Scientists Licking Wounds After Contentious Climate Report Negotiations

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

It has been more than a week since a U.N. panel released a major report on mitigating climate change, but some scientists who helped write a key summary say they continue to smart from some disconcerting last-minute edits.

“We are still shaking,” says Giovanni Baiocchi, an economist at the University of Maryland, College Park, whose work was central to the debates over the summary’s wording. The episode is making some researchers reconsider participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process in the future. 

The 13 April release of  IPCC’s  mitigation assessment—the third of three reports—was capped by 5 days of negotiations in Berlin over the wording of the report’s “Summary for Policymakers.” It is a 33-page boil-down of key points culled from the report’s 2000 pages. Unlike the text in the body of the report, which scientists essentially control, the influential summary is the product of give-and-take with government diplomats and requires consensus.

The most contentious issue this year was whether to highlight economic groupings of nations, such as high or low income, and illustrations showing how each group was contributing to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions were particularly controversial. Below is one of the figures from the draft summary that sparked debate; it shows that emissions from lower-middle income countries (LMCs) and upper-middle income countries (UMCs) are rising faster than emissions from high-income countries (HICs).

The problem, according to some of those present, is that some nations, including China and Saudi Arabia, opposed including text and graphs that linked emissions to income levels. Saudi Arabia, which is in the high-income category, opposed mention of that category, for instance. And China, which is categorized as upper-middle income, opposed including figures that highlighted the skyrocketing emissions from developing nations.

For three of the 5 days of the talks, diplomats from dozens of countries haggled with lead scientists over the issue. In the end, five figures and whole blocks of text were removed from the summary.

“A strikingly large amount of scientific material [was] stripped out,” says David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

“It is a bit disappointing that governments could not take ownership of this science, which is in the report’s chapters,” Baiocchi says. He won’t say whether he’ll participate in future IPCC reports.

Others are also unhappy. “It left me depressed personally,” economist Reyer Gerlagh, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, told The Sydney Morning Herald. “I do most of this work on the weekend, in evenings and on holidays. My payment is not in money or time, my payment is that I believe I can contribute to society’s benefit by providing the information.”

“The whole process is kind of unbelievable,” Victor says. As one of the report’s lead authors, he was in the middle of the negotiations. The outcome raises “fundamental questions about whether the IPCC can really do policy-related assessments in areas where the science is most germane to policy,” he writes in an e-mail. “There has always been a tension between the scientific content and the political approval of IPCC reports. But on the scientific issues that probably matter most to policymakers—such as which kinds of countries cause most emissions, who will bear the greatest burdens in controlling emissions, or how international trade affects emissions and policies—the pendulum has swung strongly toward the governments.”

Victor says the fight previews upcoming international negotiations, scheduled for June in Bonn, Germany, and December in Lima on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. There, negotiations are expected to include debates over whether nations like China and Saudi Arabia, which have enjoyed a special status in prior negotiations, should shoulder more of the burden to cut their emissions, which the IPCC report shows are rising steadily.

Posted in Climate, People & Events