At the IPCC

John Broome

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises that climate change is a moral problem or, to use its cautious language, it ‘raises ethical issues’. The authors of the IPCC’s recent Fifth Assessment Report therefore included two moral philosophers. I am one of them. I have been a member of the IPCC’s Working Group 3 since 2011.

The writing process was exhaustive and exhausting. Our report went through three full drafts before the final version. Each was sent out for comments to very large numbers of people, including academic experts and representatives of governments. We were required to take note of every comment, and to record what we had done about it. I dealt with about 600 comments in this way; Working Group 3 as a whole dealt with 38,000. The aim was to produce the broadest possible consensus, reporting on the state of knowledge about climate change. I think we did that. It inevitably meant we had to be conservative in our judgments.

The outcome is a 2000-page report, which has already been published on the internet. Because no one will read a report of that size, our efforts in the last few months have gone into writing two summaries. A subgroup of authors from Working Group 3 hammered them out over the last eight months. The fuller and more reliable one is the Technical Summary. The name puts people off reading it, but actually it is not particularly technical. It is simply a summary of the main report. The shorter, 30-page précis known as the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) attracts more attention but is subject to political influence.

A draft of the SPM was presented to governments at the Approval Session in Berlin last month. The whole idea of the Approval Session is extraordinary. Every single sentence of the SPM has to be either approved or rejected by delegates from governments. At the Plenary meeting, the draft is projected on a screen sentence by sentence. As each sentence comes up, the chairman asks delegates for comments on it and proposed amendments. Delegates propose amendments and the authors then consider whether they can be supported by the main report. A sentence is approved only if it is supported by the main report, and only if there is a consensus on approving it among the delegates. When the haggling on a sentence is concluded and a consensus obtained, the chairman brings down the gavel, the approved sentence is highlighted in green, and discussion moves to the next sentence. Very gradually, green highlighting spreads through the report. Five days – Monday to Friday – were set aside for approving the 30 pages by this means.

In effect, the text is edited by several hundred people sitting together in a big room. One hundred and seven countries sent delegations of varying sizes. Saudi Arabia is said to have sent ten people or more. The delegates arrive with political interests. Many oppose each other. Their governments are already locked in negotiations preparing for the major climate-change meeting planned for Paris next year. The wording of the SPM matters to the delegates, since it may be quoted in the negotiations. At our IPCC meeting, they treated the SPM as though it were a legal document rather than a scientific report. To achieve consensus, the text of the SPM was made vaguer in many places, and its content diluted to the extent that in some places not much substance remained.

The delegate from South Sudan said that the report was a careful and accurate record of knowledge about climate change, and that delegates should be very wary about changing it unnecessarily. I wish he had been better listened to. Most of the delegates showed little self-restraint in proposing amendments, and little interest in getting the work finished. One delegation changed ‘peaking in the first half of the century’ to ‘peaking before 2050’, after provoking some minutes of discussion. This was at nearly midnight on Thursday, the fourth day of five, when three-quarters of the text was yet to be agreed.

The section of the SPM that I was involved with came up early in the proceedings. It was quickly apparent that it could not be agreed in the Plenary Session where all the delegates sat. So the authors of that section were sent as a ‘Contact Group’ to a smaller room to negotiate the details with some tens of countries. We worked for three and a half days on one page. Meetings each day ran from 8 a.m. till midnight with hardly time to eat. The delegates made comments, we went away to rewrite the text on the basis of the comments, the delegates made further comments, we rewrote again, and so on. Several delegates in the meetings were sending their governments photos of the text on the screen as it was negotiated, and taking instructions from their governments by phone.

Late on Wednesday evening, during a brief break, the delegates formed a huddle in the corner, trying to agree text between themselves. We, who would be named as authors of the final product, were left as spectators. The US called in a more senior delegate. The main issue was whether we should mention a ‘right to development’, as the developing countries wanted. Eventually we were presented with a few sentences that, we were told, the developed countries would reject, and an alternative few sentences that, we were told, the developing countries would reject.

As he left the room, one delegate privately advised us not to depart far from his version of the text, because his delegation was very close to deleting the whole section anyway. This was the moment when I began to enjoy the whole event. The threat was not frightening. We privately pointed out in return that, if our section was deleted, we would no longer be authors of the SPM. We would be free to go to the press and publish what we liked. Moreover, all the ethics would have been deleted from the SPM. That would be embarrassing to whoever had deleted it, since the IPCC had been making a big show of incorporating ethics into its report.

Wednesday evening’s impasse was unblocked by behind-the-scenes negotiation during Thursday, and by Thursday evening the Contact Group had accepted a version of our whole section. We took it back to the Plenary. When it eventually came up at 1.20 a.m. on Friday, it went through in a few minutes without opposition. There was applause around the room. It was the first bit of text to be approved without argument in the Plenary.

Some brief paragraphs on ethics survived all the way to the approved final version of the SPM. They have been mauled, and their content diminished, but they are not entirely empty. We were lucky. Some sections were cut to pieces because the different views of the delegations turned out to be irreconcilable.

The biggest drama developed during the last night. The draft SPM presented to the delegates contained figures that showed emissions of greenhouse gases from countries classified by their ‘income group’. The figures showed that emissions of ‘upper medium income’ countries soared in the last decade. This is obviously important information for policymakers. It helps to explain why, despite all the anxiety about climate change, emissions have grown recently at an accelerating rate. Nevertheless, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia insisted that all figures where countries were classified by income group should be deleted.

The authors proposed to the Plenary that references to the figures in the Technical Summary and main report should be included in the SPM, at the point where the figures themselves were deleted. Saudi Arabia objected, and indeed wanted to delete all references to any part of the main report that mentioned income groups. In response, the Netherlands proposed that, if the reference to the figures were deleted, a footnote should be added to say: ‘The Netherlands objects to the deletion of references to the following figures’, followed by a list of the figures. (Footnotes noting objections from individual countries are permitted.) I thought this a lovely idea, but it got nowhere. The question of what to do with the references remained unsettled.

The time by now was 4.15 a.m. A break was called, and delegates gathered in a huddle to sort out what to do. I hung around the fringes watching. Generally there were smiles, but I witnessed a decided lapse of diplomatic language just before Brazil presented a new proposal to the Plenary. This proposal was that a note should be attached to each chapter in the main report that mentioned income groupings of countries. The note would say that, although income groupings are relevant from the scientific perspective, they are not necessarily relevant from the policymaking perspective. This proposal could not possibly have been approved, since the IPCC’s raison d’être is to provide information relevant for policymaking. It could not accept a suggestion that it was not doing so. Moreover, the main report needed to be protected from political interference.

Compromises ran out, and in the end Saudi Arabia got its way completely over the references. All references from the SPM to any part of the main report that mentions income groupings were deleted.

By 7.30 a.m. on Saturday, green highlighting had spread across all the surviving text, and the meeting ended. The last session had started at 9.00 a.m. on Friday, and been interrupted only twice for meal breaks amounting to one and a half hours together.

The main report and the Technical Summary were not touched by the destructive process of the meeting. They make publicly available all the information that was deleted from the SPM. Because of the way it is created, the SPM has to be regarded as partly a political document. It contains nothing that has not been approved by the authors, but it was prevented from giving a complete picture as we see it. The deleted information is needed as a basis for making good climate policy.


  • 21 May 2014 at 3:30am
    Mervyn says:
    I admire your openness and views, John, about the IPCC.

    You have revealed two things in particular that are truly remarkable, namely:

    1. The IPCC's need to engage moral philosophers, and

    2. The political involvement in the preparation of the Summary for Policymakers.

    For years, we have been constantly dictated to ... that the IPCC is strictly about climate science, not politics.

    Your honesty is in line with Dr Murari Lal who openly admitted that in the IPCC AR4, he purposely included the "Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035" issue (knowing it was not based on a peer reviewed scientific study) in the hope it would impact on policymakers and politicians to take action on climate change.

    I believe the IPCC has exceeded its "use by" date and has lost all credibility.

  • 22 May 2014 at 8:57pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Well. it's easy to understand why surlyurbanist would say this. If consensus were to prevail, he would be eliminated from any blog he writes to. At least he's pithy, but the pith looks like it's empty.

  • 22 May 2014 at 9:05pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Dear dearbongo, (oh dear, another hollow drum rhat makes a lot of noise) clean up your act. which is fairly polluted itself. You really didn't have to bring up your hobby of bestiality to make your point.