The Review Process
The degree of compression in the SPM meant that every sentence counts. In drafting it, we authors each found ourselves defending our favorite sentences. By the time the SPM was written, a firm alliance had formed between economists and me, the one philosopher still engaged in the process. We represented analytical disciplines concerned with value. Some scientists involved with the IPCC seem to assume that values cannot be subject to analysis, so that they have to be left to political processes. But economics and moral philosophy contain extensive analysis of values: moral philosophy at the level of fundamental ethical principles and economics at the level of application to complex situations. I was extremely pleased to find strong support for ethical analysis from the IPCC. This is one of the important respects in which the Fifth Assessment Report goes beyond the IPCC’s earlier reports. Several sentences about ethics survived successive stages of compression, and remained in the draft of the SPM that was presented to governments at the Approval Session in Berlin.
I was extremely pleased to find strong support for ethical analysis from the IPCC. This is one of the important respects in which the Fifth Report goes beyond the IPCC’s earlier reports.
The whole idea of the Approval Session is extraordinary. Every single sentence of the SPM has to be either approved or rejected by delegates from governments. At the Plenary meeting, the draft is projected on a screen sentence by sentence. As each sentence comes up, the chairman asks delegates for comments on it and proposed amendments. Delegates propose amendments and the authors then consider whether they can be supported by the underlying main report. The rule is that a sentence is approved only if it is supported by the main report, and only if there is a consensus on approving it among the delegates. When the haggling on a sentence is concluded and a consensus obtained, the chairman brings down the gavel, the approved sentence is highlighted on the screen in green, and discussion moves to the next sentence. Very gradually, green highlighting spreads through the report. Five days—Monday to Friday—were set aside for approving the whole 30 pages by this means.
In effect, the text is edited by several hundred people sitting together in a big room. One hundred and seven countries sent delegations of varying sizes. Saudi Arabia is said to have sent ten or more. The delegates arrive with political interests. Many oppose each other diametrically. Moreover, their governments are already locked in negotiations preparing for the major climate-change meeting that is planned for Paris next year under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The wording of the SPM matters to the delegates, since it may be quoted in the negotiations. At our IPCC meeting, they treated the SPM as though it were a legal document rather than a scientific report. It was flattering in one way to find so many governments giving our work such serious attention. But the effects of their attention were often infuriating. To achieve consensus, the text of the SPM was made vaguer in many places, and its content diluted to the extent that in some places not much substance remained.
Moreover, the delegates showed little self-restraint in proposing amendments, and little interest in getting the work finished. They seemed happy to waste the Plenary’s time. One delegation changed “peaking in the first half of the century” to “peaking before 2050,” after provoking some minutes of discussion. This was at nearly midnight on Thursday, the fourth day out of five, when three-quarters of the text was yet to be agreed.
It is hard to believe this process could ever reach a conclusion. To a philosopher, it was hateful. I try to write short, accurate sentences. I was delighted when a delegate from Sweden said, of one of my paragraphs: “This has obviously been written by a philosopher who cares about language. It is clear and sharp, and we should not change it.” It got mutilated anyway, as did almost every sentence in the SPM.
Another time, the delegate from South Sudan spoke in support of the hard work of the authors. He said that the report was a careful and accurate record of knowledge about climate change, and that delegates should be very wary about changing it unnecessarily. It was pleasing that the young nation of South Sudan, with all its troubles, had bothered to send a delegate, and especially pleasing to hear him speaking such good sense. I wish he had been better listened to.