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Sunday, May 4, 2014

IPCC SPM report was greatly watered down according to expert reviewer economist Robert Stavins

by Pilita Clark, The Financial Times, May 4, 2014

A politically sensitive part of the latest report by the world’s leading authority on climate change was gutted at the insistence of government officials, one of the study’s authors has revealed.

Nearly 75% of a section on the impact of international climate negotiations was deleted at a meeting in Berlin two weeks ago, said one of the authors responsible for that part of the report, Harvard University’s Professor Robert Stavins.

The Berlin meeting was held so representatives of the world’s governments could approve a summary of a massive report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on how to tackle climate change which took hundreds of authors from around the world nearly five years to compile.

The report was the third of a trilogy of studies the IPCC has released since September in its fifth major assessment of the latest state of knowledge about climate change.

Prof Stavins, a leading expert on climate negotiations at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote to the organisers of the Berlin meeting last week to express his “disappointment and frustration” at the outcome.

“I fully understand that the government representatives were seeking to meet their own responsibilities toward their respective governments by upholding their countries’ interests, but in some cases this turned out to be problematic for the scientific integrity of the IPCC summary for policy makers,” he said.

The original draft of the section summarising a chapter in the main report on the effectiveness of global talks held over the past 20 years to limit emissions of greenhouse gases ran for one and a half pages. It included the finding that the 1997 Kyoto protocol treaty had “limited effects on global emissions because some countries did not ratify the Protocol, some Parties did not meet their commitments, and its commitments applied to only a portion of the global economy.”

After a lengthy meeting between government officials and the report’s leading authors that ran into the early hours of the morning of April 12, the draft was whittled down to half a page of headings.

The section on the Kyoto protocol was changed to simply say:

“The Kyoto protocol offers lessons towards achieving the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC [the UN climate change convention that underpins the global negotiations], particularly with respect to participation, implementation, flexibility mechanisms, and environmental effectiveness.”

Every other section of the draft summary was reduced to similarly bland statements or deleted altogether.

Prof Stavins, who released a copy of his letter on his blog on Saturday, said he had waited to make it public so it would not detract from the coverage of the IPCC report, but believed it was important for the IPCC’s future that the issues it raises are openly discussed.

“I have received a wide variety of favourable responses, including from people in the IPCC leadership,” he told the FT.

IPCC spokesman, Jonathan Lynn, said Prof Stavins had raised some “relevant questions,” but had also made clear the Berlin discussions about the summary for policy makers did not affect the scientific credibility of the entire 16-chapter report.

“Questions about the type of product that the IPCC produces, and how it does so, are now being considered as part of the regular examination of the future work of the IPCC, which is due to be finalised in the first half of 2015,” Mr Lynn said.

The 33-page summary for policy makers finalised in Berlin is the most widely read part of the IPCC’s mammoth report, which contains 16 chapters on the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and what can be done to reduce them.

However, the drastic changes made to the summary do not affect the underlying report on which it is based.

In the letter, Prof Stavins said it became clear that this was the only way the summary would be approved by the government representatives in the meeting, even though many were negotiators in the very climate talks the report was assessing, creating what he called “an irreconcilable conflict of interest.”

“In more than one instance, specific examples or sentences were removed at the will of only one or two countries, because under IPCC rules, the dissent of one country is sufficient to grind the entire approval process to a halt unless and until that country can be appeased,” he said.

“I understand that country representatives were only doing their job, so I do not implicate them personally; however, the process the IPCC followed resulted in a process that built political credibility by sacrificing scientific integrity.

“No institution can be all things for all people, and this includes the IPCC. In particular, in the case of the IPCC’s review of research findings on international co-operation, there may be an inescapable conflict between scientific integrity and political credibility.

“If the IPCC is to continue to survey scholarship on international co-operation in future assessment reports, it should not put country representatives in the uncomfortable and fundamentally untenable position of reviewing text in order to give it their unanimous approval.

“Likewise, the IPCC should not ask lead authors to volunteer enormous amounts of their time over multiyear periods to carry out work that will inevitably be rejected by governments in the Summary for Policymakers.”

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