Annual Conference of RMNO : 

Disaster, Failure or Success? –
Towards a better interaction between scientists,
 policy-makers and society groups.

Utrecht, 29 November.

by Dr. Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen

Reader, Department of Geography, 
Editor, Energy & Environment
Faculty of Science, University of Hull,  Hull HU6 7RX, UK

Tel: (0)1482 465349/6341/5385
Fax: (0)1482 466340


Having researched the functioning of the IPCC during the 1990s and followed its progress since as part of ongoing research into the politics of the climate change negotiations and related policy issues, and as reviewer of IPCC Working Group III, I will present rather critical views of a too cosy and exclusive relationship between policy-planners, selected experts and assorted visionaries. I will make several, some perhaps not very realistic, suggestions of how the relationship between science and policy in the IPCC might be improved. These do not include giving more influence to green ideology and climate modellers, but rather more open scientific debate, 'untied' funding, and declarations of institutional interest.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

I have been asked about the strong and weak points in the functioning of the IPCC.  As an academic I am trained to find weak points, alas; but I think that IPCC supporters, and there are very many, are well able to blow their own trumpets. Let me therefore concentrate on what I, as a policy analyst, consider the weak points. I stress that my loyalty lies not with research but with policy as it affects human beings alive today. I note that in Europe at least, the IPCC has been instrumental in moving a significant amounts of tax payers money to a small elite of research institutions and disciplines. I am best informed about the policy role played by IPCC statements and leaders in the UK. The IPCC is not a single body, rather it is a label for scientific reports and summaries that give advise to governments: on the state of scientific knowledge, on the impacts of various ‘projections’ based on socio-economic scenarios (IPCC language) or ‘predictions’ (IPCC user terminology) and on ‘responses’ . The latter is primarily about ‘mitigation’, that is the advocacy of  solutions to a problem that is still being studied! It is important to note this structure when making any assessment.

The IPCC was set up when fossil fuel prices collapsed and new/green and alternative energy technologies and fuel, including nuclear power, needed official help to survive, and the EU institutions wanted to increase their competencies in this area. Authoritative science would give ‘sound’ advice: sound meaning that its words could be so interpreted as to say what governments (and environmentalists) wanted to hear. If the views of scientists differed seriously those of these two, as far as I am aware, they were not effectively disseminated. In addition, the research agenda of the WMO and IGBP (Earth Systems science) were well funded on the basis of the claim that science would enable global environmental management and sustainability. Virtual problems would be postulated and explored, while real, existing environmental problems and conflicts were neglected.

 One example of the latter: TAR itself, in a draft version I received, said:

“The allocation of emissions in a scenario is coupled closely to an important policy question in climate negotiations, the distribution of future emissions rights among nations, or ‘burden sharing’.  It is noteworthy that this is usually not explicitly treated in mitigation scenarios….."
 (TAR, WG III SOD, lines 42-44)

How can ‘we’ (and who is we if not unelected but selected experts?), given our profound ignorance of the future, distribute emission rights today thereby likely to entrench a specific distribution of power, knowledge and technologies?  Isn’t this, once you think about it as a historian, a monstrous attempt at global and national control?  Nazi ‘Gleichschaltung’ might be liberal in comparison. And if you find this comment offensive, let me remind you of the ‘convergence’ debate which appears to postulate that every individual, or is it country per capita?, should be given an equal allocation of  emission rights.

How is this to be done if not by extreme compulsion?   WG III admits that the politics related to IPCC action proposal are not even made explicit and research into these is certainly not funded. It is my view, that what some governments considered important  for the Kyoto process had little to do with environmental protection and more with energy policy, bureaucratic competence, technology forcing and income generation for governments, and the IPCC was therefore needed, and used, to underwrite these agendas.   Many other motives were attracted to the global warming agenda and were able to hide behind the dangerous warming threat that for policy and  legal purposes has to be man-made and  subject to controls by technology policy and interventions in the price system.  Within these boundaries, the IPCC leadership has done a wonderful job, written many well illustrated reports and even more most carefully drafted Summaries for Policy Makers, containing many weasel words delighting a person interested in the diplomatic use of language.

The IPCC has two functions that are not necessarily consistent:

·         * a structure for selecting and publishing scientific reports considered relevant by lead authors, and

·         * source of policy advice from a much smaller group of officials and experts who condense and       select from the above policy relevant material it considers worthy of dissemination to policy-makers and the public.

So one can distinguish between what the reports say, what the policy maker summaries indicate, and what the ‘users’ make of either or both. I am arguing that for the research enterprise, at least in some countries, the IPCC has primarily been an instrument for attracting funding for the research agendas of  its ‘communities’. By asserting policy relevance IPCC related research has been so well funded in Europe that the USA modellers now claim that they have been left behind. President Bush is said to have put more funds their way.[1]  Giving the dependence of much climate change research on direct official funding, and the receiving of such on membership of established (and conservative) research networks, its leaders could not behave as a policy neutral advisory body simply. They have not simply presented the evidence and theories nicely wrapped to ‘policy-makers’, as its the official view. They have become advocates of policy, if only research for more research and R&D. This is not an attack on the integrity of climate scientists as a group, but a statement of fact deduced from political reality supported by personal observation. The IPCC is a political actor, though this role is not uniform, and it is a difficult role.

I have done specific research in the IPCC in the early 1990s and have watched it ever since. I interpret the IPCC, as far as its advisory capacity is concerned, as a mixed group of self-selected believers and officially selected experts, most of them paid directly by governments, who do not, indeed cannot, give entirely honest advice. Much influence is in the hands of official experts, many of them paid by governments directly for promoting what they advocate and who must have difficulty in distinguishing between belief, wishful thinking and what is actually known.  Precaution directs ever more technology research agendas towards ‘decarbonisation’, but is this really a global need? The experts are too close to policy and funding commitments not to act strategically, and are clearly troubled by this difficult role. The FCCC biases the research agenda towards the discovery of harm. Climate is not well enough understood to give advise on how to respond to ‘discernible’, perhaps’, anthropogenic, perhaps, climatic change that will do great harm to mankind, perhaps.  Too many of the solutions proposed are the products of futuristic academic research rather than realistic politics.

The IPCC was set up to advise governments not just on science but also on what to do, on policy ‘options’. The research enterprise in fact offered its advice to governments in the mid 1980s when governments themselves became very interested in regulating energy policy.  Engineering research already knew what could be or even ought to be done (energy efficiency, alternative energy sources, nuclear power, later …emission trading), and many governments realised that they would also benefit from this agenda.  As the FCCC negotiations continued with their ups and downs, the IPCC became a highly political and politicised body (and here I do not mean party political but political in the sense of  being subjected as well as sensitive to interests, including its own).  I am sure that many of its ‘bench’ contributors are not aware of this and would not have cared anyway. The Panel’s leadership, however, may well have been too close to some governments, especially in Europe where green ministries  have funded policy relevant rather than basic science.  Does one build a sounder base for a decision, if scientists focus too early on ‘policy’ when that which is to be managed remain but partially understood?

The Panel no longer provides a scientific consensus underpinning the FCCC, which is a common formulation of its task, but  - to quote from the Cambridge University Press release for TAR (addressed to ‘Dear Scientist’) - delivers ‘authoritative, international consensus of scientific opinion on climate change’,  (emphasis added). This opinion, presented with many caveats that are nevertheless readily presented as fact,  has greatly influenced policy , e.g. the then UK Environment Minister John Gummer[2], told the whole world that :

 “We have a clear message from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that global climate change needs global action now” (UK,2nd Report under the FCCC, 1997: 3)

 The message I see is not that clear and becomes less clear the further one moves away from atmospheric modelling. However, the Kyoto process would collapse, if the IPCC were to agree with Sallie L. Baliunas  in a recent  article with James K. Glassman:

"Without computer models, there would be no evidence of global warming, (man-made, that is),  no Kyoto. By simulating the climate on giant, ultra-fast computers, scholars try to find out how it will react to each new stimulus - like a doubling of CO2. An ideal computer model, however, would have to track five million parameters over the surface of the earth and through the atmosphere, and incorporate all relevant interactions among land, sea, air, ice and vegetation. According to one researcher, such a model would demand ten million trillion degrees of freedom to solve  a computational impossibility even on the most advanced supercomputer." [3]

I would expect that all scientists, indeed researchers as seekers after truth have a problem with demand for scientific consensus, or even consensus of scientific opinion, being sought from still highly active research bodies and competing hypotheses, especially on something as complex as climate.[4]

Why not send policy-makers -before they have made policy - to look at the available information and then advise their politicians? While reaching such consensus may be a necessary evil and better than no input from scientists at all, the outcome is not a ‘scientific’ but a political, negotiated, consensus. [5]science, where relevant, consensus should emerge over time from fundamental studies and is not negotiated with government representatives who may later make ‘science’ responsible for their policies, especially when these fail. Here is a description of how it is generated. In the words of a colleague, Richard Courtney, who recently observed the latest IPCC meeting when the Synthesis Report was agreed:

The purpose was to provide a Report that integrates information from the summaries of the recent reports from the three IPCC Working Groups. The Lead Authors had provided a Draft Text for the Synthesis Report and governments had provided comments on it.  The Lead Authors had then revised the Draft in attempt to incorporate those comments.  The  Meeting ploughed through the revised Draft and approved - or amended before approving - each sentence of it.  In the event of disagreement the Chairman convened a small informal meeting called a Contact Group.  Any government representatives could attend a Contact Group that would hopefully decide a sentence the Plenary would accept.  Only governments were permitted to input any information or comment to the Plenary and Contact Groups…[6]  Only sentences that were agreed by every government were included in the Report.  Objection by any one government was sufficient to have a sentence excluded or modified - often, other phrasings would be sought.

I would also comment here that given this rule, it is somewhat hard to understand how IPCC can be seen as a cutting edge organisation in saying anything…....National interests clearly motivated inputs to the meeting…The IPCC Synthesis Report is a very political document. The UK, US, Germany and Saudi Arabia made about half of all contributions to the Plenary between them. ….In this sea level debate, as in several others, it was repeatedly stated that the "message" must be helpful to policy makers.  But, in my opinion, the method for achieving this desire was very wrong.  The "message" was clearly a single, one-sided view of the issues that was agreed by all the governments.  Absence of complete agreement prevented inclusion of any statement.  This resulted in, for example, exclusion of the complexity of  sea level change mechanisms from the text.  Hence, the Synthesis Report is a document of agreed governmental policy and not a complete assessment of the science.  Scientists are not one handed….

The mentioned TAR is rather honest, however. It does not claim that the reports by the IPCC are about ‘climate’, but about climate change, which is an artificial construct based on some science and huge computational power and lots of global data sets and speculations about the future of mankind.  In these areas the IPCC is certainly authoritative and has done a splendid job, thanks to good funding for its glossy publications.


The IPCC Working Groups

The natural scientists set up Working Group I to ‘underpin’ the FCCC. Without the belief that global warming is happening, is globally dangerous (as laid down in the FCCC and studied in WG II) and is indeed caused by human energy use that can be effectively altered, neither the FCCC nor the Kyoto Protocol would make environmental sense. Moving away from fossil fuels  may make political and economic sense for some actors, but not globally.  WG II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability[7] deals with the potential nasty impacts of warming - whatever its causes really - and makes pretty gloomy predictions about the global hothouse, especially when policy makers, including UNEP needed such pronouncements. WG II has not really looked at the benefits of warming, this would be against the treaty and belief system they are meant to serve. People really need regional climate change predictions (IPCC projections have a tendency to be turned into prediction by users and do so unchallenged), and a lot of research is going on in this area. But how true are the predictions/projections given what goes into the models?   WG III (Mitigation) thrives on political and economic motivations created by gloomy ‘projections’ : mitigation research and even more so its practical realisation requires for subsidies and regulatory interventions. Without fear of catastrophe, the money needed for the development of solutions may be spent elsewhere.[8]  As do the many tasks and responsibilities for bureaucracies, especially for what are called ‘vulnerable’ places, allegedly the tropical, poor countries that would need even more aid and intervention.

I consider this third group to be the political driver of the Kyoto process and hence of major significance not in underpinning the whole affair, but in making it acceptable to policy.  It gets least attention, however. It is essential for WG I’s functioning and has helped to create the worst case scenarios of by providing the emission scenarios, that is the societal future for the GCMs. These scenarios are used by WG I to double the  CO2 content in the atmosphere, that is to calculate future changes in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and aerosols at different dates in the future depending on energy consumption and population growth, and  irrespective of what some experts, perhaps less wedded to alternative energy  and  rapid economic growth, may think of the realism of these scenarios.

So the model predictions we are to be scared or at least very worried about, cannot be based on selected natural sciences only, that is a combination of atmospheric chemistry and physics and observed increases in carbon dioxide concentrations, but also on major socio-economic assumptions provided by other experts groups working on ‘single issues’ and tending to be deeply political if not visionary in the sense that they do predict the future they want to shape.  Here is integration indeed, and integration that has developed most, I understand, in the Netherlands.[9] 

Government, business and NGOs dominate in this Group dedicated to mitigation as solution: various ways of achieving emission reduction and emission trading.  Large parts of the research efforts this group draws upon existed at national levels before the problem of warming (rather than cooling) was accepted on the political agenda of the EU.  Most of the mitigation strategies that are being advocated, with the exception of emission trading and the CDM, are solutions to the 1970s oil crises, i.e. to high fossil fuel prices: energy efficiency (not conservation), nuclear power, renewables, higher energy taxes to reduce demand. The mitigation solution involve many government and private sector laboratories, officials responsible for subsidies and  R&D developments, industries that would benefit from green subsidies or tougher regulations. In whose interest is all this activity: that of future generations? Perhaps, in the meantime the costs would appear to fall to taxpayers who may not be consulted though government officials would claim to represent than rather than departmental interests.

Internally, the IPCC has perhaps functioned not serially enough, and yet with an excessive degree of dependence between different working groups. WGs II and III tended to progress best on the basis of worst case scenarios from WG I, even though the full range of hypotheses, or risks has not yet been evaluated.  WG III was committed to ‘decarbonisation’ from the start and had an interest in high emission projections. This has biased research by amplifying the likely dangers or doom scenarios so readily accepted by all those groups that want to see rapid action by governments. Scares being disseminated with reference to the IPCC help at the expense of knowledge about the likely benefits of more carbon dioxide. In this way the solutions advocated by the experts in WG III, and hence the governments supporting these, were strengthened by IPCC pronouncements. Let me conclude with giving you my three reasons why the IPCC may have been a policy mistake, in spite of much  scientific research done under its umbrella.

A.        A. It was set up by  few governments through intergovernmental bodies with suspect or at least complex motives. The interests that initiated it in the late 1980s were: the meteorological  offices and Max Planck Gesellschaften of the North, WMO and UNEP. But behind these stood and stands the ICSU and especially the IGBP – earth systems research with vast data and instrumental needs, such as computing powers and satellite data. Among the natural sciences there existed, in 1986 when the price of fossil fuels collapsed, already a group that possessed a global network of researchers keen to upgrade and test climate models and better understand climatic variations. Obviously, without this energy related political salience, relatively small research groups could not have set up the IPCC. Indications of the potential seriousness of this issue, or multiple opportunities, would be needed and were indeed provided by IPCC efforts.

B.  The IPCC has been dominated by a small number of leading natural scientists with very close links to governments and strong personal beliefs, most from the UK and  Sweden, with close links to the global research enterprise.  None of the people to my knowledge (Bolin, Houghton, Watson) have ever spoken out in public against the exaggerations disseminated by politicians and NGOs about the climate threat. Are they not good public servants before they are scientists? They have brought funding to research that could generate consensus among those selected or invited.  Sound, that is policy relevant science needs negotiations to reach consensus that allows policy to progress.

C. IPCC science and social science remain exclusive within their own domains: that is ‘questioning’ natural and social sciences that do not contribute to the basic research tool of the IPCC scientists - mathematical computer models based on weather forecasting and hence atmospheric physics and chemistry – tend to be excluded. The cost of emission reductions and GNP impacts can be modelled globally by a few economists; so they are welcome as ‘science’. Historians and political analysts are less so. The interest of future generations are in, but not of current ones. The models, in spite of growing sophistication, remain primitive and should not be used for describing visions of the future (‘projections’) that politics can turn into ’predictions’ serving self-interested national policies presented as, potentially at least, mandatory global policies that already justify huge national investment and taxation programmes. Excluded are the solar scientists, geologists and hydrologists/oceanographers and biologists who all have something to say on climate and its changes. They are in general suspicious of climate model findings and tend to disagree with the IPCC that human activities are the most likely cause modifying the global environment. And especially that global warming is a serious threat caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, and what is most important here, that we can do something to mitigate, combat or simply solve the problem, rather than adapt to it gradually.


 Hence my SEVEN recommendations to change he nature of  knowledge-based advice: in order of decreasing likelihood of their acceptability to governments.

1. Declaration of interests: Like other political actors, the names of individual authors and particularly lead authors and even more so Bureau members, should be accompanied in publications by the institution that have and are employing them, and nature of their funding - whether in general oras grants tied to specific projects and employment periods. 

Minority reports included in PMS, as in Germany (Gutachten) This consensus idea comes from UK administrative practice and has not been taken up by the IPCC. 

More honest SPMs: These summaries matter most to policy and politics. They are, I am told, written for an audience that wants results clear conclusions , not statements of ' on the one hand, on the other hand' type. The IPCC obliges with 'diplomatic' language. If it is true that these at times angrily negotiated summaries pander to the wishes of 'policy-makers', then they may also serve to later shift any blame to the experts. When an evaluation is wanted of the relative likelihood of future outcomes, the SPM instead is written more like the brief for a civil rather than a criminal trial, presenting the information in terms of the explanation that is more (or most) likely. One suggestion made I believe by Mike McCracken, is that the SPM should move from the hypothesis testing framework to the relative risk framework. But what risks would be included? The IPCC may have to be more honest and say, we do not know or cannot know.

Abolish WG III. This does not mean that the work of WGIII should not be done, but that this work should not be done 'globally'. III, like the other groups, is nationally funded and should deal with national , at most regional responses. I would like to see its visions and scenarios looked at by historians and people who have worked on public administration and on other global problems - not just energy supply. Global research and policy priorities need to be discussed to put the climate issue in context.

IPCC leaders abstain from policy advocacy, such as addressing energy and pre-negotiation conferences, even to explain the science and answer questions. In my experience, this advice is never neutral, for policy advice is what is wanted. I disapprove of an IPCC chair working also for the World Bank, after having advised the US government and worked for the UK government. 

Open access to outside disciplines (solar physics, biology) and hence to a club that is too dominated not only by disciplines involved in climate change models but also by the Netherlands, UK and Sweden, both countries with very specific energy policy interests in relation to emissions. 

'Untie' funding sources: Improve the funding of basic science. Funding/grants should be less tied to national governmental sources and hence existing policy. This might weaken the close ties between some WGs and particular governments. WGI, for example, has been described to me as the Hadley mafia and its leaders have been deeply and directly involved in UK and intergovernmental policy-making. Is mitigation not close to the Dutch government's heart? Governments currently are the only sources of funds to support the IPCC process. Why should they be less biased than corporations, NGOs and foundations? I would argue that governments, that is environmental bureaucracies, now have a major stake in pushing the process forwards rather than reflecting on the 'science' and the political implications of the proposed politics of 'mitigation'.



There is an alternative structure for scientific advice at the international level. It has existed for many years, much longer than the IPCC (since late 1970s) without becoming politicised  or sending its ‘chairs’ to international negotiations. This is GESAMP : JOINT GROUP OF EXPERTS ON THE SCIENTIFIC ASPECTS OF MARINE POLLUTION; an advisory body consisting of specialised experts nominated by UN sponsoring agencies (IMO, FAO, UNESCO/IOC, WMO, IAEA, UN and UNEP) to provide scientific advice concerning the prevention, reduction and control of the degradation of the marine environment to the Sponsoring Agencies, NOT government engaged in highly political negotiations.

GESAMP brings scientists together in over 30 working groups of 10-20 people that do not have conflicting allegiances or are charged, at home, with raising funds from those they advise. It has published 71 reports so far. [11] Should we have a JOINT GROUP OF EXPERTS ON THE SCIENTIFIC ASPECTS OF CLIMATE?

Research lobbies know their aims: to get their research agendas funded and their strategy is to make these agendas ‘relevant ‘ to society, which usually means the government of the day; it means pleasing bureaucracies.[12] Other interests attracted to ‘global warming’ opportunities included  technology forcing, energy competition, transferring investments to the South or making money from emission trading. They are currently driving Kyoto forward irrespective of science. So many winners, who are the losers? Should experts give advice on science when this excludes the most important aspects of proposed policies based on ‘projections’, namely the ideologies that went into these projections and the implications of the proposed  mitigation strategies?  Perhaps less ambition globally and more ambitions nationally will move the project forward, and away from the Kyoto Protocol.


1. Reality may be less rosy. I have been told that the Administration has not yet put in any additional funding, and any funding that may come will not be there until the FY-2003 budget, so beginning October 1, 2002. The problem in the US has been that funding for about 8 years has been very close to level dollars in a field with greatly expanding issues arising for study.

2. An earnest Catholic convert who fed his daughter a hamburger in public at the beginning of the BSE scare to prove that eating beef was safe, he now earns well as environmental consultant and company director, on top of his pension as a former minister of the crown.

3. The Weekly Standard Magazine, June 25, 2001/Vol 6, Number 39: "Bush is Right on Global 
Warming ." IPCC supporters disagree, they value their models more highly. While the above may ignore that many variables involved are interrelated by a very few basic conservation laws and that models are never perfect, the question remains of whether they are good enough for policy guidance.

4. In a world where so many issues cry out for more knowledge about how things already are and how they may be improved, the futurology of so much computer based science might need examination. 

5. Consensus is needed, by the way, in the UK for all party Select Committee - party political consensus, if these committees are to have a hope to influence government policy.

6. I have been informed, however,that lead authors on behalf of their set of authors may do so.

7. Adaptation and vulnerability are fairly new terms in the policy arena, both are now IGBP research agendas and part of the now widely canvassed 'sustainability science' research, a continuation of Global Change research.

8. The current research agenda of WG III is: rigorous techno-economic analysis of mitigation measures for each baseline and target; more explicit analysis of policy instruments; inclusion of ghg other than CO2; cost-benefit analyses of the impacts of timing and burden-sharing; quantitative analysis of linkages between international equity and climate change costs and benefits; capacity building for scenario analyses in developing countries. The above is primarily academic research that has little chance of being used effectively globally because governments rarely have the capacity or power to do so. Academic research agendas that do not disturb current political processes and aspirations attract 'save' funding and powerful governments will receive advice of how to benefit most from mitigation. It involves equity analyses that are only country or nation, not class, social group, or gender, based.

9. S.H. Schneider and K.Kuntz-Duriseti, in 'Integrated Assessment Models of Climate Change: Beyond a Doubling of CO2' describe IAMs as one of the principal tools in analysing climate change control policies. But they can only produce answers 'that are as good as their underlying assumptions and structural fidelity to a very complex multi-component system'. These assumptions are apparently obscure and, I would argue, most unlikely to include political agency and major future changes in technology, prices etc. These authors try to 'sell' their control proposals with the promise of a 400% per capita increase in economic growth even after mitigation policies. The paper also demonstrates the superb nature of global warming as academic research theme. 

10. I tried to do research on this in the early 1990s and think I could show statistically from questionnaires that those people who were not directly funded by government grants for doing climate change projects where happier working for the IPCC, but this finding was not considered robust enough and removed. I had asked researchers about the source and nature of their funding. In particular, the nature of the research institute should be identifiable.

11. This has apparently been allowed, but no nation (note nation!) has chosen to submit one-instead, consensus has been reached.

12. Its 70th was from UNEP, called 'A Sea of Troubles'. One of its 35 sections deals with 'global warming' where we do get the IPCC view, a slightly accentuated by UNEP's interest in that subject, but also warnings against proposed 'solutions' such as injecting carbon into the deep ocean. It is admitted that we simply do not know enough.

13. I also recommend to policy-makers and research manager an antidote: Terence Kealy : The economic Laws of Scientific Research, MacMillan 1996.

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