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. Continue reading

Tom Wigley: The skepticism and loyalty of CRU’s second director

Following my GWPF report on Hubert Lamb, there was some criticism (in comments and by email) that I was too soft on Lamb’s successor at CRU, Tom Wigley. These critiques fit the common portrayal of Wigley as an eminence gris, a shadowy figure scheming in the background, putting forward the more reckless younger scientists, while carefully maintaining plausible deniability.

Perhaps. And I can certainly see how this view has developed during the second wave of scepticism that arose with the Hockey Stick Controversy. However, this view tends to distort, if not Wigley’s personal intent, then his rôle in the whole saga.

Wigley is surely one of the most important and curious characters in our whole story. Therefore we should be especially careful not to let accusations of malevolence distract from the problem of his enigmatic rôle.  Some may well wish to lay accusations as though of a crime, where intent is crucial to conviction and sentencing. However, this is not our problem. Our problem is the historical problem: the hows and whys of this monumental corruption of our scientific institutions. In this, Wigley’s rôle, rather than his intent, is of primary importance.

For a social phenomenon, a social explanation is the most satisfying. The transformation of the science is easily explained sociologically, where psychology need only come in with its gross emergent social expression—we may call this human nature. If Wigley did not exist, then social forces would have invented him, maybe not at CRU, but somewhere.

Wigley in the economics history of CRU

Tom Wigley

Tom Wigley (Source NCAR)

There are a set of social factors that go a long way towards explaining the successful transformation effected by Wigley at CRU. Indeed, these are of sufficient force that the attribution of a sinister motive or stratagem is hardly required. Consider firstly that many competent and distinguished scientists, however so much they strive, never achieve even one first-author publication in Nature. Such publications are benchmarks of scientific advancement. As far as we know, no historical climatology paper from CRU ever made the grade. Indeed, Astrid Ogilvie (an historical climatologist at CRU from the 1970s) explained by email that it was hard to get their research published in any peer review journals until the specialist journal Climatic Change arrived in 1977. Yet, in 1981, on the CO2 question, Wigley had his name up on top, in Nature, three times in just two months!
Continue reading

Madrid 1995: Was this the Tipping Point in the Corruption of Climate Science?

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MADRID 1995: Tipping Point?The Quest (Part II)—The Last Day (Part II)

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John Houghton writes of it under the heading:  Meetings that Changed the World. He may be right but not only in the way he thinks. Here we consider whether this meeting in Madrid was the moment when climate science gave way under the monumental pressure of politics.

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

In 2008 John Houghton reminisced on the tense meeting ‘without which there would be no Kyoto Protocol’, and he ‘recalls how science won the day’—at least that’s how Nature called it (vol455, 9Oct08)

When Ben Santer arrived in Madrid in the late autumn of 1995, did he know that this conference would change his life forever?

Undoubtedly ambitious, a rising star in the climate modelling scene, he was doing well at age 40 to be leading the writing of a key chapter in the IPCC Second Assessment Report.  In fact, the convener of this IPCC Working Group, John Houghton, had asked him to take it on quite late in the day, only after more established scientists had turned down the offer. Perhaps they had a hunch of what was about to unfold, for it would be Santer’s fate that great forces of history would bear down on the lead author of his chapter at this conference. When he was through with it, when Houghton had accepted the final draft a few days later, climate science would be changed forever. After a long struggle, the levees of science gave way to the overwhelming forces of politics welling up around it, and soon it would be totally and irrevocably engulfed.

The story of Ben Santer’s late changes to Chapter 8 of the Working Group 1 Report is familiar to most sceptical accounts of the climate change controversy (e.g. here & here and a non-sceptical account). However, it is often overshadowed by other landmark events, and so it is usually not put up there in the same league with Hansen‘s sweaty congressional testimony of 1988, with the establishment of the IPCC nor with the Hockey Stick Controversy. Yet, if one looks at the greater controversy in terms of its impact on science, then this conference in Madrid might just surpass them all.

This was the tipping point. This was climate science’s Battle of Hastings, when political exigencies—the enemies of science—broke through the lines and went on to overrun all its institutions. Before Hansen there had always been the rogue scientists hawking some kind of scary scenario to the press or politicians. Indeed, sometimes they listened, and sometime they got all het up about it. Yet the institutions of science held firm. Before the IPCC there had been other politicised scientific institutions—the USA EPA is the prime example (see discussion here). And as for the Hockey Stick, well, by then it was all over, with the Climategate emails confirming that a culture of science-as-advocacy was already endemic in the science informing the IPCC assessments. The travesties of the Third Assessment would be unimaginable without the transformation that had already occurred in the writing of the Second Assessment. Madrid was the tipping point, when everything began to change. Not that everyone noticed it at the time. That the general shift begun at Madrid is much easier to see now with so many years of hindsight. Continue reading