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions. They also helped to induce the green transformation of the world economy. It is not surprising, therefore, that the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007 “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” Incidentally, many scientists from the 1,500-strong team were outraged to learn that an identically worded award went to a politician, former US Vice President Al Gore, who had engaged in popularizing the climate problem after losing the US presidential election in 2000.

Perhaps the Norwegian Nobel Committee was motivated by the belief that Mr. Gore’s oratorical skills and charisma were an ideal supplement to the IPCC’s activities. The IPCC assessment reports are precise from the scientific point of view but are not quite clear for the public at large. Almost every assertion they contain is accompanied with reservations regarding the likelihood of it being true and the measure of scientific consensus. A person not versed in the niceties of scientific ethics may ultimately feel that the scientists are not sure of what they are writing about. This contrasts with the vividness of numerous Gore presentations based on threatening scenarios of would-be disasters.

The IPCC itself is concerned about its inability to make its conclusions readily understood by non-experts. The Paris Session included a discussion on the need to have more effective communications channels to get across to politicians, particularly those engaged in climate talks. If the panel delivers on these plans, its role will only grow in the coming decades.

The IPCC has replied in the affirmative to the questions it was asked at its inception: “Is climate change really ongoing?” and “Has it been caused by human activity?” But now it has to address new challenges. The Paris Agreement that reflects world consensus on the need of switching to a low-carbon development model calls for a comprehensive analysis of emission reduction scenarios. Still unclear are many natural processes crucial to understanding the climate change mechanism, such as those linked to ocean-atmosphere heat exchange, the emergence of natural disasters, and Arctic warming. It is also necessary to generalize the data from a growing number of geoengineering research projects intended to impact the climate in order to compensate for the humanly amplified greenhouse effect. These measures include the recovery of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the spraying of coolant sprays, artificial cloud lift, etc. The annual growth of climate change damage necessitates an even more concerned discussion of adaptation issues. This makes it important for the IPCC to co-opt scientists from poor countries because these countries will be the first to suffer from climate change.

IPCC recommendations are increasingly integrated in political decision-making the world over and it is not that easy for it to stay away from political intrigue. For example, President Trump’s statement on the US’ withdrawal from all international climatic initiatives IPCC in 2017 was left without 40% of its funding. However, its operations are not so costly. Contrary to the widespread belief that climate science is on a chase for grants, report contributors traditionally work on a voluntary basis. These principles that have been unswervingly obeyed throughout the IPCC’s 30-year history explain the reason for its influence, which is disproportionally large for a dialogue between scientists and politicians.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.