IPCC must consider alternate policy views, researchers say

Jul 07, 2014

The Summary for Policymakers recently produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has triggered a public debate about excessive governmental intrusion in the IPCC process. The IPCC cannot avoid alternative political interpretations of data and must involve policy makers in finding out how to address these implications, according to a team of researchers including the Wilson School's Marc Fleurbaey.

In addition to providing regular assessments of scientific literature, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Process (IPCC) also produces a "Summary for Policymakers" intended to highlight relevant policy issues through data.

While the summary presents powerful scientific evidence, it goes through an approval process in which governments can question wording and the selection of findings but not alter scientific facts or introduce statements at odds with the science. In particular, during this process, the most recent summary on mitigation policies was stripped of several important figures and paragraphs that were in the scientists' draft, leading some IPCC scientists to express concerns about excessive political intrusion.

Delicate issues of political interpretation cannot be avoided, wrote three IPCC authors in the journal Science. In their analysis, the team – which includes Marc Fleurbaey from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs – uses global emissions data to show how multiple political interpretations can be made from the same dataset. They argue that the IPCC should consider a writing process that better connects scientific findings with multiple political outcomes.

"The IPCC should consider opening up more channels for dialogue in which salient political discussions are connected to relevant scientific material," said the article's co-author Marc Fleurbaey, the Robert E. Kuenne Professor in Economics, Humanistic Studies and Public Affairs. "Such a collaboration or coproduction is what lends the IPCC its credibility as the voice of scientists – but with more weight for policy."

While the IPCC undoubtedly produces the most up-to-date, comprehensive scientific reports on , its approval process has become tediously extensive. As the panel embarks upon its sixth assessment, those involved have been working toward streamlining the process.

In their review, Fleurbaey and his co-authors – Navroz Dubash from the Centre for Policy Research in India and Sivan Kartha from the Stockholm Environment Institute – write that this approval process sets the IPCC apart from other technical reports. Instead of changing the approval process, they suggest an alternate vision for articulating science and policy at the IPCC.

To illustrate their vision, the researchers analyzed global emissions by reviewing income growth across countries, a key driver of emissions growth. When looking at income, countries are sometimes grouped into such categories as lower-income, lower-middle income, upper-middle income and high-income. The trouble, however, is that some countries are rapidly changing in terms of income, which elides relevant information. Likewise, a few big countries can dominate the statistics, and the time reference used for grouping them also can lead to large differences.

When global emissions are analyzed according to groupings based on current income figures, upper-middle income countries account for 75 percent of the rise in global emissions from 2000 to 2010. This presentation of data was deleted from the recent summary report. A political interpretation of this, Fleurbaey and his collaborators write, may be that country groupings should reflect the increasing role of upper-middle income countries and perhaps impose commensurate emission limits.

However, when grouping countries according to their income in the middle of the decade (2005), rose three quarters in lower-middle income countries, a change due in part to the fact that China joined the upper-middle income group in 2010 only. This presentation highlighting lower-middle income countries may suggest supporting these countries financially and technologically in developing lower carbon economies.

"As you can see, both representations would be equally faithful to the underlying data, but they are also equally synthetic and incomplete, and they differ markedly in their political extrapolations," said Fleurbaey. "It's hard to accurately group these countries without imposing political perceptions, and analysis by country groups is highly sensitive in the current context of the renegotiation of the groups defined in the Kyoto protocol."

As an illustration that more positive outcomes can be obtained from governmental dealings, the authors report that some sections benefited from the approval process, as they were eventually expanded and clarified by additional explanations. For example, the framing section of the summary, which was taken up for discussion early in the approval process, achieved a smooth convergence between the authors and country delegates.

On the flip side, the international cooperation section was much shortened, simplified and seemingly stripped of controversy. This section had much less time allowed for discussion and was examined in a contentious atmosphere after the removal of several figures involving country groupings.

Fellow IPCC author Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Geosciences, who was not an author of the Science article, fully supported its position.

"IPCC, and attempts to solve the climate problem, would benefit immensely from a strengthening of the science-policy interface," Oppenheimer said. "Proposals to completely separate the science and policy functions are simply wrong-headed and self-defeating. This collaboration is what makes IPCC unique and uniquely effective"

"Seemingly technical choices can crystallize into value-laden political conclusions, particularly given tight word and time limits," said Fleurbaey. "It is more productive for authors to be aware of the varying political implications and factor these into their representations of data."

The review, "Political implications of data presentation," was published July 4 in Science.

Explore further: UN climate report balances science and politics

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

UN climate report balances science and politics

Apr 13, 2014

After racing against the clock in an all-night session, the U.N.'s expert panel on climate change was putting the final touches Saturday on a scientific guide to help governments, industries and regular people ...

Cost of fighting warming 'modest,' says UN panel

Apr 13, 2014

The cost of keeping global warming in check is "relatively modest," but only if the world acts quickly to reverse the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the head of the U.N.'s expert panel ...

Recommended for you

Is Hawaii prepared for the impacts of climate change?

31 minutes ago

The Hawaiian Islands represent a wide diversity of ecosystems and environments, including areas of breathtaking natural beauty as well as densely populated coastal cities. These unique environments are already ...

Water in the Netherlands–past, present, and future

5 hours ago

The storm in the Netherlands began on a Saturday afternoon in February 1953. Ria Geluk, who was 6 years old, told me that it peaked during the night when nationwide communications were on their nightly pause. ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

thermodynamics
4 / 5 (8) Jul 07, 2014
Countdown for Rygg2 (our pet anarchist) to show up screaming about the socialists stealing his lunch money.

Three,

Two,

One...
ryggesogn2
1.4 / 5 (9) Jul 07, 2014
IPCC was political from its inception, by intention.
Is this finally being acknowledged by AGWites?
supamark23
4.4 / 5 (7) Jul 07, 2014
Countdown for Rygg2 (our pet anarchist) to show up screaming about the socialists stealing his lunch money.

Three,

Two,

One...


lol, perfect...
supamark23
4.4 / 5 (7) Jul 07, 2014
IPCC was political from its inception, by intention.
Is this finally being acknowledged by AGWites?


Why do you hate America (and humanity)?
ryggesogn2
1.5 / 5 (8) Jul 07, 2014
The AGWites must agree with me.
Earth Scientist
1.4 / 5 (9) Jul 07, 2014
Science even bad biased science is absolutely corrupt when tainted by politics.

"It is more productive for authors to be aware of the varying political implications and factor these into their representations of data."

Translation: It is more productive for authors to lie to attain political goals.

It has been obvious all along that this is what has been going on, but now it is in writing.

antigoracle
1 / 5 (3) Jul 08, 2014
IPCC was political from its inception, by intention.
Is this finally being acknowledged by AGWites?


Why do you hate America (and humanity)?

Wow!! Did you come up with that gem on your own??
Don't overwork that single neuron, ok.
You should go take your meds and rest now.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (3) Jul 12, 2014