A Philosopher at the IPCC

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.

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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