What does Consensus Mean for IPCC WGIII?

April 23rd, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The IPCC assessment process is widely referred to as reflecting a consensus of the scientific community. An AP news story reports on a leaked copy of the forthcoming Working Group III report on mitigation.

“Governments, businesses and individuals all need to be pulling in the same direction,” said British researcher Rachel Warren, one of the report’s authors.

For one thing, the governments of such major emitters as the United States, China and India will have to join the Kyoto Protocol countries of Europe and Japan in imposing cutbacks in carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases emitted by industry, power plants and other sources.

The Bush administration rejected the protocol’s mandatory cuts, contending they would slow U.S. economic growth too much. China and other poorer developing countries were exempted from the 1997 pact, but most expected growth in greenhouse emissions will come from the developing world.

The draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose final version is to be issued in Bangkok on May 4, says emissions can be cut below current levels if the world shifts away from carbon-heavy fuels like coal, embraces energy efficiency and significantly reduces deforestation.

“The opportunities, the technology are there and now it’s a case of encouraging the increased use of these technologies,” said International Energy Agency analyst Ralph Sims, another of the 33 scientists who drafted the report.

As we’ve often discussed here, human-caused climate change is a serious problem requiring attention to both mitigation and adaptation. While I can make sense of a consensus among Working Group I scientists on causes and consequences of climate change, and even a consensus among Working Group II on impacts, how should we interpret a “consensus” among 33 authors recommending specific political actions? All of the movement toward the “democratization of science” and “stakeholder involvement” and “public participation” that characterizes science and technology issues ranging from GMOs to nanotechnology to nuclear waste disposal seems oddly absent in the climate issue in favor of a far more technocratic model of decision making. Is climate change somehow different?

11 Responses to “What does Consensus Mean for IPCC WGIII?”

  1. Harry Haymuss Says:

    Easy answer Roger,

    It will of course be a call for carbon trading – with brokers to rake in the profits at the expense of the rest of us, and primarily the third world.

    A jump in magnitude beyond the Oil for Food scam – same players, bigger field.

    All the carbon brokers have to do is push the original sin buttons of the likes of Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Steve B, Eli, et al…

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  3. Fergus Brown Says:


    It would not be much of a surprise if there was less consensus over WGIII (or WGII, for that matter), than for WGI. The first section of the AR4 deals with the science. It can be evaluated from a scientific perspective. Thus, a scientist is well-placed to both understand and pass judgement on its content.

    This is not the case for the other two sections; both involve many inferences and assumptions to be made, both require an understanding of the larger social systems as well as the physical ones. As such, their contents are going to be less amenable to scientific analysis or evaluation on these terms. Some scientists are well-placed to make value judgement about their content; others are not. So more disagreement about the content should not be surprising.

    I always understood the issue of ‘consensus’ to be about the scientific basis of AGW. Here, you appear to be moving the goalposts, asking that there be scientific consensus on the less scientific elements of the report. I am not saying I think you are wrong (or right) to do so, just wondering whether in fact we actually do expect there to be a consensus on the entire AR4, or if by so doing we are setting a standard for it which is unlikely to be met.


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  5. Benny Peiser Says:


    You seem to suggest that the 33 authors who drafted the WGIII report don’t represent the scientific consensus. But the IPCC could easily recruit 330 or 3300 scientists who would be more than happy to sign up to the WGIII policy recommendations.

    In fact, the whole IPCC consensus process is perhaps the best example of what you seem to be advocating as “democratization of science”.

    Let me try to explain the rules of democratic consensus science: your personal positions and recommendations on climate policy are obviously a minority view. The majority has clearly other ideas – and the majority is the scientific consensus.

    Never mind who’s right or wrong – only numbers count: There can be little doubt that 130 odd government officials will rubber-stamp the WGIII report in May, just as they did with WGI and WGII.

    The point is not whether the policies and economic interventions advocated by the IPCC are right or wrong – the whole point of consensus science is that they represent the view of the majority. And anyone who doesn’t like what the majority says is a dangerous sceptic who should not be given any airtime.

    If you accept that the majority is right on WGI and WGII, you should accept that the majority is also right on WGIII. After all, these are the rules of consensus science. No cherry-picking of favorite papers, no complaints about contradictions or ignored issues.

    I’m afraid the IPCC consensus game is truely over. Its rules won’t be changed until governments begin to realise that they have effectively surrendered their decision-making process to a select group of unelected and unaccountable scientists who are now in charge of and controll a monopoly view on green policies – on a global level.

    Thus, when it comes to the policies and economics of climate change, Plato’s dream of the academic elites controlling and running the world is close to being realised as a nightmarish reality.

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  7. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    There’s often a fine line between, on the one hand, analyzing the feasibility and the strengths and weaknesses of different policy options and, on the other hand, advocating for a particular policy choice.

    The news report Roger quoted says this about WG3: “The draft report … says emissions can be cut below current levels if the world shifts away from carbon-heavy fuels like coal, embraces energy efficiency and significantly reduces deforestation.” This is consistent with policy analysis and it’s reasonable to talk of a scientific consensus on feasibility of mitigation.

    What will be interesting will be to see whether the report as a whole sticks to policy analysis—what you, Roger, so rightly emphasize as clarifying the range of available choices—or whether it attempts to narrow the scope of choices for reasons other than technical feasibility. Rather than reading entrails I’m content to wait and see what WG3 says.

    Benny, doesn’t democratization of science usually mean taking away the privileged position of Ph.D.s and opening the process up to the larger public? Something like American Idol with Michael Crichton playing the Simon Cowell role and Al Gore as Paula Abdul (“Dial in, America, and vote on whether you think vertical wind shear or supply of latent heat did a better job of controlling hurricane intensity!”). IPCC consensus is a very technocratic operation that excludes many voices and is in many ways the antithesis of democratization.

    You become so confused about democratization that you argue that “the best example of … democratization of science” is equivalent to “Plato’s dream of the academic elites controlling and running the world.” Do you really think this is what people mean by democratization?

    Also, you confuse consensus which does not mean tyranny of the majority, but a solution that’s acceptable to essentially all parties. The important difference is that consensus takes account of minority positions. If 60% of experts believed that mitigation was the only feasible option, 20% that adaptation was practical as part of a solution, and 20% was undecided this could not reasonably be presented as consensus, which is why Roger’s question of what consensus might mean in the context of WG3 (or of policy analysis in general) is so important.

    Finally I can’t figure out where you get the idea that IPCC carries much force in governmental decision making (“governments … have effectively surrendered their decision-making process to a select group of unelected and unaccountable scientists”). Isn’t this really a bit tinfoil hat? I predict that, as with the majority of technical policy assessments, WG3 will receive lots of press and lip service and then be ignored. In the end it will have no more impact on laws and regulations than, say, expert assessments of flood risk management programs, earthquake preparedness, infrastructure maintenance, or nuclear waste disposal (these are U.S. specific, but I’ve no doubt that similarly pressing matters are conveniently ignored all over).

    If I were to have nightmares of runaway technocracy IPCC is not where I’d begin. If that’s as bad as it gets, sleep remains innocent and continues to knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care.

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  9. Paul Dougherty Says:

    As an independent observer, I do believe that you misread Benny’s post. Do be aware that he loves to use irony in his writing. Right, Benny?

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  11. NeilS Says:

    My impression was that when it came to statements of ‘consensus’ in the IPCC report that would require governmental action that scientists were pushed aside (if they did not agree) and diplomats took over.

    There is much great science behind this report, but the final recommendations will be (largely) controlled by the politicians.

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  13. Elmer Dunkelberger Says:

    1. There exists no global warming scientific concensus.

    2. The IPCC claims that scientific consensus on global warming is proof of global warming. That violates the scientific method.

    The scientific method uses consensus as the end product of peer review, to validate the proof of a hypothesis. Lack of consensus rejects that proof.

    Proving the global warming hypothesis has NOTHING TO DO with consensus. Proof requires science.

    If the IPCC would concentrate on proving human global warming, and stop trying to claim a nonesistent consesus as proof, they would discover that the global warming hypothesis is nothing but a hoax.

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  15. Jeff Brown Says:

    One should keep in mind that scientific “consensus” is not so much a reflection of validity or scientific “truth” (however you wish to define it) but a consequence of the funding/publishing process. In order to receive promotions and that Most Holy of the Holy…tenure…a sound funding record and a publishing record in acceptable, peer reviewed journals is req’d. Since it is the “consensus” that does the refereeing, the push is to aim research away from original work and into the mainstream…quite the opposite from what the tenure system claims to do. I assume you know this already (by the way, I’m a working scientist who was offered tenure and turned it down…I prefer to “walk the walk”). So, when those who espouse the immanent menace of GW/CC and use scientific consensus, they’re being disingenuous in claiming that this implies accuracy or validity on their part. It simply means that everyone agrees on the same set of axioms/postulates. Of course, one could be ludicrously flagrant and point out that the consensus held (for several hundred years) that Aristotle was right.

    I am new to this blog, so if this is old ground, my apologies.

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  17. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Jonathan- As usual, well said, thanks!

    All- There is quite a diversity of views expressed on the IPCC! Thanks for commenting …

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  19. Jim Clarke Says:

    Like the computer models the IPCC process is built upon, the final recommendation of all these reports, conferences and global hobnobbing was a foregone conclusion. Lip service will be given to Roger’s much more logical call for climate change adaptation, but the end result will be a total push towards carbon mitigation. That is because the process has never been about dealing with climate change, but about telling the rest of the world to go to hell in such a way that it looks forward to the trip.

    If the same issues where brought up 50 years ago, when humanity was developing a much more optimistic ‘can-do’ attitude, we would deal with the threat Roger’s way, and any discussion of reverting to ‘windmills for power’ would have been laughed at as irrational, and rightly so.

    Now, at the peak of human civilization, we have suddenly become morose. We view the environment in a very irrational, pessimistic, unscientific way. Humans are no longer a product and part of the Earth. They are viewed as a pox; a disease that must be contained. Part of that containment will be carbon mitigation. It is this philosophy that resides in the heart of the IPCC process. It is this philosophy that has predetermined the outcome.

    Many of you may view the above as some kind of political rant and dismiss it as obtuse, ignorant or irrelevant. But these conclusions are not the product of a political world view, but of the scientific process of pattern recognition; the only mathematically valid process for predicting the future state of a chaotic, non-linear system beyond a relatively short amount of time.

    The IPCC process is nothing more than another attempt at social engineering, only this time it is being attempted on a global scale. The results will likely be as disastrous as most other attempts at social engineering, but on a more massive scale of misery.

    We can argue over the process, the number of people involved or the meaning of certain words, but the reality is that this train is on a track that only goes one way, and the brakeman never boarded!

    Humanity will not stop it unless a bigger crisis evolves. Nature, however, will bring an end to the madness sooner, with a period of global cooling, or later, by demonstrating that humanity can not create a ’safer’ climate by changing our emissions habits.

    I would hope that we humans would have learned from the past and would stop making the same social engineering mistakes over and over again, but the evidence to date is not hopeful.

    I support Roger’s calls for a more effective, comprehensive approach to climate change, but I do not give him very good odds. I hope he, and other like-minded people, prove me wrong!

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  21. Reginald Smith Says:

    It is so much nicer to see and read the rational discussions here than the dogma that spews forth as easily as water most anywhere else. It is obvious and easily seen reading one page at a site, if we’re dealing with a zealout with the religious fervor of the Inquisition or with rational and reasonable people. At some point, many of those that aren’t on the bandwagon realize that they are experiencing biased, myopic pushes of opinion-as-fact by the majority. And for anyone paying attention, they realize these are people with vain, tolerate-no-dissent attitudes, and also are the ones guiding the process on almost all levels, from the IPCC to Wikipedia to the papers to those who gave Gore an Oscar. In general they think we don’t know who they are, because they don’t spend time doing anything but keeping every single bit of the “other side” out of the conversation.

    However, I think the tide on this is starting to turn. I believe people (meaning, the average person on the street) are starting to notice this is all about something different than the climate. I would say it’s about punishing the big bad mean USA, but that sounds too much like conspiracy theory, so I won’t. Who in their right mind spends billions on something that is barely a blip in the amount of carbon for a totally unknown effect? It’s pretty clear anyone advocating such actions is going to be smiled at and lied to by people in charge. And no action will happen, although it will seem that much action is happening. And the enviro-wackos will think they’re being listened to.