In climate parlance, the periodic assessment reports of the International Panel on Climate, IPCC, for nearly three decades have been the gold standard, the apotheosis, of climate change reports.
Consisting of a set of four individually-bound volumes, each hundreds to a thousand or more pages, they discuss the physical climate science; current and anticipated climate-change impacts and adaption methods; the means and prospects for slowing worsening conditions; and the relation between these intersecting topics.
Prominently positioned at the front of each of the four volumes, the Summary for Policymakers is, from a policy point of view, the most important chapter. Accepted wisdom holds that most government officials and journalists read only this roughly 30-page overview, referred to as the SPM.
In the 28 years since the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program jointly created the IPCC, the organization has issued five of these four-volume assessment reports (in addition to about two dozen other publications focused on narrowly-defined topics) containing more than 10,000 pages of text. Whatever their occasional (seldom and generally inconsequential) flaws and imperfections, these authoritative documents have galvanized world-wide attention on climate change.
The first one, published in 1990, helped set in motion the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, two years later. Negotiators there finalized the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the foundation of the 23 years of negotiations that culminated this month in the Paris Agreement.
For its work, the IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore.
Then was then, now is now
But more and more climate researchers and science policy analysts now say that what was right when research on global warming was in its infancy is not suitable today. They say the time has come to make some changes. And, although diplomats in Paris did not have it on their agenda, ideas for improving the IPCC were on the minds of researchers circulating through the corridors and attending meetings on the periphery of the formal negotiating sessions.
Peter Fromhoff, director of Science and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, for instance, that the physical science of climate change probably needn’t be fully re-examined every five years, a view widely shared by other climate researchers. At this point, he said, “the incremental added value is modest.”
Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton professor who has contributed to several IPCC reports, estimates that each new assessment report contains only about 5-10 percent new science, particularly in the physical science volume. He says the panel should probably write such reports less frequently, and focus its efforts, instead, on special reports, shorter studies in response to the needs of policymakers, such as a report on extreme events that he helped to write several year ago.
Summary by (not for) policymakers?
Robert Stavins, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, issued a stinging critique in 2014 of the process for writing the SPM. Having long followed climate-change policy, Stavins was an author in two of the assessment reports, including a chapter in the most recent Mitigation of Climate Change volume.
“Maybe it should be called the Summary by Policymakers as opposed to the Summary for Policymakers,” Stavins said in a conversation at the climate conference, where he organized a session to discuss the future of the IPCC. At that event, he and the other authors of a recent paper in Science proposed ways they think IPCC should choose study topics, communicate its results, and recruit the best scientists to be authors.
Even the most knowledgeable observers of climate change research may not be fully aware of the unusual process for writing the SPM. Scientists write the first draft. But then the document undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis, as government representatives review, comment on, and approve the document before it’s transformed from a scientific chrysalis into a diplomatic butterfly.
That evolution opens the door for those resolutely rejecting IPCC reports – and established climate science generally – to point to politicization of the final product. They often say the SPM is not faithful to the science of the often-unread and technical inner chapters of each assessment report volume, calling into doubt what they see as overly-dire predictions made in the SPMs.
Mainstream climate scientists categorically reject charges that SPMs misrepresent research on the causes and consequences of global warming. But some have expressed less confidence in how the SPMs address policy issues, such as allocating responsibility for future emissions cutbacks.
In an interview at a crowded cafeteria at the Paris conference, Stanford University biologist Chris Field called the review and approval process for each summary chapter arduous.
It’s “somewhere between 3-dimensional tic-tac-toe and a bullfight,” he said.
Field had co-authored the “Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability” volume of the 2014 assessment report. The draft SPM for his volume received 2,600 comments, about one for every word, after it was circulated for review to the world’s governments. After he and his co-authors had responded to them, they and government representatives hashed-out the summary’s final version in a week-long plenary session in Yokohama, Japan. There they debated each point in contention, while reading the document, one sentence at a time, projected onto a big screen.
As Katharine Mach, a colleague of Field’s at Stanford who attended the meeting described it, “the co-chair is asked for approval of the sentence, the approval is heard, the gavel goes down.”
Mach and Field reject suggestions that the approval process fundamentally warps the SPM. It was “one-hundred percent consistent with the science,” said Field, though in some cases word-smithed statements became “like Christmas trees with 57 different qualifying statements.”
Stavins, by contrast, maintains that the approval session in Berlin for his chapter, on international agreements to combat climate change, fundamentally altered the thrust. About 75 percent of the original text was removed, he says, but he eventually signed off on the document because he saw no other option.
“If I had not agreed, it would have brought down the house of cards. They wouldn’t have approved. I eventually gave in.” Government representatives, many of whom were diplomats, had outwitted the academic authors, he said. “They wanted this issue to be at one-thirty in the morning because they know I’m going to be exhausted.”
Warts Yes, but final SPM product ‘phenomenally more powerful’
Field said that for all its warts, the SPMs are vitally important, because, after the consensus review approval process, virtually all the world’s governments “take ownership of it.”
“The fact that everyone leaves the room together agreeing that that document is right makes it phenomenally more powerful than anything scientists could produce by themselves,” Field said.
Oppenheimer agrees. But he speculated that changes seriously altering meaning might be more of a problem with reports focusing on policy, a subject likely to command a larger share of IPCC reports in the future. It’s “treacherous terrain when experts rub up against governments” in producing policy materials, he said.
Stavins says he sees little likelihood the process of producing SPMs will be substantially altered any time soon. Governments want a final say in summarizing the science, he said. Nonetheless, he proposes a small change in future assessment reports that he says might prove more palatable.
In addition to the SPM, each assessment report volume includes a Technical Summary wholly under the control of scientists. Stavins says few readers now pay it any mind, perhaps because its title includes the word technical, a term many journalists and politicians shy-away from.
He suggests changing the title from Technical Summary to Executive Summary.
But wouldn’t governments, worried that the change could shift the spotlight away from the SPM, oppose the idea? “Well, I hope it won’t be obvious,” Stavins says.
“Don’t tell anyone in the governments,” he said, with a discernible grin.