Enter the Economists Part II

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Enter the Economists: Part IPart IIPart III
Summary and Discussion at Bishop Hill

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Continuing our look at the Price of Life Controversy, we find how the global sustainability movement influences the IPCC and especially through the re-constituted Working Group III.

But first, here is a brief chronology to guide the reader:
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1987 Our Common Future published by the United Nations
1988 The Changing Atmosphere Conference in Toronto (also: Hansen’s Congressional Testimony; Margaret Thatcher gets involved; the IPCC formed)
1990 The IPCC First Assessment Report published
1992 Rio Earth Summit in June introduces the UN FCCC which defers to the IPCC for its scientific assessment. At its 8th meeting (11-13 Nov) the IPCC re-directs its Working Group III to the ‘Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change’ for the 2nd Assessment.
1993 The inaugural plenary of the re-constituted WG III (4-7 May) proposes a work plan orientated to the sustainable development goals of the Earth Summit. This is approved by the 9th IPCC meeting (29-30 June) and the selection of lead authors begin.
1994 Four WG III workshops (Jan-July) in Japan, Brazil, Italy and Kenya involving a broader community of experts. A first draft of the Report is circulated for expert review. A revised draft is prepared and circulated for governmental and NGO review and then a final draft is produced before the year is out.
1995 The Price of Life Controversy: with the final draft of the chapters in hand, a lead author’ meeting (Paris 22-24 Mar) prepares a draft of the Policymaker’s Summary for the intergovernmental Plenary and its line-by-line approval process. At the same time, and days before delegates depart for the first Conference of Parties to the FCCC (April, Berlin), India sends a letter [Kamal Nath, 24mar95] to other poor country delegates raising concerns about the damage assessment in Chapter 6. The campaign during CoP1 includes strong words in the India’s delegations official address [Kamal Nath, 6Apr95]. Three months later, the WG III Plenary in Geneva (25-28 July) fails to agree on the Summary nor ‘accept’ the underlying Report. The Plenary reconvenes in Montreal (11-13 Oct) where the Report is accepted and the Summary approved. However, this is only after the Chapter 6 authors have their dissent from a number of points recorded in the minutes. The Controversy continues in the science press with both sides now calling for the removal of the Chapter from the Report before its final submission to the 11th meeting of the IPCC (11-15 Dec). The controversy dies when this meeting accepts the Report and Summary with a minimum of fuss. The Chapter 6 authors never accept the Summary, claiming that its Part 7 contains distortions and interpolations of their findings.

(For the larger context see this Timeline.)

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Channeling Sustainability Enthusiasm

Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India, addresses the UN Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 1972

1972: UN Stockholm Conference: Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, links environmental protection with development goals.

The global environment movement bursts onto the world stage in 1972 with the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. It is here that the seeds of sustainable development enthusiasm are planted and the UN Environment Programme is born. 

But the great manifesto of sustainable development does not arrive until 1987 with the UN Report, Our Common Future.

The vision encapsulated in the ‘Brundtland Report’ is to bring together the apparent conflict between economic development and environmental protection as the twin goals in a new global project.  Across the world the successive public hearings of the Brundtland Commission attempt to give voice to those previously voiceless in the inter-governmental discourse. Aid workers and environmental activists are actively sought, as are the views of the poor and illiterate living close to nature. Indeed, such folk as Amazonian rubber tappers take to the microphone, and sound bites of their contributions remain preserved in the Report.  But ‘equity’ has two dimensions in sustainable development—not only across the globe but also forward through time: Our Common Future also invokes the voiceless voice of future generations so as to ensure that today’s prosperity does not spoil the natural and economic inheritance of those yet to be born.

Our Common Future, UN, 1997, Front cover

1987: The Brundtland Report, the sustainable development manifesto

Riding a wave of enthusiasm generated by the Report, Gro Brundtland headlines a charismatic and prophetic billing for perhaps the most evangelical Climate Conference of all time. The International Conference on the Changing Atmosphere issues from Toronto into that baking North American summer of 1988 a concluding statement that famously begins:

Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.

The Conference Statement [pdf] is primarily concerned with the ‘implications for global security’ of atmospheric damage, and, most alarmingly, the damage caused by greenhouse gases. But the ensuing ‘Call for Action’ is much broader and includes a call for the reversal of the current net transfer of resources from developing countries.

Much to the consternation of the American political right, Climate Change Alarmism has always been much more than about fixing the climate. Even before Rio, the movement for action on global warming has already emerged the great hope and channel for all the aspirations of the global ‘sustainability’ movement—including the aspiration for global economic justice.

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Enter the Economists: The Price of Life and how the IPCC only just survived the other chapter controversy

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Enter the Economists: Part IPart IIPart III
Summary and Discussion at Bishop Hill

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1Apr95Pearce_PriceOfLifeHeadline

What price Climate Change? Before Stern and Garnaut there was Pearce. Chapter 6 of the IPCC Working Group III 2nd Assessment by David Pearce et al is now forgotten, yet it caused the first public controversy in the history of the IPCC. This chaotic assessment of scant and confused costings of expected damages was under attack before it was even drafted. The ensuing scandal over the price of life among the world’s poor dragged the IPCC into an embarrassing political controversy that broke at the very first Conference of Parties to the climate treaty. It was a taste of things to come, with authors simultaneously publishing what they assessed, leaking drafts, and pressure at the intergovernmental Plenary to change the chapter in conformity to a re-write of the Policymaker’s Summary. But there were important differences also. While later in Madrid Ben Santer was entirely complicit in the push to change his Working Group I Chapter 8, David Pearce and his crew held their ground against the onslaught in workshops, plenaries and finally through the press. Indeed, the authors won the battle for scientific independence, but at what price?

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Part 1: An Uncommon Activist

At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees,
then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest.

Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.
Chico Mendes

Chico Mendes. That man is a good place to start. Or at least, his death. Gunned down in his home out in the wild west, almost as far west as you can go into Brazilian Amazonia.

Barefoot and illiterate, growing up into colonial serfdom, it was all Chico knew since before he was ten years old to be out in the rainforest tapping the rubber trees. But when news of Chico’s death reached a certain violinist in London, it would turn his life around and launched him on a collision course with IPCC Working Group III. The onslaught against the Working Group began in 1993 and continued through the next two years as the co-chairman, Jim Bruce, tried and tried again to get the Second Assessment Report over the line. He nearly didn’t make it.

Protests against the method of costing the damages of climate change in this Report’s Chapter 6—where the death of the world’s poor is valued much less than the death of the rich—turned a large grouping of poor nation delegates against the Report, against the authors, and against the rich nations from whence they came.  A wedge driven deep in the fault line already opening between rich and poor nations at the climate treaty talks, the Price of Life Controversy was orchestrated by one man, our violinist, Aubrey Meyer.

Aubrey Meyer playing the violin in front of a UNFCCC slide

Aubrey Meyer illuminates climate change mitigation with music

This unlikely course of events began back in 1988 when Meyer was seeking a theme for a new musical. He could hardly have missed the reports of Chico’s bloody demise as they came through on the eve of Christmas. At the end of a year when global environmentalism broke into the mainstream as never before, the news was everywhere; for this humble rubber tapper, born a nobody, died famous, world famous.

What began with a determination to preserve the livelihood of the local tappers, by 1985 had converged with the global campaign to preserve the entire Amazon.  Advocating the sustainable development of the forest that sustained them, the united rubber tappers of Brazil formed under Chico’s leadership to become the cause célèbre of the global environmental campaign to preserve not only the Amazon but threatened rainforests everywhere. The rise and demise of Chico Mendes captured the imagination of the entire movement – a martyr to environmentalism immortalised in prose, film and song.

Indeed, this Amazonian tragedy held Aubrey Meyer captive that Christmas, but there never was a Chico Mendes musical. Instead, the tapper’s story sparked the musician’s epiphany, launching his life in an entirely new direction.  Anyone who has ever heard Meyer speak will tell you that the passion for music never left him. But soon Meyer began to discover new talents, acknowledged by friend and foe, as he threw himself into the services of Chico’s cause—a cause that is as much about defending the global environment as it is about defending the rights of the poor.

David Pearce (economist)

David Pearce, the co-coordinating lead author of Chapter 6, died in 2005 aged 63.

When Meyer’s own brand of activism arrived at the climate talks, it was seen to be threatening what others saw as the greater purpose—a general agreement for action on climate change. His aggravation of this rich-poor split seemed to delight parts of the business lobby as much as it frustrated the environmental establishment.  Most of all, Meyer’s intervention exasperated the expert economists drafting Chapter 6. As we shall see, the dispute was never really resolved. When the controversy was over and the Report published, David Pearce, the coordinating lead author, remained insulted and perplexed that their expert assessment could be called into question by the government delegations due to the confused and spurious reasoning of this enthusiastic outsider with his ‘silly campaign of misinformation and abuse.’  In fact, to his dying day, Pearce remained convinced not only that Meyer served the interests of the coal lobby, but that they were funding the whole absurd charade.

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