Science in international negotiations
The Climate Change Convention: a load of hot
By Peter Hulm
The politics of consensus
But what kind of consensus was, in fact, achieved
by the scientific panel? Matthew Paterson (1994:185) declares:
"The IPCC Report, as a consensus document, was fairly cautious,
especially in its assessment of potential impacts." The IPCC
chair has made clear his approval of caution: "I believe that
balanced and careful reviews of current knowledge are of great
value both to help public awareness and to assist political
decision-making"(Bolin, 1994). Clayton notes approvingly: "Without
the network of self-critical scientists in panels such as the
IPCC there would be no credible consensus on which to base international
action" (Clayton, 1995:128).
On the other hand, Boehmer-Christansen (1995:2-3,8)
argues that the IPCC ideal of consensus enabled British scientists
to deliberately take a lead in the assessment work with an agenda
of their own, and one which increasingly also served the interests
of the UK Government (p13). In a British Government publication,
K. Mason even asserted: "Atmospheric issues [...] allow the
UK to exercise its science leadership [...] and maintain a seat
at the [international] table in terms of future standards, responsibilities
and opportunities"(Mason, 1993:33).
Under such pressures, the IPCC became narrowly
'scientific' rather than pro-active, against German and French
demands for immediate action in place of more research (Boehmer-Christiansen,
1995:12). At the same time, the negotiations were put in a legal
context which maintained British sovereignty over national control
measures rather than ceding them to the European Commission
(ibid). Speaking to the Second World Climate Conference in 1990,
the UK Prime Minister of the time, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, perhaps
not surprisingly, praised the scientific consensus, describing
it as remarkable (ibid:13).
Academic John Vogler (1995:204) pointed out the
politics behind the science in the climate change issue. The
creation of the IPCC, he says, represented "a successful attempt
by governments (notably the US government) to assert national
control over the climate change research process".
The IPCC was set up as an intergovernmental panel,
and the working groups for the scientific reviews consisted
of national scientists funded by research agencies, with inevitable
criticisms that they represented national interests (ibid:205).
Boehmer-Christiansen points out that Bolin is a research manager
close to the Swedish government (1995:10).
Developing countries saw themselves as poor relatives
at this banquet. Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain from a New Delhi
scientific 'think tank' accused the US-based World Resources
Institute of "politically motivated mathematics" when WRI produced
a "global pollution" league table which put India and China
among the top ten contributors to the greenhouse effect.
The Indian think tank researchers pointed out
that the world's two largest nations do not appear among the
20 major problem states if the league table is calculated according
to per capita emissions (Pearce, 1992:55).
This is not a rare source of tension. Vogler
notes similarities with complaints from developing nations that
demands for specialized technological knowledge kept them out
of the decision-making process for international telecommunications
(documented in Jasentuliyana and Chipman, 1985) while these
complaints were treated as attempts to "politicize" the negotiators'
technical work (Vogler, 1995:205)
The political sides in the debate came sharply
into focus within the European Union. The British conflict with
France and Germany has been already noted. In the debate on
control measures, the European Commission, its Environment Directorate,
and the governments of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands
pressed for an energy/carbon tax, with the tactical support
of others (Bergesen and Sydnes:40). The Brussels lobbies of
the electricity industry and large users of industrial energy
such as chemical, cement and steel groups fiercely opposed such
taxation, and the proposals were dropped (ibid).
Bergesen and Sydnes suggest that the European
Commission's ambitions to play a major role in world politics
lay partly behind its efforts for the Climate Change Convention,
particularly because of the vacuum left by US reluctance to
take action (ibid:40-1). In the US, Leggett records, the minority
scientific view was financially underwritten by parts of the
energy industry: "Lindzen's conclusion that the threat of climate
change has been overestimated by the IPCC has found strong favour
with the coal and oil lobby, who advance his ideas in their
publications on global warming, and fly him regularly to international
venues to promote his conclusion" (Legget, 1993:45).
The politics of consensus