A Philosopher at the IPCC

Another Drama

The biggest drama developed during the last night over the deletion of some figures. The draft SPM presented to the delegates contained figures that showed emissions of greenhouse gas from countries classified by their “income group.” They showed that the emissions of the “upper medium income” countries soared in the last decade. This is obviously important information for policy makers. It helps to explain why, despite all the anxiety about climate change, emissions have grown recently at an accelerating rate. Nevertheless, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia insisted that all figures where countries were classified by income group should be deleted from the SPM. Other countries strongly opposed the deletion, but could not prevent it because a consensus is required for everything in the SPM.

IPCC Working Group 3 - Group Shot

A total of 235 Coordinating Lead Authors and Lead Authors, 38 Review Editors from 58 countries and 176 contributing authors contributed to the preparation of WGIII AR5

The figures nevertheless remain in the Technical Summary and the underlying main report. The authors proposed to the Plenary that references to those figures should be included in the SPM, at the point where the figures themselves were deleted. Saudi Arabia objected, and indeed wanted to delete all references to any part of the main report that mentioned income groups. In response, the Netherlands proposed that, if the reference to the figures were deleted, a footnote should be added to say “The Netherlands objects to the deletion of references to the following figures: . . .,” followed by a list of the figures. (Footnotes noting objections from individual countries are permitted.) I thought this a lovely idea, and it definitely added to the entertainment, but it got nowhere. The question of what to do with the references remained unsettled. Many countries opposed their deletion and many supported it.

The time by now was 4:15 am. A break was called, and delegates gathered in a huddle to sort out what to do. I hung around the fringes watching. Generally there were smiles, but I witnessed a decided lapse of diplomatic language just before Brazil presented a new proposal to the Plenary. This proposal was that a note should be attached to each chapter in the main report that mentioned income groupings of countries. The note would say that, although income groupings are relevant from the scientific perspective, they are not necessarily relevant from the policy-making perspective. This proposal could not possibly have been approved, since the IPCC’s raison d’être is to provide information relevant for policy-making. It could not accept a suggestion that it was not doing so. Moreover, the underlying main report needed to be protected from political interference.

Compromises ran out, and in the end Saudi Arabia got its way completely over the references. All references from the SPM to any part of the main report that mentions income groupings were deleted.

By 7:30 am on Saturday green highlighting had spread across all the surviving text, and the meeting ended. The last session had started at 9:00 am on Friday, and had been interrupted only twice for meal breaks amounting to one and a half hours together.

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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