IPCC and Policy Neutrality?

November 18th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I have received comments from two scientists, one very high up in the IPCC and strongly worded, complaining about the following short passage I wrote in a book review (PDF) in Nature earlier this year:

“the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has the temerity to claim that it is “policy neutral”, yet its website trumpets its success in advocating the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. As science policy has changed, these actions show signs of schizoid behaviour – the result of efforts to keep science both part of and separate from politics at a time of fundamental change in science policy.”

The scientists both asked for evidence that the IPCC was not “policy neutral” as it claims to be, clearly finding my assertion jarring in some way. The evidence is here on the IPCC www site in two documents. The first is titled “16 Years of Scientific Assessment in Support of the Climate Convention” (PDF)and the second is a retrospective (PDF) by Bert Bolin, former IPCC chair, which describes the close relationship of the IPCC and Climate Convention (or FCCC), and how the IPCC shifted its organization in response to the Convention. It does not seem at all controversial to assert that the IPCC has been closely bound to the Climate Convention, and that this stance is difficult to square with the IPCC’s formal policy of “policy neutrality.”

Indeed, we observed here last December that the Norwegian minister of the environment had raised similar concerns about the politicization of the IPCC because of a too-close relationship with the FCCC. And NASA’s James Hansen also has expressed concerns about the policy implications of the “close binding” between the IPCC and FCCC. Further, even definition of the phrase “climate change” can lead to policy non-neutrality (PDF).

But to make the point inescapable, imagine the reaction if the CIA put up on its web site a document titled, “Three Years of Intelligence Gathering in Support of the Iraq War.” The IPCC has a very important role to play in climate policy. But it seems that it has yet to figure out exactly what that role ought to be. A good place to start would be to clarify what it means by policy neutrality and act accordingly, rather than come after people who point out its inconsistencies.

10 Responses to “IPCC and Policy Neutrality?”

  1. Benny Peiser Says:


    In recent months, the IPCC has come in for sever criticism during debates in the House of Lords and in particular in a recently-published report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs. The British Government has promised a response to these concerns which is expected in the next few weeks.

    In the meantime, Professor David Henderson of the Westminster Business School (and former Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD) has drawn up some constructive proposals how the structural flaws and inherent biases of the IPCC process could be tackled. Clearly, prudent governments and government departments – especially those concerned about the economic implications and the cost-effectiveness of any climate chance policies – should become more involved in setting up effective quality control processes of the IPCC and its workings.

    I have posted Prof Henderson’s paper on “Challenging the IPCC Monopoly” on my website at

    Benny Peiser

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  3. Steve Bloom Says:

    The day we let contrarians like Peiser and former board members of Enron (i.e., the Lords econ committee chair) dictate the course of climate science, we will be in even worse trouble than at present.

    Roger, I think you need to understand that there are an awful lot of people in the world who will ignore the science until such time as their personal level of consumption is threatened. Focusing on legitimating climate science in the eyes of such people is a waste of time.

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  5. MB Says:

    “It does not seem at all controversial to assert that the IPCC has been closely bound to the Climate Convention, and that this stance is difficult to square with the IPCC’s formal policy of “policy neutrality.”"

    If the connection you note was relevant to IPCC reports and findings, this would indeed seem to be a serious matter. It seems however, the other way around – in the light of its research and findings, IPCC, in line with most scientific investigation, has concluded that GW is a serious matter with potentially serious ramifications, and that subsequently any efforts to deal with it should be encouraged. While UNFCCC might not be perfect, its the only real game that’s currently being played anywhere near the ball park of international cooperation in dealing with GW. In that sense the IPCC claim of policy neutrality could be considered warranted.

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  7. Benny Peiser Says:

    Sorry to disappoint you, Steve. But people like myself and other researchers who have been advising members of the House of Lords and its Economic Affairs Committee are already having a conspicuous, and, may I dare say, rather healthy effect on the evolution of British climate change policies.

    You are certainly mistaken if you think the Select Committee’s report will be ignored by the Government. In fact, Britain’s Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has already been pro-active by setting up the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a review that will assess the economic costs and benefits climate change policies such as the Kyoto Protocol.

    One of the main reasons why the government is taking the House of Lords report so seriously is because it was written by highly respected law makers who span the whole political spectrum and who have voiced unanimous concern. Another, perhaps even more significant factor is the growing realisation that the Kyoto Protocol, contrary to the assurances of its advocates, is having a deleterious effect on Europe’s already sluggish economy and its rapidly declining international competitiveness.

    For readers unfamiliar with the cross-party consensus of the House of Lords report, I have listed below the members of the Select Committee. The unanimous support should make it perfectly clear just who serious economic concerns have become in Britain at the highest political level.

    Benny Peiser


    Members of the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs

    Lord Elder (Labour)
    Lord Goodhart (Liberal Democrat)
    Lord Kingsdown (Crossbench)
    Lord Lamont of Lerwick (Conservative)
    Lord Lawson of Blaby (Conservative)
    Lord Layard (Labour)
    Lord Macdonald of Tradeston (Labour)
    †Lord Marsh (Crossbench)
    *Lord Paul (Labour Party)
    *Lord Powell of Bayswater (Crossbench)
    Lord Sheldon (Labour)
    Lord Sheppard of Didgemere (Conservative)
    Lord Skidelsky (Crossbench)
    Lord Vallance of Tummel (Liberal Democrat)
    Lord Wakeham (Chairman) (Conservative)

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  9. Benny Peiser Says:


    Here is another piece of evidence that underlines my point that international climate change policies are no longer reliant on climate science but are increasingly driven by economic considerations.

    Tony Blair has an interesting piece in today’s Independent in which he explains why Britain has adopted this economic paradigm of climate politics. He even stresses that CO2 emission targets, if they were ever to be agreed internationally, would have to be re-adjusted according to the requirements of economic growth.

    In short: A new international climate change consensus seems to be emerging that will restore national and international economics to its proper position as the prime driving force of policy-making.

    Benny Peiser

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  11. Dano Says:

    After your Oreskes fiasco, Benny, you still have access? Shocking.



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  13. Benny Peiser Says:


    The global warming policy debate is now rapidly coming to an end as the international community converges around voluntary, national CO2 emission strategies and technological adaptation. In a statement that will send shivers of shock and dismay up the spines of climate alarmists and the IPCC, the British Government has announced today that Europe is planning to abandon Kyoto-type emission targets for good.

    According to the UK’s Environment Secretary, “Britain is to open the door for other nations to abandon setting compulsory targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions: the principle at the heart of the Kyoto agreement to tackle climate change. Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, has told The Observer she is prepared to accept voluntary targets – a move hinted at this autumn by Tony Blair. The news caused consternation among green campaigners last night. ‘Voluntary targets are not worth the paper they are written on,’ said Stephen Tindale, head of Greenpeace UK. ‘Without mandatory targets [the Kyoto Protocol] is effectively dead.’

    Europe’s new climate policy, developed under Tony Blair’s EU leadership during the last 12 months, is essentially the same as that advanced by the US administration for quite some time. I think it is fair to say that the political earthquake that is being felt around the globe now that Europe has conceded defeat will be regarded as a huge achievement for those of us who, for many years, have been criticising the economically deleterious and politically ramshackle Kyoto process.

    Given that the IPCC has been one of Kyoto’s foremost advocates – as you have rightly deplored – it will be fascinating to see how Dr Pachauri and his colleagues will now be forced to climb down off this high horse.

    Benny Peiser

    P.S. For those of your readers who are harping on about obsolete quarrels and other lost causes, I have got some consoling news nevertheless: North Korea has finally decided today to join the Kyoto Protocol.

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  15. Andrew Dessler Says:

    hi Roger-

    I have a different perspective on this issue. As I discussed in my post a while back, assessment bodies have to be provided the positive questions that they answer. If they think up their own questions, then they become advocacy bodies. Thus, if the questions come from the FCCC, then I don’t think that invalidates the IPCC reports. In fact, that’s how it should work.

    Now you could argue that you’d like different questions considered, and that would be a valid criticism of the FCCC, but not of the IPCC.

    I guess the question I’d like to ask you is who should decide what questions the IPCC reports cover?

    Also, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the IPCC as an organization and as a collection of individuals and the written reports. The written reports are, as I’ve argued before, the gold standard of what we know and how confidently we know it. One cannot say the same about non-peer-reviewed statements by individuals.


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  17. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for your continued thoughtful comments. The role that you describe for the IPCC is indistinguishable from that of the SBSTA of the FCCC (i.e., the group empanelled to answer sceintific and technical questions related to implementation of the FCCC). Under your definition, what distinguished the IPCC from the SBSTA?

    Should, for example, the countries involved in the yet-to-be-defined Asia Pacific Partnership brokered by the US also be allowed to ask questions of the IPCC? How about the G8? G77? OPEC? WHO? UNDP? Joe Barton? Tony Blair? Others? If so, what balance of effort should then be spent by the IPCC adress FCCC questions vs. those from other organizations? Who decides?

    What is this process that you describe for questions to be asked of the IPCC, anyway? I am unaware of any formal process such as you describe. The process is ad hoc and out of sight. In my own area of expertise, if IPCC TAR WGII is the “gold stadard” for what we knew then about the relationship of extreme events and disasters, then it does not do much for my confidence in the effort!

    I would have not problem with the IPCC in fact serving as the FCCC SBSTA. It is when it says it is doing one thing and then does another that problems arise. The IPCC has arguably conflated advice with advocacy.

    For example, consider that chapter 19 of WGII in AR4 (a chapter that I reviewed) is about setting thresholds for defining “dangerous interference” under FCCC Article 2. Please explain to me how such details of implementation of a single policy instrument are appropriate in an assessment self-proclaimed to be policy neutral.

    I am not sure what to make of the recent press reports about Europe abandoning targets and timetables (I’m skeptical), but if true then the IPCC will have found itself answering a bunch of questions no longer of policy relevance to anyone. If so, then a broader approach to considering policy will look a lot more attractive than the current single thread.

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  19. Ian Castles Says:

    Andrew, Your claim that “The written reports [of the IPCC] are … the gold standard of what we know and how confidently we know it” presumably refers only to the Contributions of Working Group I to successive Assessment Reports. There were serious analytical errors in the Contributions of the other Working Groups to the TAR and in the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, many of which are documented in the Lords’ Committee Report and in submissions to the Committee. The decision of the UK Government to establish the Stern Review is itself a recognition of the validity of at least some of the criticisms that have been made of these reports.