Reposted with permission from Enthusiasm, Scepticism and Science
John Haughton writes of it under the heading: Meetings that Changed the World. He may be right but not only in the way he thinks. Here we consider whether this meeting in Madrid was the moment when climate science gave way under the monumental pressure of politics.
When Ben Santer arrived in Madrid in the late autumn of 1995, did he know that this conference would change his life forever? Undoubtedly ambitious, a rising star in the climate modelling scene, he was doing well at age 40 to be leading the writing of a key chapter in the IPCC Second Assessment Report. In fact, the convener of this IPCC Working Group, John Houghton, had asked him to take it on quite late in the day, only after more established scientists had turned down the offer. Perhaps they had a hunch of what was about to unfold, for it would be Santer’s fate that great forces of history would bear down on the editor of his chapter at this conference. When he was through with it, when Houghton had accepted the final draft a few days later, climate science would be changed forever. After a long struggle, the levees of science gave way to the overwhelming forces of politics welling up around it, and soon it would be totally and irrevocably engulfed.
The story of Ben Santer’s late changes to Chapter 8 of the Working Group 1 Report is familiar to most sceptical accounts of the climate change controversy (e.g. here & here and a non-sceptical account). However, it is often overshadowed by other landmark events, and so it is usually not put up there in the same league with Hansen‘s sweaty congressional testimony of 1988, with the establishment of the IPCC nor with the Hockey Stick controversy. Yet, if one looks at the greater controversy in terms of its impact on science, then this conference in Madrid might just surpass them all.
This was the tipping point. This was climate science’s Battle of Hastings, when political exigencies – the enemies of science – broke through the lines and went on to overrun all its institutions.
Before Hansen there had always been the rogue scientists hawking some kind of scary scenario to the press or politicians. Indeed, sometimes they listened, and sometime they got all het up about it. Yet the institutions of science held firm. Before the IPCC there had been other politicised scientific institutions – the USA EPA is the prime example (see discussion here). And as for the Hockey Stick, well, by then it was all over, with the Climategate emails confirming that a culture of science-as-advocacy was already endemic in the science informing the IPCC assessments. The travesties of the Third Assessment would be unimaginable without the transformation that had already occurred in the writing of the Second Assessment. Madrid was the tipping point, when everything began to change. Not that everyone noticed it at the time. That the general shift begun at Madrid is much easier to see now with so many years of hindsight.
For example, consider the shift in the opposition; how after the breakthrough in Madrid there was a gradual change of the guard on the sceptical front. After the Second Assessment, after Kyoto, most of the usual corporate opposition was in retreat. Many went over to the other side, at least in their marketing – with the sins of their past quickly forgiven and forgotten. Does anyone even remember the Global Climate Coalition? If you have heard of ‘Big Oil,’ well this was it out there in the sunshine with the thinnest veil of disguise. These guys were seen on the job in Madrid passing notes to the Saudi delegation before its every intervention. A week after the conference a Science journal news headline trumpeted their failure to swing the conference against just such a pronouncement: It’s official: the first glimmer of greenhouse warming seen [Dec 8, 1995 p. 1565]. Then the following Spring, with the imminent publication of the new Assessment, and with similar headlines now mainstream, the Global Climate Coalition fought back by sparking the controversy over the late changes to Chapter 8.
This was picked up by Frederick Seitz, a notorious Merchant of Doubt associated with the tobacco lobby. But his Wall Street Journal op-ed [12Jun96] seemed to present some pretty damming evidence of politicised tampering with the conclusions of science. It caused quite a stir in the science press, with the contrarian climatologist, Fred Singer, coming in hard behind Seitz. Even if it seemed that every other climate scientist jumped in behind Houghton and Santer, a new scepticism now emerged to fight not for policy outcomes but in defence of science. Indeed, the political forces against emissions control were still corporate, and still on the right, but this was a new and powerful dimension to the debate. And yet it seemed that the scientists advocating for climate change science didn’t even notice—some not until Climategate, others not to this day (eg, The Royal Society presidents discussed here). They are still fighting ‘Big Oil.’ Perhaps it was convenient, or tactical, to tar the new with this old brush. Perhaps, and yet, when Bjørn Lomborg (1998) and Steve McIntyre (2003) came on the scene, it does seem that many found it truly inconceivable that they might not be motivated in some way by short-sighted self-interest, or capitalist greed.
It was just as inconceivable for scientists advocating for climate change science that they might be, themselves, complicit in the perversion of science, where, as Richard Lindzen observed, the legitimate role of science as a powerful mode of inquiry is replaced by the pretence to a position of political authority [see here pdf]. When did this all begin? Was it a gradual thing, or was there some dramatic breakthrough at that meeting in Madrid scheduled to finalize the second scientific assessment of climate change?
That the corruption of climate science began in Madrid, this is a proposal I would like to explore in a couple of posts on this blog. To begin this discussion let us first recount the events leading up to this extraordinary meeting.
Climate Science Uncorrupted
Scientific agreement on detection, but not on attribution, at an international conference in 1961. By the mid-1970s the New Ice Age scare was in full swing. (New York Times, 30 Jan, 1961)
In many ways the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a rare beast. In some ways it is perhaps unique, especially in the way it forces international science to consent to an agreement with the full spectrum of inter-governmental political actors. We will get to that later. But there is one way in which the IPCC operates that is familiar and ordinary to long-established practices of national scientific academies (and even some international organisations). The IPCC follows such organisations in making scientific assessments and offering recommendations upon the request of governments. In order to get a flavour of this regular and ordinary function, let us consider this extended quote from the introduction to a report by the Australian Academy of Science:
Pronouncements about the climate from scientists in a number of different fields, and pressure on the world’s food supplies, have resulted in the production of reviews of two kinds. The first is the investigation by committees and conferences organized by natural scientists of the existence, nature and extent of the purported climatic changes (e.g. Inter-departmental Committee, 1974; World Meteorological Organization, 1975a; National Academy of Science, 1975, Australian Academy of Science/Australian Branch, Royal Meteorological Society, 1976). The second consists of a series of papers and conferences organized by social scientists, but with contributions from natural scientists, examining the political, social and economic consequences of such climatic changes, should these develop as predicted (e.g. Rockefeller Foundation, 1974; International Federation of Institutes of Advanced Study, 1974, 4975a, 1975b). Such a flurry of activity in the scientific world, rippling out to political and social scientists and so impinging on politicians, as at the World Food conference in November 1974, naturally provoked the publication of general scientific articles in journals like Science and Nature, and popular presentation and comment in magazines such as the New Scientist and Ecologist as well as the daily press. In the more popular accounts, notably those by T. Alexander (1974) and [Nigel] Calder (1974), the issues were inevitably over-simplified and extreme points of view given greater currency than was their due. It is in the stark simplistic terms of the popular scientific articles that the world’s press has interpreted the situation, with forebodings of an imminent return to the cold of the last glacial period.
Deep concern about climatic change amongst social scientists, politicians and the public is justified only if the underlying proposition that we are in the throes of a substantial climatic change is correct. However, even if the prediction of imminent adverse change proves unsubstantiated, or if a continuing trend of climatic change cannot be demonstrated, the concern generated by these views has been useful in emphasising the natural variability of climate, which should itself be a component in economic planning.
In terms of the popular controversy and the government response, there are many similarities between the New Ice Age scare of the 1970s and the Global Warming scare – at least as the latter manifested up to 1995. In the New Ice Age scare we had:
- Scientists making the most alarming claims drawing the attention of the press and of some receptive social scientists
- Social scientists and others exploring the social implications of these alarming claims
- Concern developing among the public and politicians
- Governments anxious for a sober assessment of the risks turn to the various international organisations and national academies.
And there are lots of similarities in the scientific response.
As our Report of a Committee on Climatic Change explains above, governments commissioned scientific investigations in order to determine whether there were any scientific grounds for concern. And what were they told? In most cases the alarm was assessed on balance to be with little scientific foundation. In our quoted report for example, the Australian government was given a marvellously readable summary of the science showing how the climate is always changing, before being told that there is no reason to think that the climatic variations will be heading inexorably in one direction during the foreseeable future. The Report concludes that there is no evidence that the world is now on the brink of a major climatic change. And this is pretty much how public science helped to moderate the New Ice Age scare into a forgettable chapter of social history.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) originated from proposals put forward during debate at the Tenth Congress of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva in May 1987. Several Directors of National Meteorological Services, especially from developing countries, called on WMO to establish a mechanism that would enable them to respond authoritatively to the increasingly frequent requirements to brief their Governments and national communities on the reality or otherwise of the threat of global warming as a result of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. For the most part, Governments, at that stage, were reacting to sensationalised media coverage of predictions of future climate change promulgated by a number of individual scientists and climate modelling groups, as well as the then recently released report of the Brundtland Commission on “Our Common Future” (The World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) which had dramatically lifted the profile of enhanced greenhouse warming as a threat to the future of the planet.
We have been there before. And sure enough, the IPCC’s First Assessment of the science of climate change (Working Group 1) had a sobering impact, concluding along much the same lines of the Australian Academy’s report on climatic change 14 years earlier. Sure, the climate models were more advanced and more respected in 1990. But whatsoever the models predict, the IPCC Report concluded there is yet no evidence in the real world data to warrant alarm.
Two years later another report was commissioned where the Working Groups was asked to update their assessment ‘in the light of new data and analysis.’ This was in anticipation of ‘the need in 1992 for the latest information on climate change, in the context of the ongoing negotiations on the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, June 1992).’ In this Supplementary Report prepared especially for the Rio ‘Earth Summit,’ the conclusion was again much the same: Whatsoever the models predict, there is yet no evidence of the need for alarm, for the evidence is inconclusive that any detected changes might be anything more than nature variations.
Detection and Attribution
In 1988 James Hansen had told the US Congress that ‘there is only a 1% chance of an accidental warming of this magnitude.’ Under oath he proclaimed that ‘the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.’ Two years later, after sensational media coverage, the IPCC assessment’s implicit message was that such an assessment was at best premature, or at worst over-simplified and extreme. Another two years on, when they were asked to review their assessment for Rio, the scientific working group came to pretty much the same verdict. Of the detected ½ degree or so of warming over a century, all they could manage to say was that this amount of warming is
…broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability. Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability; alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming
And then the punch line:
…the unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.
This seemed to be saying that we would have to wait for at least another 10 years of real world data before the science could be settled. And yet that year the Rio summit went ahead and delivered the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). The politics was marching relentlessly ahead of the science. As Aynsley Kellow once put it to me, ‘by design, the IPCC was accorded a central place in the development of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, with the parties committing themselves to future action on the basis of future IPCC findings.’ But the content of these future IPCC findings was clearly anticipated by the political framework. Kellow continues:
While under Article 2 of FCCC, the Parties committed to no more than a vague undertaking to stabilise concentrations of Greenhouse Gases at a level which would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, they also committed to review their commitments at the First Conference of the Parties (COP-1) in Berlin in 1995 and regularly thereafter in the light of the best available scientific information. Having undertaken such a review they are legally bound (under Article 4.2(d)) to take appropriate action which may include the adoption of amendments to the commitments. The Berlin Mandate which led to the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol was thus effectively decided by the IPCC rather than the COP.
The political framework, as the political rhetoric, was saying that the scientific assessment of the IPCC was driving the politics, but at this stage the inconclusive conclusions of Working Group 1 couldn’t be used to mandate anything. All they had was the model predictions, and with so many uncertainties tabled in the reports, these would surely not suffice.
The political pressure upon the IPCC was becoming all too apparent. It was coming from above—from the United Nations. It was coming from the science lobby, and it was coming from a global environmental lobby engorged with public funding (see discussion in a following post). They were all looking for a conclusive ‘detection’ of warming, and the ‘attribution’ of this warming to carbon emissions. And this pressure was only exacerbated by the divisions of labour accorded to the IPCC. While Working Group 1 was assigned to assess the science of climate change, there was also Working Group 2 assessing the impact of climate change, and Working Group 3 assessing how best to mitigate it. Clearly the work of these groups depended on the conclusions of Group 1. Yet for expedience in the midst of a perceived emergency, Groups 2 & 3 were set to work right away so as to support preparations for the change, and to support planning to mitigate the cause. But how could the impacts of warming be assessed when it had not even been detected? And how could mitigation advice be given, when the cause had not yet been attributed?
With the FCCC in place and COP-1 coming and going in Berlin, next was Kyoto, the event where a legally binding commitment would be on the table. Meanwhile, work was progressing on yet another assessment. Again, and more than ever, what the politics desperately need from the Second Assessment was for the IPCC to come to the party and announce that dangerous anthropogenic warming is happening…or at least …is unlikely not to be happening…perhaps…it is just beginning to be detected,…the first glimmer? As a conclusive result from Working Group 1 appeared more and more elusive, clutching at straws became the norm. And it all came down to what was said in Chapter 8.
Chapter 8 was critical because this is where research on the ‘detection’ and ‘attribution’ of climate change is assessed. This is where the science goes beyond the fancy of the models; where a warming is detected in the actual atmosphere that can be confidently attributed to an anthropogenic global effect.
Alas, by the early autumn of 1995 the signs were not good. Although a draft leaked in September managed to say that the warming is unlikely to be entirely due to natural causes, this was hardly in dispute, and this was not exactly announcing imminent catastrophe. Moreover, there remained extraordinary strong caveats, especially in Chapter 8, to every positive conclusion. The draft that was circulated to the participants at the Madrid conference, and formally approved by it, also stated in its introduction that results of recent studies point towards a human influence. This was the strongest statement yet, but the body of the document and the concluding summary were not so confident. Some of the boldest retractions were as follows:
- Of studies of Changes in Global Mean Variables (8.4.1): ‘While none of these studies has specifically considered the attribution issue, they often draw some attribution conclusions, for which there is little justification.’
- Of the greenhouse signal in studies of modelled and observed spatial and temporal patterns of change (126.96.36.199): ‘none of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gases.’
- Of pattern studies ‘fingerprinting’ the global warming (see discussion in later post): While some of the pattern-base studies discussed have claimed detection of a significant climate change, no study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed] to [anthropogenic ] causes. Nor has any study quantified the magnitude of a greenhouse gas effect or aerosol effect in the observed data—an issue of primary relevance to policy makers.
- Of the overall level of uncertainty: Any claims of positive detection and attribution of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced.
- Of the question: When will an anthropogenic effect on climate be identified? (8.6): It is not surprising that the best answer to this question is, `We do not know.’
As the Global Climate Coalition pointed out when they broke the scandal, these statements were removed from the final draft of the Working Group 1 Assessment that Houghton presented for acceptance by the full meeting of the IPCC in Rome two weeks later. Moreover, these inconclusive conclusions were not inserted elsewhere, while more positive statements were substituted, strengthened or added. Nature’s first editorial response to the scandal was all about not disrupting the political message before the US election. Yet it conceded that the complaints about the changes to Chapter 8 ‘are not entirely groundless.’
IPCC officials claim that the sole reason for the revisions was to tidy up the text, and in particular to ensure that it conformed to a ‘policymakers’ summary’ of the full report that was tortuously agreed by government delegates at the Madrid meeting. But there is some evidence that the revision process did result in a subtle shift in the relative weight given to different types of arguments, and that – not surprisingly – this shift tended to favour arguments that aligned with the report’s broad conclusions. Conversely, some phrases that might have been (mis)interpreted as undermining these conclusions, particularly if, as IPCC officials feared, they were taken out of context, have disappeared. [13/6/96]
Nature’s editorial response to the Chapter 8 scandal appeared in the 13 June 1996 edition, the day after Seitz’s Wall Street Journal op-ed launched news of the changes beyond the scientific community. Nature; vol 381, # 6583, p.539
How these changes came about we will discuss in another post, but what I wish the reader to consider for the moment is the state of play when Ben Santer arrived for that conference in Madrid.
Late in the belated preparations of its 3rd report (the ‘Second Assessment’), now under the sole direction of John Houghton, the IPCC Working Group 1 was still saying that the science was inconclusive, uncertain and disputed. Moreover, despite enormous pressure, including his own personal interests and opinion, Ben Santer’s chapter continued to proclaim that the evidence for the detection and attribution of a catastrophic warming trend was in many ways uncertain and certainly inconclusive—hardly the bases for a legally binding global commitment to radical reform.
Climate science did not just roll over under the pressure of politics. Until the Madrid meeting, IPCC science had managed to keep on doing its thing mostly uncorrupted by the monumental political forces building up around it.
In this view, one is drawn to speculate that if only somehow the whole turnaround in and after Madrid had not happen, what then? What of Kyoto? What of all the rest? Would this episode in the history of the UN have become as forgettable after 1996 as the Ice Age Scare after 1976?
But it did happen. The Assessment delivered just enough of what was needed for Kyoto. In the realpolitik of the situation, it could hardly be otherwise. In another post I will explain why.
Following posts will give a more detailed account of the Madrid conference and also of the political pressure imposed from many sides during the reviewing of the Second Assessment.
While the author considers this document (SAR WkGp 1), this time (1995-6) and this place (Madrid) of the highest significance to this controversy, nontheless he lacks many original documents required to study it. Any assistance in locating such documents would be appreciated.
Seeking the following Documents:
- Michaels, P. Forging Consensus: Climate Change and the United Nationals. 1996
- The IPCC: Institutionalized “Scientific Cleansing,” Global Climate Coalition, Global Climate Coalition memorandum, Donald Rheem, May 17, 1996.
- Doctoring the Documents? Energy Daily 24(98): 1-2 (ISSN 0364-527)
- IPCC Working Group 1 Second Assessment Report. Draft version (9 Oct 1995) circulated to the participants in the Madrid Plenary, Nov 1995.
- Any national Delegation Reports (I have Australia’s)