If you are looking for a good synthesis of the IPCC appraisal of recent climate science findings, don’t expect to see it on the upcoming Summary for Policy Makers. You’ll be disappointed. It will likely be just a watered down political piece, rather than a set of substantive scientific recommendations to policy makers. For substance and scientific soundness wait to read the Technical Summary or prepare to face the one thousand and so pages of the full report instead.

At least this is what some IPCC members are saying after the 33rd Plenary Session held in Abu Dhabi last month. Plenary discussions were too slow. Procedures are becoming too bureaucratized, especially under the new rules. They were created as a response to controversy raised by the leakage of email exchanges among climate scientists from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit servers, and after some procedural errors were found in the last report. Procedures have become much more time-consuming, and working for the IPCC is a voluntary, though prestigious task.

Scientists are also voicing concerns about the political screening of their texts by climate negotiators. One of them told me that the approval of IPCC’s final policy document is reproducing the pattern of negotiation common to the Climate Convention meetings.

I’ve observed in detail climate negotiations in Copenhagen, at COP15, and interviewed several negotiators to write a book on climate change politics. I’ve repeated this coverage for COP16, in Cancun. I’ve seen how they manage to bracket almost all substantive clauses, only to strike them out, leaving no more than general statements at the end. Most negotiators are masters of text rephrasing. They do it to reduce the degree of commitment or dilute substance, aiming at a comfortably bland final text. If anything similar is happening to the review of IPCC’s summary for policy makers, the final outcome may indeed be useless.

Scientists and diplomats have very different mindsets and they tend to structure their discourse in contrasting ways. They have cultures that are even more apart from each other than the Two Cultures referred to by C.P. Snow in his classic comparison between Science and the Humanities. Snow argued that the problems of communication between these two cultures was a major obstacle to the use of science for the advancement of societies. Imagine what a hindrance the breakdown of communication between Science and Politics could be for the adoption of scientific solutions to climate change.

Part of this problem may be a result of plenary governance. The attitude and authority of the plenary chair makes an enormous difference. If one compares the disastrous management of the  final COP15 plenary by Danish prime-minister Lars Rasmussen, in Copenhagen, with the able management of the final plenary of COP16, in Cancún, by Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa, one will find an abysmal difference. Prime Minister Rasmussen’s attitude has contributed in no small amount to the crisis of confidence among parties that led the Copenhagen final session to the well-known dismal ending. The able and firm attitude of Ambassador Espinosa, on the other hand, has helped confidence-building, leading to a final outcome far beyond expectations.

One should not, however, underestimate the cultural divide as a major factor in the troublesome transactions between scientists and political negotiators. They are literally worlds apart. They are set apart not only by their skills, knowledge and outlook, but also by their perceptions and expectations. The language of science is objective and evidence-oriented. The language of politics is symbolic and interest-oriented. Scientists adopt a long view. Politics a short one. Many negotiators are still bordering a state of denial, whereas several scientists are foreseeing imminent disaster. Negotiators fear that writing down the scientists’ warnings about climate change risks as they are formulated would amount to accept a number of their recommendations as binding. They’d rather have a set of loose guidelines. Scientists, on the contrary, want policy to follow science, not politics.

The IPCC is actually moving closer to realpolitik. This cultural divide at the global arena has been paramount in many domestic policy-making settings. It explains why many countries are moving so slowly to develop scientifically sound mitigation and adaptation policies. Paradoxically many political decision-makers are delaying action because they believe science and technology will prevent disaster at the end of the day. Nevertheless, crossing this divide from both sides is a sine qua non to effective climate change policies.


  1. keyloggers
    July 11, 2011, 8:55 pm

    Certainly. I join

    told all above. Let’s discuss this question.

  2. Anthony St. John
    San Diego
    June 2, 2011, 1:25 pm

    You are much to kind to the politicians, especially the special interests that control them.

    President Eisenhower warned America about his fear of the power of money in his 1961 Farewell Address, and both politicians and academics have been proving his point ever since by taking the money and marginalizing Ike’s warning.

    The latest worst case scenario proving the power of money is the fact that UC Berkeley’s new Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s National Ignition Facility’s highest priority is to maintain our cache of nuclear weapons that threaten the survival of humanity instead producing fusion power to end the tyranny of CO2 that threatens the human race with out of control climate change disasters that we have been experiencing throughout the world already. When UC administrators, regents and faculty throw humanity under the bus you know without a doubt that the power of money/greed that has destroyed all previous civilizations shall most certainly destroy ours.

    Killer heat waves, droughts, desertification, ocean acidification, reduced clean water sources and crop reduction, polar melting, etc. are already resulting in genocidal wars due to dwindling resources, out of control health disasters like E-Coli, extreme weather deaths, etc. No scientific journal documents these threats better than National Geographic.

    Meanwhile our politicians enable the talk-endlessly-to-buy-time business objections dedicated to maximizing profits today regardless of increasing threats to future generations.

    The key fact is that the leaders of all the world’s institutions, including political, scientific, academic, economic and religious have failed the tests of integrity that humanity requires to guarantee survival.

    Ike was the last great American leader to follow in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers and even he was marginalized by the powers that worship greed.

    We must create a new culture of leadership dedicated to protecting long term quality of life for future generations instead of short term profit/greed maximization that threatens humanity. This is supposed to be what American Democracy, together with capitalism, could do better than any other institutions in history.