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Science in international negotiations

The Climate Change Convention: a load of hot air?

By Peter Hulm

The problems of consensus

At the end of 1991 Greenpeace polled the 400 climate scientists for their opinions on global warming ( New Scientist , 1992). Of 113 who returned the questionnaires (ibid), about half thought a runaway greenhouse effect possible if no mitigating measures were taken (Leggett, 1993:46). Some 13 percent thought it probable (ibid). Leggett notes: "This worst-case analysis was not articulated in the IPCC report" and described the acceptance of lowest common denominators in the consensus as "a partial failure of the science advisory process" (ibid).

Boehmer-Christiansen (1995:3) goes further: "This informed IPCC opinion or set of negotiated best guesses reflects the conclusions not of the scientific community, which has no recognised process of consensus creation and would be shocked by the idea, but of a group identified as a handful of research managers close to a small number of governments." Not surprisingly, these governments were among the most active in the negotiations, if not in action to reduce emissions of so-called greenhouse gases.

Whatever the consensus achieved in 1992, it was no foregone conclusion. In his history of scientific opinion formation about acid precipitation, stratospheric ozone depletion, and global warming, a Republican Presidential advisor in the US, Michael Kowalok, points out that a pioneering 1985 meeting in Villach, Austria, bringing together climate scientists from 29 developed and developing countries, reached conclusions that "sharply conflicted with the conclusions of earlier groups" (Kowalok, 1993:36). He also noted that many researchers into these environmental issues were sceptical about the theories and even about their own research findings until they were able to exchange information with colleagues from around the world (ibid: 37).

The panel chair admits: "IPCC's conclusions have been criticized in Nature, other parts of the scientific literature and, to a greater extent, in the popular press, mainly for lack of openness about uncertainties and for brushing aside controversies" (Bolin, 1994). However, Bolin also argued that only "a few scientists [...] believe that little can be said about future climate based on our present knowledge" (ibid).

Among those criticizing the IPCC assessment, the most respected is probably Professor Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even Leggett (1993) describes him as a "world class meteorologist."

Among climate scientists, however, there is no doubt that Lindzen represents a minority view. Further, his associations with industry have made him suspect (see below).

In fact, the IPCC academic opponents influential in US official circles have all come from outside the meteorological community. Professor William Nordhaus, for example, is a Yale University economist. The campaigning environmental magazine The Ecologist remarked: "Nordhaus's views on global warming are neither an aberration within his profession nor are they without consequence" (1992:42). John Gribbin further reported that the two scientists who had President Bush's ear in their criticisms of the IPCC consensus were an astronomer and oceanographer (Gribbin, 1990).




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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11 December 2000 Webmaster