A Philosopher at the IPCC

On the Job

During the three years I have worked for the IPCC, I have had many experiences that are not typical in the life of a philosopher. There is the travel, for one thing. To fight climate change, the IPCC finds it necessary to hold meetings in remote corners of the world. Its own resources are small, so it goes wherever a government offers to fund a meeting. I have been to IPCC meetings in Lima, Changwon in South Korea, Wellington and Addis Ababa. In Europe, the IPCC has taken me to Vigo, Geneva, Oslo, Utrecht, Berlin and Potsdam. Kuala Lumpur and Copenhagen are still to come. I hope the other authors offset the emissions caused by their travel to these meetings; I am pleased to say that the British government pays to offset mine. All this traveling is not much fun; IPCC work is relentless, and I have had little time to enjoy the places I have been to.

IPCC Working Group 3Then there is the joint authorship. Before signing on to the IPCC, my only joint work was one brief article written with another philosopher. In Changwon I found myself in a room with fifteen other authors from various disciplines, with whom I was to write a chapter jointly. Many of them were puzzled at first by the presence of philosophers; they were unclear what our discipline had to do with their work. I expected some confrontations; I thought some economists in particular might resent my philosophical outlook on economics. But actually my colleagues were tolerant and willing to cooperate. We achieved harmony. I was able to put into the chapter several of the points about the ethics of climate change that I thought most important.

The writing process was exhaustive and exhausting. The report went through three full drafts before the final version. Each was sent out for comments to very large numbers of people, including academic experts and representatives of governments. We authors were required to take note of every comment, and to record what we had done about it. I myself dealt with about 600 comments in this way; Working Group 3 as a whole dealt with 38,000. The aim was to produce the broadest possible consensus, reporting on the state of knowledge about climate change. I think we did that. It inevitably meant we had to be conservative in our judgements.

The outcome is a 2000-page report, which has already been published on the internet. Because no one will read a report of that size, our efforts in the last few months have gone into writing two summaries. A subgroup of authors from Working Group 3 hammered them out over the last eight months. The fuller and more reliable one has the unfortunate title of the “Technical Summary.” This name puts people off reading it, but actually it is not particularly technical. It is simply a summary of the main report. The shorter, 30-page précis known as the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) attracts more attention but is subject to political influence in the way I shall describe.

3 thoughts on “A Philosopher at the IPCC

  1. Global Obesity Increasing: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2814%2960460-8/abstract

    Is there a “right to become obese,” along with a “right to develop” along the pre-established lines of the “developed” world? Or is it time to question assumptions, including ethical theories based on “preferences” and economic ones maintaining the fantasy that continuing along on the same path will eventually result in “prosperity” and (hence) well-being for everyone?

  2. This post contains many humanist assumptions such as what is meant by “we” “people” and “moral” and “duty”. I propose that the phrase “Our main reason for working to limit climate change is our moral duty towards those people” is misguided and that global warming is so dire that our main duty now is to reduce the supply of as many humans, and thereby consumption by those humans, as possible in order to preserve what remains of nonhuman life. If there is any value to human life, that too will be better served by a human population reduction.

    All that and not one mention of the effect of capitalism on global warming?

    • I have read through the Technical Summary with considerable interest and appreciate the efforts of John Broome and the other authors of these documents, even though I am also sympathetic to the comment above by John Maher–as Arne Naess once said, “the frontier is long.” I also think Professor Broome is to be congratulated for offering his candid remarks and having some of them incorporated into a more popularized report–how often do the thoughts of philosophers ever make it into more “mainstream” discourse?

      But Maher is right about the assumptions that constrain the work of all the authors of IPCC reports, and I would say that what is needed is not more analysis of the ethics of climate change but rather deep changes in the ontology of “development.” The bottom line of most of the findings of this working group is highly economistic; you find claims like “If economies continue to grow, people who live later in time will on average become better off”–i.e., “possess more commodities”–“than people who live earlier” (p. 37), and “Improvements in wealth, lifestyle, urbanization, and the provision of access to modern energy and adequate housing will drive the increases in building energy demand,” with an implication that the 0.8 billion people currently (and who knows how many more as population continues to grow?) without such access will surely eventually attain it if they keep on the “development” path (p. 60). The controversial information that was suppressed from inclusion in the summary report, starkly illustrated in Fig. TS.5 (p. 18) shows the spiking of emissions generated by the “upper middle income countries” as a result of their manufacture of exports to the high income countries–a clear picture of what increasing the number of “commodities” available for possession is accomplishing. Should the people of these countries be said to have a “right to development”–to keep us all on that path to nowhere– as if that is the primary ethical issue?Of course there is no overt mention of “capitalism” here–the whole discussion takes place within the assumptions of “capitalism.” But, given the “long frontier,” there need to be other philosophers who will raise questions about the entire ontology that capitalism assumes. For instance, what, indeed, is the ontological status of “capital”–or the “cost” of climate mitigation, or of “money” in any of its guisess, other than that of an ontologically subjective symbol that just happens to be collectively accepted by a certain percentage (granted, currently a very high one) of us human primates? How does this compare with the reality of Life on Earth, the many living organisms that currently inhabit the planet that are being squeezed off of it by all our wonderful “development,”, as Maher would draw our attention to?

      It also should be pointed out that, as he notes, there is essentially no ethical or pragmatic concern directed toward stabilizing or reducing our human population in this document, even though there is some discussion of the benefits in emissions reductions that might accrue with “lifestyle, cultural and other behavioral changes”–it is simply blythely accepted that the total human population may grow to 9.3 billion by 2050 (p. 78). And a further, mysterious omission, not even noted by Maher, is the total lack of discussion of the CO2 equivalents emitted in the course of modern warfare, and the preparation for it, by continuing elaboration of the war machine in developed and developing countries alike (though far outstripped, of course, by the former–I have heard claims that the U.S. military is the #1 consumer of fossil fuels, tho I would appreciate some solid references for this). If we humans are going to deal seriously with climate change, we are going to have to place ALL of our ontological assumptions, currently stated and unstated, on the table for drastic re-thinking.

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