Whose political agenda is reflected in the IPCC Working Group 1, Scientists or Politicians?

March 26th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Recent discussion here on Prometheus and elsewhere has indicated two very different perspectives on who controls the IPCC’s Working Group I on the science of climate change. The different views reflect various efforts to legitimize and delegitimize the IPCC. However, the different perspectives cannot be reconciled for reasons I describe below, placing scientists in an interesting double bind.

The first view is that the IPCC is subject to governmental control at the start and at the finish, and thus is an overtly political document. It is after all the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. From this perspective the IPCC is very much a political document with political officials setting its agenda in the form of of the questions that it is to address and political officials also acting as gatekeepers on the resulting scientific report.

This view on the back end was expressed by Michael Mann, of Penn State University and RealClimate, who commented in New Scientist earlier this month:

Allowing governmental delegations to ride into town at the last minute and water down conclusions after they were painstakingly arrived at in an objective scientific assessment does not serve society well.

On the front end of the report, Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M, suggested that this too was controlled by politicians and not scientists, writing in the comments on another Prometheus post:

. . . you have to conclude that the [IPCC chapter] outline represents the questions member gov’ts want to know in order to respond to climate change.

The second view is that the IPCC is squarely in the control of the scientific community with governmental officials having a right to approve the IPCC report on the front and back ends but with no authority to alter it’s substance in any way for political purposes. Twenty distinguished climate scientists who participated in drafting of the recent IPCC Summary for Policymakers wrote a letter objecting vehemently to an article in the New Scientist suggesting that political officials had any influence whatsoever on the report.

At all stages, including at the final plenary in Paris, the authors had control over the text . . In particular, our co-chair Susan Solomon is robustly independent and has been determined to maintain the credibility of the science throughout the four-year process. . . The wide participation of the scientific community, the scientific accuracy and the absence of any policy prescription in this report are the characteristics that render this report so powerful. . . Another related misconception, promulgated by [New Scientist], is that the Summary for Policymakers was written by and for the government delegations, and changes were made to the scientific conclusions before and during the Paris plenary for political purposes. In fact, the Summary for Policymakers was written by the scientists who also wrote the underlying chapters. The purpose of the Paris plenary was to make clarifications in order to more succinctly and accessibly communicate the science to the policy-makers. The scientists were present in Paris to ensure scientific accuracy and consistency with the underlying report. Those of us also involved in previous assessments were pleasantly surprised that there were far fewer alterations made to the text at this final meeting, and that there were very few attempts at political interference.

So here is the double bind that scientists find themselves in: Some scientists, like Andrew Dessler (cited above), wish to assert that the IPCC is essentially value-free reflecting the revealed truths of the climate system as discerned by objective climate scientists with no political agenda. From this perspective, the only political agenda that the IPCC reflects is that imposed upon it by governments on the front end in the form of questions that they would like to see answered. It is otherwise scientifically pure. Other scientists, like Michael Mann (cited above), hold a very different view seeing the IPCC as reflecting a political agenda of member governments who have in fact corrupted the objective views of the climate scientists. From this perspective, the IPCC does in fact reflect a political agenda that shaped it on the back end.

If governmental representatives in fact have no influence on content of the IPCC only an ability to approve, as suggested by the twenty authors of the letter to the New Scientist, then all decisions made by the IPCC about what information to present in the report reflect the values and judgments of the scientists participating. Many scientists do not like this assertion because it suggests that the IPCC is not accountable to anyone, and stands as a technocratic exercise far from any sort of democratic governance of science. If instead governmental officials do in fact have influence, then the IPCC has some greater accountability and perhaps meets some criteria of democratic governance, but at the same time many scientists do not like this assertion because then the IPCC risks losing its legitimacy as its conclusions would then reflect the political agendas of its overseers. So does the IPCC Working Group I reflect a political agenda or not?

The only way that this double bind could be broken would be for the IPCC to do two things. First, on its front end it would need to have a formal, transparent, and systematic process for eliciting the demands for information from policy makers in the forms of questions asked and information sought. (Dan Sarewitz and I describe such a process in this paper: PDF.) There was in fact no such process on the front end.

Second, on the back end the IPCC would need an accepted process that allowed member governments to ask questions seeking to clarify and focus the report, opposed to changing its content. The IPCC authors suggest that this is in fact what happened, but its critics assert the opposite. So whatever the reality, it seems clear that the following statement from the twenty IPCC letter-writers holds up: “A legitimate criticism perhaps is the poor communication to the general public of IPCC procedures.”

Everyone seems to agree that the IPCC reflects a political agenda, the question is who’s political agenda? Is it that of the participating scientists? Do participating scientists in fact have a “political agenda” or instead do they have many competing political agendas? Or is the political agenda of the IPCC that of the participating governments? But do participating governments in fact have a “political agenda” or many competing political agendas?

The answers to the questions are all unclear. The IPCC tries to have things both ways by asserting governmental participation without governmental influence. This makes no sense, and participation is meaningless absent influence. As a result, how people view the legitimacy of the IPCC will therefore most likely be an inkblot test on their views of governance by experts versus the democratization of knowledge. One thing seems clear, global governance of the IPCC would be much more straightforward, and its role far easier to understand, with some explicit answers to who controls the IPCC, scientists or governments?

13 Responses to “Whose political agenda is reflected in the IPCC Working Group 1, Scientists or Politicians?”

  1. tom Says:

    How are scientists chosen to work on the IPCC?

    Do you think they make an effort to include differing viewpoints?

  2. 2
  3. Gavin Says:

    You missed out a crucial part of the quote you attribute to Mike Mann in response to Fred Pearce’s questions about possible government interference at the IPCC meeting. That was ‘If this is true…’ – Mike was certainly not claiming that this was the case, and from frequent conversations on the topic I can assure you he certainly does not hold the views you ascribe to him. Charitably, your mis-characterisation could be because you simply want to have two end-members with which to bracket your argument, but distorting peoples’ views in order to make a rhetorical point is not conducive to serious discussion.

    From my conversations with participants at the Paris meeting, I am assured that no undue political interference was made with scientific content of the WG1 report.

  4. 3
  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Gavin- Thanks for your comments.

    But I am confused … Are you saying Mike does _not_ believe that the IPCC SPM was influenced by the political agendas of its member governments? Then why in the world did he give credibility to such claims with such an outlandish quote? It’d be like me saying “If RealClimate scientists are guilty of research misconduct, then they should really lose their jobs.” (“But really I don’t believe that they are guilty and there is no evidence for it.”) Maybe if Mike believed that the claims of the IPCC are untrue he might have instead said something, like: “I believe these claims are untrue.” You guys seem to want to have things both ways all the time!

    But the general point holds no matter what Mike was really trying to say as there are of course scientists on record suggesting the same thing implied by Mike’s odd conditional, just have a look at the New Scientist article for a start.


  6. 4
  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Tom- Thanks. The selection of participants is also involves both scientists and government approval. Much was made about the replacement of Bob Watson with Rajendra Pachauri, with Pachauri being called by some a tool of the US, and in particulr Exxon, see:


    We don’t hear much about that now! In my view, the same logic I discussed above about the “double bind” applies to the selection of participants as to the contents of the report.


  8. 5
  9. Sylvia S Tognetti Says:

    Unfortunately I don’t have time at the moment to delve into this one but I once wrote an entire paper on the subject of “Science in double-bind…” which revisited the work of Gregory Bateson (pdf here: http://www.sylviatognetti.org/data/tognetti1999.pdf ) – see in particular the conclusion section) – in brief, this is a false dichotomy. Bateson defined a double-bind as: a paradoxical situation in which behavior is constrained by a perceived context or definition of a relationship that is no longer relevant. If in fact science were doing objective research detached from context, that would limit its relevance for policy. It is in fact produced to support broad policy goals, in this case, of supporting human well-being. By being more explicit about that, scientists might have less trouble investigating response options rather than getting stuck on technical debates about issues largely resolved.

  10. 6
  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hi Sylvia .. Thanks! I agree with you that there is a false dichotomy between facts-values (which is what got us on this subject in the first place). I outlined the way out of the (perceived) double bind in the post (and it is discussed in more detail in the Sarewitz-Pielke paper I linked to). Unfortunately, the IPCC has not gone in this direction …

  12. 7
  13. Jonathan Gilligan Says:


    On the back end, don’t you get into infinite regress on who gets to define legitimacy? You propose an “accepted process” without addressing who gets to veto it as unacceptable or who gets to rule on what’s a request for clarification and what’s interference with the science? The distinction is not always clear.

    Jasanoff’s studies of the use of peer review adn other back-end processes in the EPA and FDA show that any back-end process almost inevitably becomes the ground for further disputes (boundary work) on who has the right to define acceptability. If you say peer review defines legitimate science, then the boundary wars move to the selection of the reviewers (Tom’s question gets at this).

    I don’t think you address Andrew’s major question from the comments on the other post. Let’s leave Michael Mann’s inflammatory statement out for the moment and ask whether, if the scientists participating in IPCC believe the back-end process worked and that the report fairly represents objective science (the statement of the twenty), even then, would there be cause for concern that the answers to the front-end questions have nonetheless been influenced in a nontrivial way by the participants’ social, political, or moral norms?

    Your post here seems to accept the notion that the scientists’ work is reasonably objective and only claim that at the back end, politics may have intervened and distorted the objective science produced in the middle. How is your position different from the notion that there is objective science and that a suitable back end can facilitate using science to inform subjective, normative politics without itself overtly politicizing the science?

    You hint at something more when you write that “Many scientists do not like this assertion because it suggests that the IPCC is not accountable to anyone, and stands as a technocratic exercise far from any sort of democratic governance of science,” but you don’t help the reader with any sense of whom these scientists are or why they find democratic governance of scientific results (the back end) as important as democratic governance of scientific goals (the front end). I have my own ideas about this, but I’d like to learn yours.

  14. 8
  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hi Jonathan-

    Thanks much for these thoughtful comments and questions. Let me try to respond to each of your points, and let me know if I haven’t!

    1. I agree with you 100% about the notion of “infinite regress” (a la Jasanoff) but my point is a practical one — we can’t engage these issues absent a process. So rather that suggesting that such a process will eliminate such debates (it won’t) I am suggesting that it will instead bring them into the open which is where I think they should be.

    2. You ask: “if the scientists participating in IPCC believe the back-end process worked and that the report fairly represents objective science (the statement of the twenty), even then, would there be cause for concern that the answers to the front-end questions have nonetheless been influenced in a nontrivial way by the participants’ social, political, or moral norms?”

    My answer – Yes. Absolutely. Because the IPCC is explicitly designed to be “policy relevant” I think that it is absolutely fair and legitimate to ask the IPCC to reveal what criteria that it used to determine what science is relevant, and what is not, even within the front and back ends. For instance, how did the IPCC determine what survives from the full report into the SPM? I don’t know, and no one elese seems to either (it may have been ad hoc which I’d bet as most liklely), but it seems reasonable to want to know.

    3. You ask: “How is your position different from the notion that there is objective science and that a suitable back end can facilitate using science to inform subjective, normative politics without itself overtly politicizing the science?”

    I’m not sure that my position is any different. In my book I call this relationship “science arbitration” (it is also the model of science advice recommended by A. Dessler in his recent book). This model offers the best hope for science and politics to remain distinct (but it only works in some contexts, which I argue in my book). For it to work requires (among other things) a transparent and effect reconciliation of the demand for knowledge and its supply (see Sarewitz and Pielke 2007 linked above). The IPCC falls short of this because it has no systematic way to elicit the demand, so this is in effect black boxed. The IPCC does a good job characterizing the supply of knowledge. The lack of focus on the demand side is a problem in the implementation of the IPCC, and not in the model of science arbitration, which is a valuable one. (For practical consequences of the IPCC’s confusion of its role see Pielke 2005, “Misdefining Climate Change …”).

    4. I don’t get the question in your last paragraph, can you restate?


  16. 9
  17. Jonathan Gilligan Says:


    Thanks for the clear answers to my questions. This is helpful and I think I understand better what you’re saying.

    Your point about needing some process however imperfect is good. I agree with you there.

    It seems that for all the heated words from Andrew Dessler last week that you’re not saying anything radically different from him except that without a transparent process at IPCC, it’s asking a lot for those of us on the outside to accept on faith that politics had little to do with the evolution of the WG1 document. If this is what you’re saying, I fully agree.

    I’ll get back to my last question in a separate comment because I’m having a hard time writing it both clearly and concisely just now.

  18. 10
  19. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks Jonathan- We do seem to be on the same page … as far as Andrew, it seems that I’ve offended him somehow, and he is now taking it out on all of STS (just wait until he learns that I am not of the STS community!;-) Thanks …

  20. 11
  21. Sylvain Says:

    Maybe a little bit of topic but I have some question about the IPCC process:

    How are studies selected for IPCC?

    Are some studies discarded because they don’t show the same conclusion of others?

    (Example:If 10 paleoclimates studies are available. Of them 9 have similar conclusion that the MWP was cooler than and 1 place it hotter. Does the IPCC conclude that MWP was cooler or do they leave the door open to the one that doesn’t show similar result. Do they try to replicate studies results to see which one is more likely.)

    I hope that my question are clear enough.

  22. 12
  23. Lab Lemming Says:

    I don’t know how the IPCC works in particular, but in general, geoscientists accept or reject conclusions based on the methodology used, not the result obtained.

    That being said, unusual results will attract more methodological scrutiny than ordinary results, so dodgy methodology is more likely to be discovered in experiments that give funny answers.

    I wrote a post on how, and how not, to approach results outside the mainstream in (non-climate-related) geochronology here:
    http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ 2006/09/zircon-that-predates-universe.html

    with part 2 at:
    http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ 2006/10/zircon-that-predates-universe-2.html

  24. 13
  25. Sylvain Says:

    Thanks for your answer Mr Lemming