A Crisis of Allegiance for the IPCC?

July 28th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

While the details of the new Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate remain to be released, the prospect of a new international agreement on climate change suggests the possibly of competition with the Kyoto Protocol, despite some diplomatic words to the contrary. Some environmental groups, and some UK and Australian officials certainly see the new agreement as an alternative to Kyoto. While there will no doubt be plenty of opportunities to debate the new agreement, its very existence may create a crisis of allegiance for the scientific community. In other words, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) exists to support decision makers on climate change, and has a formal goal of being “policy neutral”. We’ve criticized this charade on numerous occasions (e.g., see this paper). But facing the prospect of two competing international agreements on climate change, can the IPCC maintain the pretension of “policy neutrality”? I don’t think so. At long last the IPCC may have to explicitly consider issues of policy, and if so, this would be a very good thing.

Some of the tensions facing the IPCC and its position with respect to international climate politics can be seen in recent contradictory statements of its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri.

Earlier this month he stated that India could not participate in the Kyoto Protocol, “We are not historically responsible for this problem. So the first steps have to be taken by those who are historically responsible — the developed countries.” This statement indicates that he believes that there is no path forward for developing countries under Kyoto, as the justification he gives for India (low per-capita emissions) certainly holds in well-over half the world where emissions are growing fastest. He then subsequently contradicts this statement by criticizing the new Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (APPADC) as an alternative to Kyoto, claiming that, “it should not undermine the Kyoto Protocol that has been agreed the world over as the mechanism to tackle climate change.” Obviously, if India has rejected Kyoto then it has not been agreed to “the world over.” He then says something else that contradicts this criticism of the APPADC, “”I think [the APPADC] is a good idea because the development of these technologies is important and I’ve always said there has to be a partnership between North and South in these technologies. This is one way of working together It does not interfere with the Kyoto protocol.” These are the statements of a politician walking a tight rope, and not particularly well, I’d say.

The IPCC is of the UN body and so to is the Kyoto Protocol (and its parent, the Climate Convention). Some have argued that the IPCC is in practice a subsidiary body to the Climate Convention, despite its language of neutrality. If there are in fact competing international approaches to climate policy, then the IPCC’s leadership will have some important decisions to make: Support Kyoto or the APPADC? Support them both? If so, how? It is well understood that science is not neutral with respect to political and policy debates, the very framing of questions can lends support or opposition to particular political agendas. So there is no “hiding behind science” on this issue. Pachauri’s recent conflicting statements indicate the challenges facing the community. But perhaps the best news in all of this, regardless of the merits of the Asia-Pacific agreement, is that at long last the scientific community will have to grapple with its role in the policy process.

9 Responses to “A Crisis of Allegiance for the IPCC?”

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    The British Royal Society picks a side:


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  3. William Connolley Says:

    You write “Earlier this month he stated that India could not participate in the Kyoto Protocol”… err no. As you’re doubtless aware, India has signed the protocol. Somehow or another, you then get yourself to “Obviously, if India has rejected Kyoto”… but it hasn’t. Then you say “Some have argued that the IPCC is in practice a subsidiary body to the Climate Convention”… but you’re quoting yourself, not “some”.

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks William for these comments. A few responses:

    1. Yes, India has formally signed the Protocol. R. Pachauri says that there is no way that India will participate in its approach. Of course, he does not speak for the Indian government, but I think it is safe to say that if India does not participate in the Kyoto process then it has rejected it, even with its formal ratification.

    2. The reference to “some” is not to me but follows from the link I provided, citing an IISD report: “Harald Dovland, Norwegian Ministry of the Environment … expressed concern over the number of [FCCC] SBSTA members attending IPCC meetings, noted the risk of politicizing the IPCC …”

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  7. Nate Hultman Says:

    Pachauri’s statements are not contradictory.

    As he was quoted, “We are not historically responsible for this problem. So the first steps have to be taken by those who are historically responsible — the developed countries.” In UNFCCC practice, this has meant that developed countries should agree to take on binding targets and timetables, and is how the Kyoto Protocol dealt with the question of historic emissions.

    Nothing in the statement that indicates that he “believes that there is no path forward for developing countries under Kyoto.” The Protocol does strike a crude but arguably workable compromise in allowing developing countries at least one period of nonbinding commitments. Nothing in the FCCC process dictates that this situation must continue; successor protocols could include any number of equitable (or quasi-equitable) approaches.

    Pachauri’s subsequent defense of Kyoto thus seems consistent. However, the wider and more important concern about the head of IPCC pontificating about the desirability of the APP vis-a-vis the FCCC process is certainly valid.

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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks Nate for your comment. While we are in agreement about the larger points here, I’d encourage you to have a look at the Reuters article that was the source for this quote:

    “India can’t commit to Kyoto targets-U.N. Head”

    “… India will be unable to commit to greenhouse gas emission targets when the first phase of the Kyoto treaty ends in 2012 as its energy-hungry economy is developing fast, the top U.N. climate expert said on Thursday. Under the Kyoto climate change protocol which came into force in February, developed countries will try to reduce greenhouse gas output by 5.2 percent of 1990 levels by 2008-12. But developing countries such as India and China are exempt from the treaty’s emission targets because they say their economies will take a serious hit if they change their energy policies.”

    If Kyoto means that developing countries do not have to change their energy policies, as stated in the article, then it seems to me difficult to argue that the Kyoto process is meaningful (other than symbolically, and do symbols matter) in developing countries.

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Some details on the Asia-Pacific Partnership:


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  13. Magnus Says:


    I (Magnus) got some links from you on the real climate blog, I asked about the long-term effects off implementing the Kyoto protocol. But what I really want to know is how the economic scientists look at restrictions to stop the GW. Is it economically sound in the long term (I realise that this is impossible to answer but what do they say?)?

    I’m an environmental scientist (chemistry) myself so that part of GW is not a problem for me to discuss. But the economics I know little about… and when discussing GW in public it has its favours… how are the economics gathered? What do the models predict?

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  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Magnus- Thanks for your comment. We’ll see if we can arrange for a guest post on the economics of climate change …

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  17. Steve Bloom Says:

    I almost choked over Magnus’ reference to “economic scientists.” It made me feel, well, dismal. I’ll forgive him, though. I can only hope it’s not a direct translation.