Of shopping and climate science…

My supervisors say I should focus.  The wife says I should focus.  If the cat could talk, it would tell me to focus (on it).  At least two of them are right…

Anyhows.. about the birth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change…

By the mid 80s, scientists were getting more and more sure – and more and more nervous – about the effects of the build-up of carbon dioxide emissions.  This was especially the case at and after the 1985 meeting in the Austrian town of Villach that was sponsored by the World Meteorological Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). Just before that meeting a paper had been published that showed that the “basket” of other greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxides etc) was just as big a player.(1)  Climate change was going to come faster – and perhaps harder- than folks had thought…  Things moved on from calls for more research and ‘perhaps watch out’ to, ‘um, guys, we are going to need to do something about this.’

Now here’s a quote from a corking article called  Context and early origins of the intergovernmental panel on climate change [paywalled]

Meanwhile, UNEP and its pro-active Director Mostafa Tolba had no doubts about the future course of action on climate change. Flush with the success of negotiating the Vienna Convention on Ozone, he felt that the time was ripe to repeat the ozone ‘miracle’ for climate. Indeed, UNEP in it its long range planning document of 1985 had called for a climate convention. In the wake of the 1985 Villach workshop, Tolba began active consultations for a possible convention with WMO and ICSU, UNEP’s two long-standing collaborators on climate change. He also wrote to then US Secretary of State George Schultz urging the US to take appropriate actions (Hecht and Tirpak, 1995).
Agrawala, S. (1998a, p 609)

But it turns out that politicians and bureaucrats in the higher reaches of states don’t like being bossed around and “bounced” by what they perceive to be activist/upstart scientists. Who knew? And so, over the next few years there was a very considered, very conscious, attempt to isolate the issue from the scientists, to bring them in under control… More Agrawala:

The eventual compromise: an intergovernmental assessment mechanism which the US finally proposed addressed [Department of Energy] concerns regarding involvement of ‘official’ experts. At the same time it precluded immediate action and provided an opportunity for the administration to buy time (‘let’s study the problem more’). Yet, by encouraging international participation it also made an eventual climate convention more feasible, consistent with the goals of the EPA and the State Department.

There was also a recognition that any proposed international assessment process had to go much beyond the science of climate change. Thus while WMO was a natural sponsor for such a process, it did not have sufficient expertise to cover many other relevant aspects of climate change such as policy responses. This argued for UNEP involvement though the US had some reservations about Mostafa Tolba. This is because he had alienated many close allies of the US in Latin America during the ozone negotiations. There was thus a keen interest on the part of the US not to let Tolba run climate change with the same degree of control which he had wielded over ozone. Therefore, a proposal was made for a joint UNEP/WMO intergovernmental mechanism.
Agrawala, S. (1998a, p 614)

“Venue shopping” – versus venue creation
Powerful actors can choose which places – courts or legislatures or even the court of public opinion – to fight for their goals. It’s been called “venue shopping” –

The process for advocacy groups and policymakers of finding a decision setting that offers the best prospects for reaching one’s policy goals.
(Pralle, 2003, p. 234.)

REALLY powerful actors get to create venues that suit them.

And once the Americans had insulated/controlled the advice-giving, by creating the IPCC in November 1988,, they seem to have rolled on further. Here’s a quote from Agrawala’s separate paper, which covers the first 8 years of the IPCC’s existence.

… until then the IPCC had achieved limited success in its efforts to engage developing countries for its First Assessment cycle. This made some large developing countries, in particular Brazil and Mexico very suspicious of the IPCC …. they believed that climate change was closely linked to development, and hence not purely a technical issue (Bodansky, 1994). These countries therefore pressured a political body, the UN General Assembly, to take charge, a move which was eventually supported by the US, their close ally. These opinions came to the fore during the meeting of an open-ended ad-hoc group of government representatives convened by WMO and UNEP in September 1990. This led to the creation of the [Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Climate Change]  under the auspices of the UN General Assembly. Climate science and policy were thus formally split and housed in two separate intergovernmental mechanisms under different sponsorships.
(Agrawala, 1998b, p. 634-5)

Please note, I am NOT saying we should or could have somehow “left it to the scientists”.  I am just saying we should be aware of what particular form the scientific and political bodies take, and who is pushing for them to take that form (and why!).


(1) See Franz, 1997 for more on this paper and the Villach meeting


Agrawala, S. (1998a) “Context and early origins of the intergovernmental panel on climate change” Climatic Change 39,: 605-620

Agrawala, S. (1998b) “Structural and process history of the intergovernmental panel on climate change” Climatic Change 39,: 621-642

Franz, W. (1997) The Development of an International Agenda for Climate Change: Connecting Science to Policy  ENRP Discussion Paper E-97-07, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, August 1997 and also as International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis Interim Report IR-97-034/August.

Here’s the script of a video I intend to make (but not until the Christmas break!).  Not a long thing.  Suggestions?

In the late 1950s scientists started to investigate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It was going up…. Things moved fairly slowly, as they do.  There’s a whole lotta acronyms between the 1950s and the late 70s. And a conference, and a worrying drought in the Sahel.

In 1979 the first World Climate Conference is held in Geneva.   “More research” it said.

There were a couple of meetings under the auspices of the WMO and UNEP and ICSU in 1980 and 1983 in an Austrian town called Villach.

The 1985 one was where things kicked off.  X number of scientists turned up.  A scientific paper had just been published about how if you calculated the other gases besides carbon dioxide into the equation, then climate change was going to happen sooner and louder than anyone had thought.

Now remember, the Ozone hole issue has been going gangbusters.   The United Nations Environment Program, a relatively small bureaucracy with a “policy entrepreneur” boss called Mostafa Tolba , wanted to repeat the ozone trick with climate. In 1986 he sent a letter to the Americans.

They didn’t like being bossed around; politicians are like that.  Rather than let the activist scientists keep on making policy pronouncements, they set the ball rolling, via the United Nations, to create the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Governments were “invited” in March of 1988 to . Meanwhile, in June James Hansen gave his famous testimony to the Senate and there was a big “Changing Atmosphere” conference in Toronto, where the idea of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2005 came to be seen as sensible.

In November 1988 the United Nations General Assembly okayed the creation of the IPCC.

So when some whackjob tells you the IPCC can’t be trusted because its “intergovernmental” you can point out that the reason it is intergovernmental is because the Americans wanted to insulate themselves from the activist scientists, and to create a structure where extreme ideas –like I don’t know, valuing a habitable planet over fossil fuel company profits – could get reined in…  A generation later, we are still generating half our energy from coal. wtf. wtaf.?


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