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The IPCC Predicament: Politics Confronts Science of Climate Change

If you are looking for a good synthesis of the IPCC appraisal of recent climate science findings, don’t expect to see it on the upcoming Summary for Policy Makers. You’ll be disappointed. It will likely be just a watered down political piece, rather than a set of substantive scientific recommendations to policy makers. For substance and scientific soundness wait to read the Technical Summary or prepare to face the one thousand and so pages of the full report instead.

At least this is what some IPCC members are saying after the 33rd Plenary Session held in Abu Dhabi last month. Plenary discussions were too slow. Procedures are becoming too bureaucratized, especially under the new rules. They were created as a response to controversy raised by the leakage of email exchanges among climate scientists from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit servers, and after some procedural errors were found in the last report. Procedures have become much more time-consuming, and working for the IPCC is a voluntary, though prestigious task.

Scientists are also voicing concerns about the political screening of their texts by climate negotiators. One of them told me that the approval of IPCC’s final policy document is reproducing the pattern of negotiation common to the Climate Convention meetings.

I’ve observed in detail climate negotiations in Copenhagen, at COP15, and interviewed several negotiators to write a book on climate change politics. I’ve repeated this coverage for COP16, in Cancun. I’ve seen how they manage to bracket almost all substantive clauses, only to strike them out, leaving no more than general statements at the end. Most negotiators are masters of text rephrasing. They do it to reduce the degree of commitment or dilute substance, aiming at a comfortably bland final text. If anything similar is happening to the review of IPCC’s summary for policy makers, the final outcome may indeed be useless.

Scientists and diplomats have very different mindsets and they tend to structure their discourse in contrasting ways. They have cultures that are even more apart from each other than the Two Cultures referred to by C.P. Snow in his classic comparison between Science and the Humanities. Snow argued that the problems of communication between these two cultures was a major obstacle to the use of science for the advancement of societies. Imagine what a hindrance the breakdown of communication between Science and Politics could be for the adoption of scientific solutions to climate change.

Part of this problem may be a result of plenary governance. The attitude and authority of the plenary chair makes an enormous difference. If one compares the disastrous management of the  final COP15 plenary by Danish prime-minister Lars Rasmussen, in Copenhagen, with the able management of the final plenary of COP16, in Cancún, by Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa, one will find an abysmal difference. Prime Minister Rasmussen’s attitude has contributed in no small amount to the crisis of confidence among parties that led the Copenhagen final session to the well-known dismal ending. The able and firm attitude of Ambassador Espinosa, on the other hand, has helped confidence-building, leading to a final outcome far beyond expectations.

One should not, however, underestimate the cultural divide as a major factor in the troublesome transactions between scientists and political negotiators. They are literally worlds apart. They are set apart not only by their skills, knowledge and outlook, but also by their perceptions and expectations. The language of science is objective and evidence-oriented. The language of politics is symbolic and interest-oriented. Scientists adopt a long view. Politics a short one. Many negotiators are still bordering a state of denial, whereas several scientists are foreseeing imminent disaster. Negotiators fear that writing down the scientists’ warnings about climate change risks as they are formulated would amount to accept a number of their recommendations as binding. They’d rather have a set of loose guidelines. Scientists, on the contrary, want policy to follow science, not politics.

The IPCC is actually moving closer to realpolitik. This cultural divide at the global arena has been paramount in many domestic policy-making settings. It explains why many countries are moving so slowly to develop scientifically sound mitigation and adaptation policies. Paradoxically many political decision-makers are delaying action because they believe science and technology will prevent disaster at the end of the day. Nevertheless, crossing this divide from both sides is a sine qua non to effective climate change policies.