Monday, November 10, 2014

Can we trust the IPCC?

Let's be clear first of all, I'm talking about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and not the Independent Police Complaints Commission. And yes, after all the work that goes into reviewing their reports, I do think we can trust IPCC.

Last month the IPCC issued the fourth part of its Assessment Report No. 5 together with a synthesis report and guide for policy-makers. Piers Forster is Professor of Physical Climate Change at Leeds University and one of the lead authors of the report. He spoke at York University last Friday and explained how the final version of these documents was created.

Apparently Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did not want the United Nations to have unrestricted control over the IPCC, so they specified that all reports should be signed off by representatives of all the 120 countries that were involved. Rather than stifling the work of the IPCC this has given it greater prominence, as countries have taken a close interest in all the documents. Before this latest document was released in Copenhagen there were detailed negotiations on exactly what the content of the report should be. There were some 30,000 review comments and the final text was negotiated line by line and word by word. Some sentences were rejected altogether and the favourite justification for this appears to have been that the language was too complex for policymakers to understand. But surely if policymakers are confused by terms such as “CH4” - the chemical formula for methane - and by “black carbon”, which were deleted, they’ll have even more trouble with “forcing agents” and “mitigation strategies”, which were retained. In my view, if they have difficulty with any of these terms they must be in the wrong job.

As one of the lead authors, Professor Forster was in Copenhagen with 20 or 30 colleagues whose role was to provide the international delegates with scientific advice. The country representatives were to negotiate an acceptable text and in theory the lead authors would not take part in the negotiation, but would advise whether the changes to the text were consistent with the science. In practice, the lead authors were sought out by the delegates who in some cases were aggressive and demanding. Much of Forster's time was spent on negotiating a narrow range of points. Delegates put the authors under extreme pressure. Some of the delegations had as many as 25 members so they could work in shifts. On the other hand, the authors had to be available at all times, working till 3, 4 or 5 in the morning or even all night. Any agreed amendments to the synthesis report had then to be reflected in the main report which itself had already gone through four revisions. 

The Saudi Arabians were most determined to amend the report and negotiations became close to deadlock. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, achieved consensus and a final agreed text through subtle diplomatic manipulation.The Chinese were also robust negotiators although they respected the science even if they didn't like the conclusion that it led to. After this much negotiation I believe we certainly can trust the IPCC.

Only a few days after the issue of the report the US mid-term elections took place. As a result it is expected that Senator James Inhofe will take over the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe is a notorious climate change denier. He has held this post before and has made Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear required reading for committee members. He thus prefers to base US environment policy on a work of fiction rather than on peer-reviewed science. Despite this, Professor Forster believes that there will be a positive outcome from next year's Paris meeting. He believes that the Chinese and the Europeans will work together to deliver a constructive result regardless of pressure from the United States. Let's hope he's right! For too long meetings in this series have closed without commitments, except a commitment to look at the issues in greater detail next time. 

It’s worth repeating Ban Ki- moon’s remarks at the press conference launching the latest report:

“Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”