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Science in international negotiations

The Climate Change Convention: a load of hot air?

By Peter Hulm


The Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into force on 21 March 1994 in less than two years after it was signed by leaders of over 150 nations at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro (Common Inheritance, 1994:34). According to its closest political analyst, it "codifies the largest global research and data collection effort ever undertaken" (Boehmer-Christiansen, 1995:1).

As the technical basis for decisions taken under the Convention, scientists played a key role in providing advice to the political phase of the negotiations. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in November 1988 as part of the negotations, assembled a number of views on the scientific issues and indicated the degree of consensus it found on each aspect.

What the scientific issues are, how justified the scientific views are, are not my concern here. This review looks at the process involved and the political factors in the consensus-building exercise rather than the content of the scientific opinion and the panel's advice. It will not, therefore, refer to the details of this assessment except in so far as public policy is concerned, and I take no view of the scientific issues. A summary of the panel's report is, however, given in What the Panel Said.

What I do want to do, in part, is tomake a critical exploration of the influential ideas of Sonya Boehmer-Christiansen with regard to the IPCC (in Boehmer-Christiansen, 1995) and of Peter Haas's theories of epistemic consensus (in Haas, 1992).

I looked first at the process by which scientific consensus was achieved. This raised questions of whether the report represented accurately the opinions of the scientific community (and, contrary to most of the convention's proponents, I think it did not). In fact, it's a moot point whether consensus is a valid approach in environmental matters.

Through the example of the Convention, I have tried to highlight some of the political issues involved before going on to the wider implications. My research concluded with an examination of the process from the three paradigms or traditions usually employed in global politics studies - realism, liberal-pluralism and Marxism - and suggests that the academic interpretations in fact reflect an alternative approach (which I have dubbed 'post-realist' because it embraces theories that the world of nation-states has suffered a loss of authority and autonomy, and that image-conscious activity may determine international action quite as consciously as political interests - indeed national interests may be expressed through 'neutrally'-phrased publicity.




The scientific consensus

The problems of consensus

The politics of consensus

The threshold of danger

The politics of science

Knowledge-based communities


Buying scientific credibility

Science and the three paradigms

A utilitarian hypothesis

A cobweb model, modified


What the Panel Said

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