Report 2 from IPCC by Thomas Sterner

10 Apr-2014 | Skrivet av klimat i Thomas Sterner

Wednesday Evening. Berlin.

Because we so badly need consensus

We just decided to prolong the extra evening session from 7 PM to 10 PM and then to 1 AM. Towards midnight the room is looking empty with only 150 people present but the Japanese delegation has seven people. Many are in “contact groups” consisting of authors and country delegates trying to agree on issues that have held up the plenary for hours earlier during the week. When an issue gets sufficiently difficult there is a process: The chair collects comments and tries to find a compromise. If it fails he will ask for a recess and discuss for 5 minutes with the authors on the podium. One of the authors will often answer politely saying something like: “I hear what the delegate from country X is saying, I understand your viewpoint but the balance of the literature suggests the following and therefore I would be disinclined to change the text”. Alternatively s/he might suggest some slight rewording in case it is found that the summary text does not well represent the underlying literature or if a word has been used that can be misunderstood. Sometimes this is enough and the delegates agree or concede. In that case a sentence is gavelled. But sometimes progress does not come so easy. The process may be repeated with new conclaves of the authors. At least once, the chairman of the whole IPCC made a comment and a plea. When nothing else helps a chapter is put on hold, a contact group is formed and we move to the next section without having resolved the first one.

Sometimes mayor countries with large delegations full of good people with PhDs want to stop commonsense phrases like ”global commons” or want to remove information on fossil combustion, growth rates or the like. This can be a little amusing and you can see that there might be material interests or ideology behind but one should not be too quick to jump to such conclusions. The whole purpose of this exercise – the whole idea of the IPCC is that the World faces a problem so serious that we are forced to collaborate. We are forced to convene this gigantic panel of scientists to synthesize our understanding and then to force negotiators and delegates to sit through a week in which we talk about the summary line by line – all with the purpose of making sure everyone understands and everyone agrees. The idea is to achieve consensus precisely because we so badly need consensus. Therefore it would be counterproductive to point out countries in a way that makes negotiations more difficult.

It is after all a fantastic process – particularly if you consider the alternatives. Countries that otherwise wage wars, are here discussing the moving of footnotes instead of the moving of people and armies. I spoke to one of my friends and colleagues and she said that if she was going to be on the podium tomorrow then she would change clothes and wear a sari. This little detail also tells us something. Researchers are proud to present their work to the world – to stand for science and to show that they believe in the power of good reason.

As a researcher it is striking how far apart research and policy really are. Economists get excited by concepts like prudence that hinge on the third derivative of the utility function. We investigate discounting under uncertainty and Jensen´s inequality and then when we talk to policy makers we are arguing about terminology that we thought should be obvious in 101 classes and about whether or not we should present the mean or the median of historic emissions. We get asked what is new in the IPCC – and the truth is: not much. But that is not the point. New thoughts are for research. The IPCC is supposed to be a very even-handed summary of already established research presented in a way that is readily accessible to the policy makers.

WB III covers 1600 pages, references about 10000 scientific articles, is written by around 400 authors and has been checked by around 40 review editors as well as being checked by close to a thousand referees who provided over 38 000 comments which we have considered and answered in writing.

When the critics of the IPCC describe the IPCC as a little clique of people who made up something they are not sure of – then just ask them how much they know of how the IPCC actually works.

It is a deeply careful and conservative report. It does however do some new things. Compared to the AR4 it analyses a much broader selection of scenarios (as many as 1200) which for the first time also cover some less likely – but more dangerous – outcomes. It does show that we can mitigate and adapt and that we must do both. It also says quite a lot about which measures are most effective.

/Thomas Sterner

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