Data Deleted From UN Climate Report Highlight Politicization Of Climate Science

  • Date: 04/07/14
  • Brian Clark Howard, National Geographic

When the United Nations’ last major climate change report was released in April, it omitted some country-specific emissions data for political reasons, a trio of new papers argue, sounding a warning bell about the global politicization of climate science.

Written by thousands of science, policy, and economics experts from around the world, the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports represent a synthesis of existing climate research knowledge, focusing on the evidence of a warming climate (“virtually certain”), the global impacts, and the ways we might avert its most catastrophic effects. The Summary for Policy-makers draws on the detailed technical report and offers recommendations on cutting carbon emissions and preparing for climate change.

Although the underlying technical material in the IPCC’s fifth major report was widely agreed upon and published intact, “heated negotiations among scientific authors and diplomats led to substantial deletion of figures and text from the influential ‘Summary for Policy-makers,’” writes Brad Wible, an editor at the journal Science, in the introduction to three papers published Thursday. (See “Battle Plan for Climate Change: How to Cut Greenhouse Gases.”)

Wible notes there is “some fear that this redaction of content marks an overstepping of political interests, raising questions about division of labor between scientists and policy-makers and the need for new strategies in assessing complex science.”

On the other hand, some observers have suggested that the policy summaries be even more explicitly co-produced with national governments, says Wible.

This discussion was sparked just days after the publication of the IPCC report in April, when report co-author and Harvard environmental economics professor Robert Stavins released a controversial open letter to the IPCC leadership. Stavins criticized the last-minute intervention by several governments in the approval process of the IPCC report in Berlin and called the resulting policy summary document “a summary by policy-makers, not a summary for them.”

“Over the course of the two hours of the contact group deliberations, it became clear that the only way the assembled government representatives would approve text for SPM.5.2 [the Summary for Policy-makers] was essentially to remove all ‘controversial’ text (that is, text that was uncomfortable for any one individual government), which meant deleting almost 75 percent of the text,” Stavins wrote on his blog on April 25.

Scientists vs. Diplomats

Wible points out that the stated intention of the IPCC since it was founded in 1988 has always been to “balance governmental and scientific input.”

That mandate is unlikely to change, says David Victor, one of the lead authors of the policy discussion in the April IPCC report and the head writer of one of the papers published Thursday in Science, called “Getting Serious About Categorizing Countries.”

“I think in an ideal world there would be a firmer separation between the diplomats and the scientists” when it comes to the IPCC process, says Victor, who is a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego.

However, Victor adds that he “can’t imagine” the national governments from around the world that participate in the IPCC process agreeing to any substantial reforms in that area.

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