A Philosopher at the IPCC

Science and Politics

The section of the SPM that I was involved with came up early in the proceedings. It was quickly apparent that it could not be agreed in the Plenary Session where all the delegates sat. So we authors of that section were sent as a “Contact Group” to a smaller room to negotiate the details with some tens of countries. We worked for three and a half days on one page. Meetings each day ran from 8 am till midnight with hardly time to eat. The page grew to three. The delegates made comments, we authors went away to rewrite the text on the basis of the comments, the delegates made further comments, we rewrote again, and so on. Several delegates in the meetings were sending their governments photos of the text on the screen as it was negotiated, and taking instructions from their governments by phone.

One delegate advised us not to depart far from his version of the text, because his delegation was close to deleting the whole section anyway. This was the moment I began to enjoy the whole event.

Late on Wednesday evening, during a brief break, the delegates formed a huddle in the corner, trying to agree on text between themselves. We, who would be named as authors of the final product, were left as spectators. The US called in a more senior delegate. The main issue was whether we should mention a “right to development,” as the developing countries wanted. Eventually we were presented with a few sentences that, we were told, the developed countries would reject, and an alternative few sentences that, we were told, the developing countries would reject.

As he left the room, one delegate privately advised us not to depart far from his version of the text, because his delegation was very close to deleting the whole section anyway. This was the moment when I began to enjoy the whole event. The threat was not frightening. We authors privately pointed out in return that, if our section was deleted, we would no longer be authors of the SPM. We would be free to go to the press and publish what we liked. Moreover, all the ethics would have been deleted from the SPM. That would be embarrassing to whoever had deleted it, since the IPCC had been making a big show of incorporating ethics into its report. Mentioning all this seemed to calm the delegates.

Wednesday evening’s impasse was unblocked by behind-the-scenes negotiation during Thursday, and by Thursday evening the Contact Group had accepted a version of our whole section. We took it back to the Plenary. When it eventually came up at 1:20 am on Friday, it went through in a few minutes without opposition. There was applause around the room. It was the first bit of text to be approved without argument in the Plenary.

Some brief paragraphs on ethics survived all the way to the approved final version of the SPM. They have been mauled, and their content diminished, but they are not entirely empty. We were lucky. Some sections were cut to pieces because the different views of the delegations turned out to be irreconcilable.

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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