Remembering Madrid ’95: A Meeting that Changed the World

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.

Houghton's Account of IPCC Working Group 1 meeting in Madrid 1995 in Nature 9 Oct 2008

Sir John Houghton’s account of the IPCC Working Group I meeting in Madrid appeared in Nature, 9 Oct 2008

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.

Image from Santer's Detection and Attribution presentation, Working Group 1 Plenary, Madrid, Nov 1995

For more on this image and its role in the detection claim, see here.

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.


For  more on the origins and impact of the first IPCC detection claim see here and here.


4 thoughts on “Remembering Madrid ’95: A Meeting that Changed the World

  1. 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.

    A very interesting question, Bernie. And one that definitely deserves consideration. But from the perspective of one (among many in the last 6 years) ..

    It seems to me that Santer-Houghton were both far too “rooted” (for want of a better word!) in the “old” model (you should pardon my use of the word!) of controlled and limited “communication” for their own good and/or that of their “cause”.

    It’s taken the movers and shakers the better part of six years to even acknowledge that “Copenhagen 2009” – the last event at which the Big Deal was to be sealed – was a “failure”!

    I could be wrong but, from everything I’ve read in the intervening years, the baskets into which the IPCC/UNFCCC have chosen to put their respective eggs – not the least of which are “tweets” and videos by the scarey score – are not likely to yield a more satisfactory outcome.

    Not to mention that, in the intervening years, the world has very sadly changed. And – as far too many recent events have shown – not for the better.

    IMHO, this “change” is in no small measure thanks to the influence, ineptitude and corruption so prevalent in the IPCC/UNFCCC’s “parent” i.e. the United Nations and its ever-increasing multiplicity of arms, elbows, hands, fingers etc, – many of which are displayed by the (un-mandated) United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

  2. From following what Obama says, it is not necessary anymore to stick to the “facts” as even your NOAA/NASA and IPCC people say. You can just make up stuff (increases in storms, droughts, war, refugees, loss of the Great Barrier Reef, drowning of Pacific Islanders, decline of polar bears, 5C increase by 2100 …).

    In 2009 there was still a need to appear fact based. That is why the Climategate emails were so damaging. In 2015 you don’t need to be fact-based, just threat-based. Whatever worst case scenario an individual thinks MIGHT occur is sufficient to inspire belief in the necessity of action.

    The IPCC is commonly derided as too conservative in its conclusions. And that is because it does not deal in facts but imagined, i.e. modeled, outcomes. Since the imaginings are no longer constrained by observations, ANY imagining was somewhat similar weight.

    When someone yells “Fire!”, people do not stop to see if there really is a fire, or even if there is a hint of smoke – they run madly (the reason it is a crime to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire). The eco-liberal worried man is beyond the IPCC and COP21 technical findings. He is yelling “Fire!” in concert with his associates. Actual fire or even smoke is no longer material to his belief in the actuality of a threat.

    The taking place of COP21, IMO, is now sufficient evidence of CAGW to the believers. Facts are no longer material. The IPCC could never put out a new technical report without damaging its claim on the truth. In reality, it might be better they never do so. The alarm is now so much greater than observationally constrained models that an AR6 would damage the Cause.

    Perhaps this will be the outcome of COP21: a “treaty” without teeth, a decision that the IPCC AR5 is sufficient, and a rework of the IPCC to produce adaptation and mitigation models only. It would be a neat trick.

  3. Gordon Dobson worked out in 1919 that wind strength was most extreme in the vicinity of the tropopause where ozone rich air interacted with ozone poor air over a vertical interval of about 6km giving rise to what today we call the jet stream. De Bort, the meteorologist who launched more than 200 hydrogen balloons into the air from Paris, back in 1898 found that the tropopause was lower in low pressure cells (more ozone in the air) than in high pressure cells. Dobson started measuring total column ozone in 1924 and found that it mapped surface pressure. He measured 20% more ozone on the margins of a high pressure cell than at the core. .Elevated ozone in low pressure cells accounts for the circulation of the air in so called ‘cold core’ polar cyclones generating the lowest surface pressures on the surface of the planet and according to their collective intensity move atmospheric mass from high to mid and low latitudes and across the hemispheres.

    Given the above, it is plain that surface wind (and temperature) varies according to the ozone content of the air near the tropopause in a top-down mode of causation. Houghton followed Dobson at Oxford and it appears that he vigorously suppressed the notion that the ozone content of the air is related to surface pressure and wind.

    The Oxford version of Dobsons Biography (last revised 2008) insists that the stratosphere is warmed by short wave radiation from the sun. Dobson makes it plain in his own papers that he always believed that the stratosphere is warmed by infrared radiation from the Earth. It absorbs at 9-10um at the wave length that carries the greatest proportion of energy exiting the surface, absorption heavily dependent upon surface pressure… greatest efficiency in the troposphere.

    Houghton and Santer’s coup in Madrid preceded the publication of Kalnay et als reanalysis by a year. The reanalysis provided for the first time comprehensive data for the atmosphere in high latitudes and enables us to see that natural temperature variability is tied to polar processes that determine the ozone content of the air. Surface temperature variability is strongest in January under Arctic influences and June under Antarctic influences….if you care to look.

    The top-down mode of causation for climate variation is now acknowledged in the work of Baldwin and Dunkerton on the Annular Modes that are generated by ozone heating in high latitudes……but these guys who are wedded to AGW haven’t been able to see that just yet and all their colleagues and successors of Houghton at the IPCC hate the idea.

    History is so much fun. There are two classes of persons in the climate game. There are observers like de Bort and Dobson and proselytisers like Houghton and Santer who work in the political domain.

  4. Erl,
    You hark back to the motivation for the interest of meteorologists in the ozone layer during the inter-war years. This motivation makes sense to me: ozone is generated (and destroyed) up top in a process that is accepting energy from the sun, while ozone drifting low varies with the weather patterns below. It is apparent to me that Houghton was part of the shift away from this view at Oxford, but you seem to know more about that than me!
    Your modern argument for a top-down mode of causation is inviting, but an assessment of it may be beyond me.
    As for Houghton, I am constantly surprised at his influence. In the IPCC First Assessment process it was astounding. With so many forces at play it would not have been easy, but he managed to empowered the science-activists and allowed them to avoid so many difficulties that may have brought the whole thing down. That’s it: by rights, the process should have collapse in uncertainty and doubt—there was no science to speak of—if not, then collapse in a lack of scientific consensus for the activist’s view. He even managed to talk Budyko out of an approach to climatic forecasting using analogues in the past. Budyko’s view was that climate history showed that a little more green-housing is likely to be pretty good all around (and especially for Russia!). Complicated! It was so much easier to stick with theoretical models. But then there had to be some empirical confirmation.
    I don’t think anyone in the field really thought the work that Santer presented at Asheville (and then Madrid) was it. It was convenient, and promoting it was expedient. A few years after it was published, this would have been all too clear. And so when he later won awards, that only gives recognition to the importance of expedience to the perpetuation of this science.

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