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

Madrid 1995 and The Quest for the Mirror in the Sky


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


The detection of global warming and its attribution to the human cause had always been a task fraught with seemingly irreducible uncertainties. These had not subsided towards the end of 1995 when the pressure was mounting to deliver on political expectations introduced in the late 1980s. In a previous post we considered whether the Nov 1995 IPCC Working Group 1 meeting in Madrid was a tipping point in the corruption of climatology. Here we take a closer look at the science behind the ‘Chapter 8 Controversy’ in a longer essay broken into 2 posts (Part II here).

Mirror, Mirror hanging in the sky
Won’t you look down what’s hap’n here below

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

Could this really be it? The first faint image of man in the sky?

Ben Santer had just placed a transparency under the lens to project this colour pattern high upon the conference wall.  It is the first afternoon of the Working Group 1 Plenary in Madrid, and this great council of nations from across the entire globe is persuaded to study the significance of its strange contours before getting down to their principal task. And so they should study it, for this is a game-changer striking at the nub of what the IPCC is all about. Although obscure, here is an image of the impact of human industry on the atmosphere above. At least part of the recent warming has at last been attributed to industrial emissions. If not for this, then why these near one hundred delegations flown in from all corners of the globe? There they are carefully positioned at arched rows of labelled bureaus across this cavernous auditorium. As they listen to live translations of Santer’s explanation, not a few of them must be gazing up in wonder: Could this really be what man hath wrought?

Continue reading