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Science in international negotiations

The Climate Change Convention: a load of hot air?

By Peter Hulm

The scientific consensus

First, the process. In producing its report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analysed thousands of scientific papers and the lead authors for each section were chosen to "reflect a balance among difficult points of view" (Bolin, 1994:97), with "at least one specialist from a developing country" (ibid). The IPCC's chairing scientist, Bert Bolin of Sweden, described the panel's task as "to assess knowledge rather than to recommend measures to be taken", a significant form of phrasing from a political as from a scientific point of view, as I later indicate. It is worth noting, however, how close this phrasing is to what most people would seem to consider the proper role of science in political issues.

The first panel report was the work of some 200 climatologists, reviewed by another 200 (Gribbin, 1990). The (Working Group II) review of available scientific and technical literature on possible impacts, scheduled for completion in September 1995, involved more than 200 contributors (ibid). Drafts of this 1995 Second Assessment Report were circulated to nearly 800 'experts' for review (Moss, 1995:4).

John Gribbin has pointed out that the world total of climatologists is only some 400, so presumably nearly all were involved. More significantly, the consensus achieved in the Panel Report on a subject with numerous scientific uncertainties has been widely praised.

The scientific consensus indicated in the report has often been contrasted with the disagreement over the measures that should to be taken and the commitments made (Bergesen and Sydnes, 1992:36; Wynne and Mayer, 1993:33; Paterson, 1994:175; Clayton, 1995:111). Helge Olde Bergesen and Anne Kristin Sydnes declare: "It is noteworthy that the climate scientists succeeded in producing an assessment (of a highly political issue) that appears both independent and legitimate (1992:35). They comment: "Attempts to exert political influence on the scientists invariably failed" (ibid), and add: "Despite aggressive criticism from certain individual scientists, the IPCC consensus still commands wide recognition and respect" (ibid).

Dr Jeremy Leggett, the scientific advisor on global warming for a major environmental campaigning organisation (Greenpeace), agrees with Boehmer-Christiansen in describing the IPCC work as "an ongoing scientific consultation process which, in its breadth and depth, is without precedent" (Leggett, 1993:43). Both Leggett and Boehmer-Christiansen, however, voice disquiet at assumptions that the consensus so far achieved can claim to be objective or represents value-free science.




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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