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Science in international negotiations

The Climate Change Convention: a load of hot air?

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 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

Full text (46K)



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