Commemorating the WMO-UNEP Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I (Science), Fifth Session, Madrid 27-29, November 1995
In Madrid in 1995, the IPCC scientific assessment process, based on the findings of the latest research, was sorely tested. Had the science not come through unscathed, the integrity of the panel would have been seriously questioned, and governments would have faltered on taking urgent action on climate change, such as the signing in 1997 of the Kyoto Protocol (John Houghton, 2008)
Twenty years ago this month in Madrid, the success of an initiative to make a late change to the report of the Scientific Working Group of the IPCC turned around the fortunes of this United Nations WMO-UNEP panel after it had been pushed out of the climate treaty process.
The late change gave the treaty process legitimation that it desperately required, namely, authoritative scientific validation of all the public speculation about a catastrophe in the distant future. The new claim was that the balance of evidence points towards a discernible human influence on global climate. In other words, this esteemed panel of the world’s top climate scientists had decided that the evidence is now suggesting that the catastrophic change predicted by the theoretical models has already begun.
The immense importance of this success for both the fortunes of the treaty process and for the fortunes of the IPCC was not lost to the meeting chairman who steered through the late change. Sir John Houghton later claimed that, without it, agreement on the Kyoto protocol two years later would have ‘faltered’. He also claimed that, without it, the ‘integrity of the panel would have been seriously questioned’. And yet today it seems that others who should know better (eg the academic historian Oreskes) do not understand how important it was that it was only in 1995 that an official panel had finally come up with a (however so weak) detection claim.
There is currently an idea circulating that in the 1970s a large oil producing company knew that their product was endangering humanity, but yet they hid this knowledge. If this company’s scientists did come up with any science to support such a view, then it must have been extraordinary because it was way beyond anything circulating outside in the scientific community at large. Indeed, it was only in the late 1970s that a concerted effort was begun to investigate the empirical evidence behind what can only be described as hypothetical speculation. Under funding from the US Department of Energy (DoE), scientists developing a program to investigate the ‘CO2 question’ recognized that the evidence required to turn the speculation into science would be the ‘first detection’ of the human influence on global climate. In the early 1980s ‘first detection’ studies took off. Detection was seen as a priority because there were already concerns that the models were overstating the warming effect. But it was also a priority due to the all-important relationship with the policy process, as William Clark put it when introducing a detection discussion in 1982:
Detection studies are an important means of testing models…. Moreover, conventional wisdom holds that nothing will be done about CO2 until, at minimum, a clear signal of actual warming is detected. p213
In other words, back in the 1980s, these scientists knew in theory what Houghton realized in fact more than a decade later when Madrid’s ‘discernible human influence’ became the catch-cry of the treaty talks.
It is true that maverick scientists had made detection claims before. The first claim was made by a British steam engineer in 1938 (and repeatedly with new evidence through to the 1960s) but this was roundly rejected by the British meteorological establishment. When the warming scare started to take off in the 1980s, it became clear that a detection claim was desirable for the fortunes of climate science, but, however so much it mattered, the body of scientific opinion refused to budge. This was powerfully demonstrated in 1988 when perhaps the most famous detection claim was made by NASA’s James Hansen in a congressional testimonial in the summer of 1988. The huge scientific backlash to this ‘grandstanding’ made it clear that no official panel would ever uphold it. Go back to the DoE group that formed in the early 1980s under Mike MacCracken’s leadership and you can see why. They only ever saw themselves as preparing the way for detection. At this time the first big international study got underway. When it produced its report in 1985, it was clear that the situation had not improved.
The organization and the funding of this international study was around an early push for treaty action led by the head of the UNEP, Mustafa Tolba. The ‘Empirical Climate Studies’ section of what became the ‘SCOPE 29’ report was drafted by Tom Wigley’s team at the Climatic Research Unit in the UK. They concluded that ‘detection was not yet possible’. When Wigley was asked to coordinate the writing of the detection chapter of the (first) IPCC report, he came to the same conclusion. This time he was asked to speculate on when it might be possible to detect the human influence. His answer was that we would need another 0.5 C warming and that this is not likely for decades. When the IPCC produced an update for the introduction of the Framework Convention on Climate Change at the 1992 Rio ‘Earth’ Summit, still their position had not changed. After it was decided that the IPCC should produce another full report, the coordination of the drafting of the detection chapter was passed from Wigley to a relatively junior scientist, Ben Santer. His draft was as skeptical as ever, with a highly skeptical conclusion preceded by an answer to the same question Wigley had been asked. This time speculation about when detection might be achieved was eschewed by the response: ‘We don’t know.’ However, in the drafting, Santer had introduced a seed of hope.
In his introduction, Santer made a detection claim. This was awkward because it clearly did not match the rest of the chapter, and especially not the deeply skeptical conclusion. At the last lead authors’ meeting in Asheville in the summer of 1995 this was pointed out. However, also at Asheville, Santer began to use some of his own recent unpublished work to support this claim. The claim and the work was challenged in long and vigorous debates that dominated the Asheville meeting. Yet, for the ‘final’ version of the chapter, Santer retained the claim, if in a weaker form, and it remained incongruous with the rest of the chapter—especially with the skeptical conclusion. And so we come to Madrid.
The final version of the report was in. The main task for the country delegates meeting in Madrid that November was to accept the report and agree by consensus to a brief summary – the summary for policymakers. The meeting should have been all about debating how best to summarize the report. But under Houghton’s direction what actually happened was that Santer’s new unpublished work was again used to push for a change to the report so that it could be brought into alignment with a new detection claim to appear in the policy makers’ summary. This push succeeded, the concluding summary was removed and the rest of the chapter was modified to make way for the detection claim made prominent in the policy makers’ summary.
The unpublished work that Santer presented at Asheville was never hailed by his peers as the break-though so claimed at Madrid. The criticism begun at Asheville continued when the work was published the following year—with some especially damaging criticism soon formally published concerning the date range of data that Santer had decided to use.
Elsewhere we have explained the historical significance of this achievement of a detection claim for the second IPCC assessment, but here are the key points:
- It allowed the WMO and the UNEP to maintain a role in the treaty process with their panel re-established as the scientific authority for action.
- When controversy broke out, various institutions of science chose to support the IPCC despite concerns over the science and the process—this affected a closing of the ranks where scientific dissent became much less tolerable.
- Scientists who were prepared to produce results in support of the warming alarm could do so in the knowledge that criticism of their claims would be muffled.
- After Madrid the coordinated industrial lobby (the so-called ‘Carbon Club’) collapsed. Instead, many large companies switched to promote themselves in a ‘green’ image in support of climate action.
None of this happened right away and Madrid was not the only cause of these changes. But, on all these points, Madrid was a turning point. At the first conference of parties (CoP1) to the UN climate convention in early 1995, the IPCC was in deep trouble. At CoP2 in 1996 the IPCC had been fully redeemed by its detection claim. Now, 20 years later, as we approach CoP21 in Paris, it pays to reflect how different it might have been had the Santer-Houghton detection push not succeeded in Madrid.