Governments and Climate Change Issues: A Flawed Consensus
28 November 2007
Governments are mishandling climate change issues. Both the basis and the content of official policies are open to serious question. As to the former, too much reliance is placed on the large-scale established process of review and inquiry which is conducted through the agency of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This process, which is wrongly taken to be objective and authoritative, has been made the point of departure for over-presumptive conclusions which are biased towards alarm, in the mistaken belief that ‘the science’ is ‘settled’. Governments should take prompt steps to strengthen the basis for policy, by ensuring that they and their citizens are more fully and more objectively informed and advised. This implies both improving the IPCC process and going beyond it.
I believe that governments across the world, most notably the governments of the OECD member countries, are mishandling climate change issues. The mishandling has two related aspects. First, actual policies to curb ‘greenhouse-gas’ emissions too often take the form of costly specific regulations, rather than a general price-based incentive such as a carbon tax. More fundamentally, there is good reason to question the basis and rationale of policy – the arguments, beliefs and presumptions which have led so many governments to take action. It is this latter aspect that I focus on in this paper. By way of setting the scene, I begin by outlining the present state of affairs and the events leading up to it.
A world-wide official consensus
In relation to climate change issues, there exists a broad and well established official consensus. With few exceptions, governments are firmly committed to the view that anthropogenic global warming constitutes a serious problem which requires official action at both national and international level. A recent high-level restatement of this consensus position is contained in the Declaration issued at the close of the G8 Summit meeting in Heiligendamm last June. In paragraph 49 of the Declaration the G8 leaders said that ‘global greenhouse emissions must stop rising, followed by substantial global emission reductions.’ They thus reaffirmed the case for what are often described as ‘mitigation’ policies, designed to curb emissions.
In pretty well every democratic country, this official consensus is not at all a matter of political controversy: to the contrary, it enjoys general cross-party support. In the world as a whole, I can think of only one political leader who is a convinced and open dissenter - namely, the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus. Governments generally, and opposition parties too where they exist, have determined that policies designed to curb emissions are called for, and that the existing array of measures needs to be extended and reinforced.
This official multi-partisan consensus is not new. Climate change issues, and in particular the extent and possible consequences of anthropogenic global warming, have been on the international agenda for 20 years or more; and it is now over 15 years since governments decided, collectively and almost unanimously, that determined steps should be taken to deal with what they agreed was a major problem. The decisive collective commitment was made in 1992, through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which almost all countries have ratified. The Convention specifies that its ‘ultimate objective’ is ‘to achieve … stabilization of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’.
Precisely this form of words is repeated in the Heiligendamm G8 Summit Declaration.
Since 1992, many governments have acted, at state and provincial as well as national level, and collectively within the European Union, through what is now a wide range of measures and programmes, to curb emissions of (so-called) ‘greenhouse gases’. On the international scene, through the Kyoto Protocol, ‘Annex I’ countries have undertaken to meet specific targets for emissions reductions. It is true that these Kyoto-based commitments are viewed by many as relatively unambitious, or as a first step only, and that in almost all the countries concerned they seem unlikely to be met. But the accepted direction of policy remains clear and unquestioned; and both nationally and internationally, new and far-reaching measures to curb emissions are under consideration or in prospect.
In taking this line, governments have met with widespread and increasing public approval. Prominent among the unofficial sources of support are media commentators on environmental and scientific issues, scientific bodies, environmental NGOs, and, increasingly, large business enterprises. Let me add that there is widespread support for the official consensus position among economists, as evidenced for example in the Stern Review (2006) on The Economics of Climate Change and some of the reactions to it. As usual, however our profession is not of one mind.
The basis for consensus
What was it that persuaded governments across the world, 15 or more years ago, to take the possible dangers of anthropogenic global warming so seriously, and what is it that has caused them to maintain and even intensify their concerns? I think the answer is straightforward. From the start the main influence was, as it still is, the scientific advice provided to them. That advice can and does come from many sources; but the main single channel for it, indeed the only channel of advice for governments collectively, has been the series of massive and wide-ranging Assessment Reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC.
The IPCC was established by the governments of the world in 1988, as the joint subsidiary of two UN agencies, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Its first Assessment Report, which appeared in 1990, formed a basis and point of departure for the negotiations that led up to the drafting of the Framework Convention. Since then, the Panel has published three further reports of the same kind. The latest of these, referred to for short as AR4, was completed and published in the course of 2007. As with earlier reports, it chiefly comprises the separate volumes issued by each of the Panel’s three Working Groups. Between them these three volumes, each with its own Summary for Policymakers, come to around 3,000 pages, and some 2,500 experts – authors, contributors and reviewers – were directly involved in preparing them: I refer to this small army of participants as the IPCC expert network. AR4 was finally rounded off with an overall Synthesis Report.
These IPCC Assessment Reports are far-reaching – indeed, they are uniquely broad in scope. They deal with the whole range of issues relating to climate change, including economic as well as scientific and technical aspects. In producing them, the Panel has brought together teams of specialists drawn from across the world, and put in place ordered procedures for directing and reviewing their work and arriving at agreed final texts. It has secured for the reports and their conclusions the acceptance of its many and diverse member governments; and in consequence, it has helped to guide the thinking of those governments.
The IPCC does not itself undertake or commission research: the Assessment Reports review and draw on the already published work of others. Most of this work is financed by governments, and these governments thus have their own direct sources of information and advice: their thinking and actions do not necessarily depend on what the Assessment Reports have said. All the same, the IPCC’s work carries substantial weight, with public opinion as well as the Panel’s member governments, because of its wide-ranging coverage, its extensive and ordered scientific participation, and the fact that it alone is designed to serve and inform the world as a whole.
An explicit tribute to the work of the Panel is paid in the G8 Summit Declaration. The words that I quoted from the Declaration, at the beginning of my presentation, comprised only part of the sentence in question. The full sentence reads, with italics added:
‘Taking into account the scientific knowledge as represented in the recent IPCC reports, global greenhouse emissions must stop rising, followed by substantial global emission reductions.’
More recently the work of the Panel has received further and conspicuous international recognition through the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, which it shared with Al Gore. The citation for the award says approvingly that the Panel ‘has created an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming’; and actually this form of words does not do justice to the full range of topics that the IPCC covers.
On the basis of the three Assessment Reports that the IPCC has produced since the Framework Convention was signed, and of AR4 in particular, governments have certainly no reason to question the consensus position that they adopted more than 15 years ago. To the contrary, all three reports have served to confirm and strengthen that position.
So much for the official and widely accepted consensus and its basis. Given this background, you might well want to ask me for an explanation. How is it that I, as an outsider and a non-participant, an economist and not a scientist, have come to question the considered stance which so many governments have continued to take, on the basis of the scientific advice they have been given and with substantial and increasing public support, including support from scientific bodies and, as I have noted, from many of my fellow-economists? What reasons do I have for holding that the advice, and the conclusions drawn from it, are open to serious question?
In responding, I will focus chiefly on the role and work of the IPCC. The Assessment Reports are seen as giving expression to a world-wide scientific consensus, based on an informed and objective professional evaluation, and therefore providing a sound basis for policy. Let me explain why I have come to question this picture.
Panel and process
Why do governments, and outsiders too, place so much trust in the IPCC’s role and work? I think that the trust largely results from the wide and structured expert participation that the IPCC process ensures. People visualise an array of technically competent persons whose knowledge and wisdom are effectively brought to bear through an independent, objective and thoroughly professional scientific inquiry. Indeed, many observers identify the Panel with the network, as though well-qualified and disinterested experts were the only people involved. The reality is both more complex and less reassuring.
A basic distinction has to be made between the IPCC as such, that is to say the Panel, and the IPCC process. The two are not the same, and the process involves three quite distinct groups of participants.
The first of these groups comprises the Panel itself, which controls the preparation of the reports, along with its two subsidiary bodies. The Panel effectively comprises those officials whom governments choose to send to Panel meetings. My impression is that, generally speaking, these are not high-ranking persons. They include scientists as well as laymen. Numbers are not fixed, but a typical Panel meeting might involve some 300-400 participants. Working directly for the Panel is the IPCC Secretariat, though this is a small group whose functions are mainly of a routine administrative kind. A more influential body is the 28-strong IPCC Bureau, comprising high-level experts in various disciplines from across the world, chosen by the Panel. The Bureau acts in a managing and coordinating role under the Panel’s broad direction.
The second group is made up of the 2,500-strong expert network, the persons who put together the draft Assessment Reports. This network is separate and distinct from the Panel itself. There is little or no overlap between the two bodies.
Last but far from least, there are the government departments and agencies which the Panel reports to: it is here, and not in the Panel itself, that the ultimate ‘policymakers’ are to be found. The relevant political leaders and senior officials within these departments and agencies largely make up what I call the environmental policy milieu. This milieu also comprises leading non-official members of the IPCC Bureau, past as well as current; and together with the most influential members of the Panel itself, these persons make up what may be termed the informal directing circle of the IPCC. In turn, the directing circle, together with a substantial number of prominent and like-minded expert participants in the reporting process, can be seen as making up an informal IPCC milieu.
The IPCC as such has been formally instructed by its member governments, in the ‘principles governing IPCC work,’ that its reports ‘should be neutral with respect to policy’. However, this instruction must be interpreted as referring specifically and exclusively to the contribution made by the expert network through the reporting process. It does not, and could not, apply to the other two participating groups. The official Panel members, as also the policy milieu which they report to, are almost without exception far from neutral: they are committed, inevitably and rightly, to the objective of curbing emissions, as a means to combating climate change, which their governments agreed on when they ratified the Framework Convention; and in many cases they are likewise committed to the kinds of policies that their governments have adopted in pursuit of that objective. As officials, they are bound by what their governments have decided. That is the context within which the three successive IPCC Assessment Reports prepared since 1992 have been put together by the network and reviewed by member governments. The clients and patrons of the expert network, with few exceptions, take it as given that anthropogenic global warming is a serious problem which demands, and has rightly been accorded, both national and international action.
It is against this background, of a Panel and a controlling policy milieu that are not and could not be ‘policy-neutral’, that some basic features of the expert reporting process have to be borne in mind:
• The choice of lead authors for the Assessment Reports largely rests with the already-committed member governments, since lists that they provide form the starting point for the selection process;
• Complete draft texts of the Working Group reports go to these governments for comment and review; and
• It is governments, as represented in the Panel, that sign off on the final versions of the Assessment Reports and which amend the draft Summaries for Policymakers, and the final Synthesis Report, before they approve these also for publication.
The fact is that departments and agencies which are not—and cannot be—uncommitted in relation to climate change issues are deeply involved, from start to finish, in the preparation of the Assessment Reports.
Does this fact in itself put in question the expert reporting process and the Assessment Reports? As a former official myself, I would say: No, not necessarily. Policy commitment on the part of member governments could in principle go together with a resolve on the part of the policy milieu, and of the Panel which they appoint and control, to ensure that the reporting process is open, thorough, objective and policy-neutral. This indeed is what governments believe, or at least maintain, is the state of affairs that they have created; and I think many outside persons believe or presume the same. In this generally accepted picture of the IPCC process, an invisible Chinese wall separates the committed patrons and clients of the reporting process from the array of disinterested scientists, policy-neutral in their expert capacity, who take part in it.
I have come to believe that this picture is not accurate, and that the expert reporting process is flawed. Despite the numbers of persons involved, and the lengthy formal review procedures, the preparation of the IPCC Assessment Reports is far from being a model of rigour, inclusiveness and impartiality. In my view, the flaws in the process can be largely accounted for by a pervasive bias on the part of the people and organisations that direct and control it. I shall comment first on some flaws and then on the forms and sources of bias.
Errors, omissions and bias
Despite the numbers involved, the expert process has not ensured appropriately broad professional involvement. A case in point is the treatment of statistical issues. A leading American statistician, Edward Wegman, has noted that:
‘The atmospheric science community, while heavily using statistical methods, is remarkably disconnected from the mainstream community of statisticians in a way, for example, that is not true of the medical and pharmaceutical communities’.
As for economics, Ross McKitrick, in written evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs, argued that after the Second Assessment Report, which appeared in 1995, ‘the IPCC could no longer claim to have the participation of mainstream professional economists’. I think that the subsequent list of AR4 participants lends support to this view.
In relation to economic issues, a specific weakness in some IPCC documents has been the use of invalid cross-country comparisons of output (real GDP), based on exchange rates rather than purchasing power parity estimates: such comparative figures give a distorted picture of the world economy and the course of economic change. Some further misleading observations on this central topic are to be found in AR4.
A basic general weakness in the reporting process is the uncritical reliance on peer review as a qualifying criterion for published work to be taken into account. Peer review provides no safeguard against dubious assumptions, arguments and conclusions if the peers are largely drawn from the same restricted professional milieu. What is more, the peer review process as such may be insufficiently rigorous. In particular, in cases where research has involved the assemblage and processing of large data sets, peer review does not guarantee due disclosure of sources, methods and procedures so that results can be replicated by others.
Failures of disclosure, of a kind that some leading academic journals would not tolerate and which would not be permitted in business prospectuses, have characterised published work that the IPCC has drawn on. The most notable case is that of the temperature reconstructions which entered into what became known as the ‘hockey-stick’ study. This piece of work, which was prominently featured and drawn on in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report and afterwards, formed the basis for a striking and much-publicised claim that in the Northern Hemisphere the 1990s had been the warmest decade of the millennium and 1998 the warmest single year. Probably no single piece of alleged evidence relating to climate change has been so frequently cited and influential. The authors concerned failed (and later declined, until strong pressures were eventually brought to bear) to make due disclosure, and neither the publishing journals nor the IPCC required them to do so. Resistance to disclosure was eventually overcome only through a US Congressional committee investigation.
Further issues of disclosure, and of the treatment of evidence, have arisen in relation not only to subsequent temperature reconstructions but also to the instrument-based temperature series that the IPCC reports have relied on. In this latter context, eventual release of pertinent information has recently been secured only by bringing to bear British freedom of information legislation.
In these various cases, from the ‘hockey-stick’ study onwards, exposure of the problem, and the pressures for due disclosure, have come largely from private individuals: so far as I know, not a single government department or international agency has faced up to the issues. Prominent among the individuals concerned have been two Canadian authors, Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick: both separately and in joint writings, they have made an outstanding contribution to public debate.
A related issue which has recently come into prominence is the treatment by IPCC lead authors, during the review process, of critical comments and suggestions for changes in their drafts. Here again, it has been necessary to use freedom of information laws to break down official resistance to publication of the relevant exchanges, and the objectivity of some authors and of the review process has been put in question.
The handling of these various disclosure lapses by the IPCC’s directing circle reflects no credit on those involved: they have failed to acknowledge the problem and take appropriate action. In the relevant sections of AR4 the issue is evaded, while a misleading picture is presented of the various writings on the subject of temperature reconstructions. Here as elsewhere, the response of the IPCC milieu to informed criticism has been inadequate, evasive or dismissive.
In the ‘principles governing IPCC work,’ laid down by governments and already quoted above, it is specified that the work of the Panel should be ‘open and transparent’. But one cannot apply these terms to a process in which key participants fail to disclose information that should from the start have been available in full, where such disclosure failures are condoned by those who control and direct the process, and where the information is eventually made available only through the agency of a Congressional inquiry and resort to freedom of information laws.
I have now come to think – and the thought had not formed in my mind when I first became involved with climate change issues, more by accident than design, five years ago - that the IPCC process, viewed as a whole and including the expert reporting process, is not professionally up to the mark. I think that the main reason for this deficiency is a strong and continuing element of bias that has always been present within both the environmental policy milieu and the IPCC directing circle. This ingrained bias goes beyond the formal commitment of the officials concerned to the established post-1992 intergovernmental consensus.
Instances and forms of bias
One aspect of prevailing official bias emerges indirectly from the public debate on climate change issues. Across the world, the treatment of these issues by environmental and scientific journalists and commentators is overwhelmingly one-sided and sensationalist: studies and results that are unalarming are typically played down or disregarded, while the gaps in knowledge and the huge uncertainties which still loom large in climate science are passed over. A conspicuous recent case in point, both in itself and in its reception by the media, is the Al Gore film and book, An Inconvenient Truth. This pervasive one-sidedness on the part of so many commentators and media outlets is in itself worrying; but even more so, to my mind, is the fact that leading figures and organisations connected with the IPCC process, including government departments and international agencies, do little to ensure that a more balanced picture is presented. It is characteristic of the official environmental policy milieu that some governments, including my own, have chosen to distribute An Inconvenient Truth to schools as an officially recommended and reliable source.
More direct evidence of bias can be seen from the kinds of statements about climate change issues that are freely made in many countries by leading public figures. The tone of these is distinctly alarm-prone. As in the case of Al Gore and of many other commentators, it is taken as established beyond question that humankind is placing the planet under dire threat, that in consequence further drastic measures of mitigation are urgently required, and that such measures would be effective in determining climate outcomes.
Here are some summit-level instances of this way of thinking, which I call the heightened milieu consensus.
• Tony Blair, then still Prime Minister of the UK, commenting a year ago on the Stern Review on the economics of climate change, said that ‘what is not in doubt is that the scientific evidence of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is now overwhelming… [and] … that if the science is right, the consequences for our planet are literally disastrous’;
• Blair and the Dutch prime minister, in a joint letter of October 2006 to other EU leaders, wrote that ‘We have a window of only 10–15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing a catastrophic tipping point’.
• Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, in a speech earlier this year, described ‘climate change’ as ‘perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today’.
• President Sarkozy of France, in some remarks last May shortly before his election to office, declared that ‘what is at stake is the fate of humanity as a whole’.
These assertions, though they are in tune with much public thinking, go beyond the sober language of the G8 Summit Declaration, nor are they directly drawn from IPCC Assessment Reports. They are bold extrapolations from the Reports, with a clear presumptive element.
Interestingly, such statements have been criticised by a leading British climate scientist, Professor Mike Hulme, as forms of what he called ‘a discourse of catastrophe [which] is a political and rhetorical device’. Referring to the second of the above quotations from Tony Blair, he described our then Prime Minister as among ‘recent examples of the catastrophists’ (Hulme 2007).
Now while it can be argued that Blair deserved to have this label attached to him for such remarks, it is not with him that the chief responsibility for them rests. He and his Dutch co-signatory, as also Harper and Sarkozy in the above quotations, almost certainly did not write their own speeches. What they said was presumably sanctioned, if not actually drafted, by their scientific and environmental advisers and by the departments those people work in; and had it not been so sanctioned, those advisers could have ensured that future public statements would take a more measured and qualified tone.
In the statement that I just quoted, Professor Hulme draws a contrast between catastrophists and climate scientists. As I see it, however, there is no clear dividing line between the two. It is climate scientists who write, or lend tacit approval to, the catastrophist scripts of leading lay figures, and who in some prominent cases have made similar pronouncements of their own.
When it comes to leading officials with an advisory role, it is not difficult to find advocates of the heightened consensus. Within the British government machine the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King (2004), has taken the position that ‘climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today--more serious even than the threat of terrorism’. As to leading figures within the IPCC directing circle, here are three recent instances. The following are public statements made in February 2007, following the publication of the report of Working Group I which forms the first volume of AR4:
• Dr R. K. Pachauri, the Chairman of the IPCC, and hence of the IPCC Bureau: ‘I hope this report will shock people [and] governments into taking more serious action’;
• Achim Steiner, the Director-General of the UNEP: ‘in the light of the report’s findings, it would be “irresponsible” to resist or seek to delay actions on mandatory emissions cuts’ ;
• Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention: ‘the findings leave no doubt as to the dangers that mankind is facing and must be acted on without delay’.
These are strong assertions. In none of them was the wording taken directly from the report in question: these eminent persons were going beyond the WGI text, to draw their own confident and unqualified personal conclusions as to the lessons for policy. While they were fully entitled to form and air such opinions, their statements were not just summaries of ‘the science’, nor of course were they ‘policy-neutral’.
In speaking as they did on this occasion, these three leading figures were conforming to an established pattern. From the earliest days, most if not all of those directing the IPCC process, within governments and outside, have shared the conviction that anthropogenic global warming presents a threat, to humanity and the planet, which demands prompt and far-reaching action by governments; and had this not been the case, and known to be the case, they would not have attained their leading positions within the process. To take only the three current examples just quoted: Pachauri, Steiner and de Boer would not have sought their respective posts, nor would they have been seen by UN agencies and member governments as eligible to hold them, had they not been identified as fully committed to ‘heightened consensus’ views. The same has been true throughout of the IPCC Bureau and other leading figures within the process. The process is run today, as it has been from the start, by true believers. This accounts for the readiness of many of those concerned to make strong public pronouncements of the kind quoted above, which go beyond the more nuanced language of the Assessment Reports; to turn an unseeing eye to the disclosure failures and other professional flaws in the reporting process; and to view with equanimity or approval the lack of balance that characterises public debate.
An increasingly conformist network?
It would of course be wrong to presume that the attitudes and beliefs that I have just described, which characterise the environmental policy milieu and the IPCC directing circle, are shared by of all those who make up the expert network. However, my impression is that over time that network, while growing in numbers (so that the stock of peer reviewers has expanded pari passu), has become increasingly influenced, if not dominated, by subscribers to the official consensus, often in its heightened form. It has become more difficult for independent outsiders, who do not share accepted beliefs and presumptions of the IPCC directing circle, and of the Panel’s parent bodies and sponsoring government departments and agencies – which, it has to be remembered, provide the overwhelming bulk of research funding in this area - to contribute usefully to the reporting process. For this and other reasons, some nonconforming experts have either declined to become involved with the process or have later withdrawn from it. The network has thus become more numerous but less inclusive. At the same time, it may have become harder for younger scientists, with careers still to make, not to fall in with received majority opinion which is both officially sponsored and strongly held. In evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs (Vol. II, p. 233), David Holland wrote, admittedly as an outsider: ‘If I were beginning my career I cannot imagine that I could make a living in climate science without accepting the current consensus’. In both scientific circles and the reporting process, some dissenters have held aloof, while others have been gradually sidelined or eased out. This evolution forms part of the background against which the professional lapses noted above are to be viewed and judged.
The influence of global salvationism
Some history is relevant here. Within the environmental policy milieu, together with a range of outside allies, there is a generic bias which goes a long way back and extends well beyond issues relating to climate change. Over a period of some 40 years, and increasingly over time, departments and agencies concerned both with the environment and with the economic problems of poor countries have typically adhered to the set of beliefs and presumptions which make up what I have termed global salvationism.
In the salvationist picture of reality, two elements are combined. One is an unrelentingly sombre picture of recent trends, the present state of the world (or ‘the planet’), and prospects for the future unless governments involve themselves more closely, and with immediate effect, in the management and control of events. Within this picture, environmental issues are treated almost exclusively in terms of problems, dangers, and potential or even imminent disasters, with the presumed harmful effects of economic growth as one reason for concern. The second element is a conviction that known effective remedies exist for the various ills and threats thus identified: ‘solutions’ are at hand, given wise collective resolves and prompt action by governments and ‘the international community’. Global salvationism thus combines dark visions and alarming diagnoses with confidently radical collectivist prescriptions for the world.
The essence of a widely accepted diagnosis is conveyed by the following quotation, which comes from a mid-1970s Club of Rome study:
‘Two gaps, steadily widening, appear to be at the heart of mankind’s present crises: the gap between man and nature, and the gap between “North” and “South”, rich and poor. Both gaps must be narrowed if world-shattering catastrophes are to be avoided…’
By the end of the 1970s a broad milieu salvationist consensus had become well entrenched, not only in national capitals but also in a range of UN agencies, and with widespread public support. During the 1980s this view of the world found expression in two widely read and influential reports, each produced by a specially convened international group of eminent persons. The first of these was the Brandt Report of 1980, and the second, more influential, the Brundtland Report of 1987. Included in the latter was a section on the possible dangers from anthropogenic global warming, which was described (p. 34) as ‘a threat to life-support systems’; and from that time on a belief in the reality of such a threat came to be an integral part of global salvationist doctrine. The Brundtland Report led on to the December 1989 resolution of the UN General Assembly, which authorised what became the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio ‘Earth Summit’), at which the Framework Convention was formally adopted.
Rio and after
Climate change was not the only item on the Earth Summit agenda, and the Framework Convention was not the only document on which agreement was reached.
Within the Rio documents and resolutions, the familiar UN-style dark salvationist message was neither qualified nor watered down. Chief among the many documents prepared for the Summit was a 600-page proposed action programme called Agenda 21, which the conference actually adopted with some amendments. The preamble to this text opens as follows:
‘Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities within and between nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continued deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being’.
The participants who signed up to these misleading salvationist assertions included George Bush (Senior), who was then President of the US, John Major as the British Prime Minister, and Bob Hawke as the Prime Minister of Australia.
The proposed remedies for the stark situation thus depicted in Agenda 21 were to be given effect through ‘a new global partnership for sustainable development’. This wording was significant. The Earth Summit marked the general endorsement by governments of the principle of ’sustainable development’ as a basis for policy.
Such was the salvationist diagnosis and prescription which all the participating governments at Rio proved ready to endorse, many of them at the highest political level. Into these Summit proceedings the IPCC’s contribution entered, not as a separate stand-alone scientific exercise, but rather as a powerful new reinforcing element in the already existing and widely accepted salvationist picture of the world. Because of this reinforcement, global salvationism gained further and influential endorsement in official circles: it became the creed, not just of environmental departments and agencies and their supporting NGOs, but of governments as a whole. In pointing to new threats and new ‘solutions’, the issue of global warming served then, as it still serves today, to give expression to, and extend, established alarm-prone convictions.
Of course, this historical link with questionable salvationist beliefs can be seen as no more than coincidental: in itself, such an association does not put in doubt the findings of climate scientists or the competence and objectivity of the IPCC expert network and the reporting process. It is possible to accept the present official consensus on climate change issues, and the IPCC’s latest Summaries for Policymakers, without signing up to the distorted picture of the world given in Agenda 21 and its successors. Indeed, it is not difficult to find strong critics of global salvationist pessimism who nonetheless accept that anthropogenic global warming is both real and a cause for concern: a prominent example is Bjørn Lomborg (2001 and 2007). However, I believe that the close relationship between the IPCC milieu and its sponsoring departments and agencies, together with the already ingrained salvationist propensities of both, have from the start, and increasingly over time, put in question the objectivity of the IPCC process and hence its claims to authority. The professional advice which governments continue to rely on has been, and still is, suffused with bias.
In relation to climate change issues, governments have locked themselves into a set of procedures, and an associated way of thinking—in short, a framework—which both reflects and yields over-presumptive conclusions which are biased towards alarm. These conclusions form the basis both of current policies, which incidentally raise problems of their own, and of proposals to take those policies considerably further. They go beyond the bounds of professional consensus; they take as their prime source the results of a flawed process; and they represent a dubious extension of those results.
Even if the IPCC process were beyond challenge, it is imprudent for governments to place such heavy reliance, in matters of extraordinary complexity where huge uncertainties remain, on this particular source of information, analysis and advice. In fact, the process is flawed, and this puts in doubt the accepted basis of the established official consensus.
In relation to climate change, and not only in the context of the IPCC, there is a clear present need to build up a sounder basis for reviewing and assessing the issues. Governments should try to ensure that they and their citizens are more fully and more objectively informed and advised.
Post-script: what can be done?
In considering how the present situation might be improved, the main focus has to be on governments. It is they that fund major programmes and decide policies, while only they can reform the process which they have created and over which they have full control. In that connection, let me put just one central argument and point to some of its implications.
My argument is this. So long as the handling of climate change issues is left almost entirely to environmental departments and agencies there is little or no prospect of reform. A necessary condition for change, albeit not a sufficient condition, is that other departments of state should become effectively involved.
In particular, since the economic stakes could be high, a responsibility here rests on the economic departments of state – treasuries, ministries of finance and economics, and, in the US, the Council of Economic Advisers. I am myself a former Treasury official; and much later, as Head of what was then the Economics and Statistics Department in the OECD Secretariat, I had close dealings over a number of years with economics and finance ministries in OECD member countries. I have been surprised by the failure of these ministries to get to grips with climate change issues, their uncritical acceptance of the results of a process of inquiry which is so obviously biased and flawed, and their lack of attention to the criticisms of that process which have been voiced by independent outsiders – criticisms which, as I think, they ought to have been making themselves.
Such a conclusion points to official action on four related fronts.
• First, governments could improve the IPCC process by making it more professionally watertight. For a start, they should insist on true and full disclosure as a precondition for published work to be taken into account in the review p[e process.
• Second, they should no longer presume or aim at consensus. Rather, they should see to it that, both within the IPCC reporting process and more broadly, serious differences of professional opinion are aired.
• Third, they should consider developing sources of information and advice that are independent of the IPCC process, thus bringing to an end the Panel’s virtual monopoly status as a source of collective advice.
• Fourth, they should broaden the basis of official participation, so that it goes beyond the existing well entrenched environmental policy milieu.
Not all of these lines of action require international agreement: much could be done by individual governments acting on their own account. If even one or two influential governments were to question their current presumptions, and act accordingly, this could change the whole situation.
Ian Castles and David Henderson (2005), ‘International Comparisons of GDP: Issues of theory and practice’, World Economics, Volume 6, Number 1.
Robert Ehrlich (2003), Eight Preposterous Propositions: From the Genetics of Homosexuality to the Benefits of Global Warming, Princeton University Press.
P. D. [David] Henderson (1980), ‘Survival, Development and the Report of the Brandt Commission’, The World Economy, Volume 3, Number 1.
David Henderson (2004), The Role of Business in the Modern World: Progress, Pressures, and Prospects for the Market Economy, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (London), the New Zealand Business Roundtable (Wellington), and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (Washington, D.C.).
David Henderson (2005), ‘SRES, IPCC, and the Treatment of Economic Issues: What Has Emerged?’, Energy and Environment, Volume 16, Number 3/4.
David Henderson (2007), ‘Governments and Climate Change Issues: The case for rethinking’, World Economics, Volume 8 Number 2, April-June.
David Holland (2007), ‘Bias and Concealment in the IPCC Process: The ‘Hockey-Stick’ Affair and Its Implications’, Energy and Environment, Volume 18, Number 7-8.
House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs (2005), 2nd Report of Session 2005–06, The Economics of Climate Change. Volume I: Report. Volume II: Evidence.
Ibid. (2006), 3rd Report of Session 2005-06, Government Response to the Economics of Climate Change, HL Paper 71.
Mike Hulme (2006), ‘Chaotic world of climate change’, broadcast as a Viewpoint on BBC News in November 2006, and available on the author’s website.
Independent Commission on International Development Issues (the Brandt Report) (1980), North–South: A Programme for Survival, Pan Books.
David A. King (2004), ‘Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate, or Ignore?, Science. Volume 303, Number 5655.
Bjørn Lomborg (2001), The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cambridge University Press.
Bjorn Lomborg (2007), Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, Knopf.
Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, (2003), ‘Corrections to the Mann et. al. (1998) Proxy Data Base and Northern Hemisphere Average Temperature Series’, Energy and Environment, Volume 14 Number 6.
Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick (2005), ‘Hockey Sticks, Principal Components and Spurious Significance, Geophysical Research Letters, Volume 32 Number 3.
Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick (2005), ‘The M&M Critique of the MBH98 Northern Hemisphere Climate Index: Update and Implications’, Energy and Environment, Volume 16 Number 1.
Ross McKitrick (2006), ‘Bringing balance, disclosure and due diligence into science-based policymaking’, in Jene Porter (ed.), Public Science in Liberal Democracy: The Challenge to Science and Democracy, University of Toronto Press.
Mihajlo Mesarovic and Eduard Pestel (1975), Mankind at the Turning Point: The Second Report to the Club of Rome, London, Hutchinson.
Nicholas Stern and others (2006), The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge University Press.
World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Report) (1987), Our Common Future, Oxford University Press.
John Zillman (2007), Some Observations on the IPCC Assessment Process 1988-2007’, Energy and Environment, Volume 18, Number 7 & 8.