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: The Last Day of Climate Science (Part II)


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


Continuing from the Last Day The Last Day (Part I)

It is not over yet. We pick up the story again on the last day in Madrid. Yes, Al Sabban has lost the battle to base the D&A section of the Summary on the conclusions of Chapter 8. But now the approval process begins on the re-write of this section. Santer’s draft will now be debated line-by-line, word-by-word, and this debate continues through to the afternoon and into the night. Once again it is the new pattern studies giving the human ‘fingerprint’ that will be most resisted.

Ceramic banner created by Artigas from a design by Miró above the entrance to the Palacio Municipal de Congresos de Madrid

A shambolic Victory of the Virtuous

The Side Group’s redraft of the D&A section of the Executive Summary lists three key areas where recent results contributed to positive attribution.1 The first is the proxy data giving that the 20th century is the warmest century in the last six. The second is the statistical significance of the warming trend in the global mean temperature suggesting that it is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin [see SAR Fig.8.3]. This evidence on global mean temperature is well-known to be weak, continues to be expressed in the negative, had already been challenged by Australia, and it had previously been considered by the IPCC (in the 18Apr95 drafts and in the First Assessment) unable to provide positive support to the human attribution claim [see here]. As if to emphasise this, the third and final area of research, the CO2+ Sulphate pattern correlation studies, is introduced with the words ‘More convincing evidence:’

More convincing evidence for the attribution of a human effect on climate is emerging from pattern-based studies…1

These studies showed ‘pattern correspondences increase with time,’ as would be expected with increasing emissions, and there is a very low probability that ‘these correspondences could occur by chance as a result of natural variability.’ As we noted previously, the exclusion of ‘chance’ or ‘accidental’ variability implicitly leaves open the possibility of the standard century-old candidates for natural external forcing.  Perhaps it was to allay concerns about natural forcing (previously expressed in the commentaries, and so they are likely to have re-emerged in the Side Group) that the next sentence makes a curious reference to the ‘vertical’ pattern studies—as per our ‘Mirror in the Sky’—as also ‘inconsistent with the possible effects of known solar and volcanic forcing.’2

For this claim to be proposed for such a peak summary is curious because exclusion of such natural external forcing is not a major claim of Santer’s studies, nor of the other pattern studies, and no such conclusion is drawn in the Chapter itself. On the contrary, the Chapter repeatedly makes reference to the problem that we really don’t know what the pattern of nature forcing looks like. The best it can say right at the end of the section titled ‘Progress since IPCC 1990’ is that ‘we have now started to see pattern-based studies’ (which are not the flagship ones by Santer) that ‘try to rule out various non-anthropogenic forcing mechanisms.’ Thus, once again we have a situation where a claim is introduced during the inter-governmental negotiations that is contrary to the underlying scientific report, and nor is it derived from the ‘new evidence’ introduced to those negotiations in Santer’s extraordinary presentation.
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Madrid 1995: The Last Day of Climate Science


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


We continue our quest for how human attribution was first established by the IPCC with a close look at the dramas on the final day in Madrid using the Australian Delegation Report as our guide. The first and second essays on the  Chapter  8 Controversy will help readers follow the story, but the main tip for new readers is to catch up on the importance of  Barnett et al 1996 in maintaining the scepticism of all but the published version of Chapter 8. Also helpful will be this key to drafts and meetings:

SAR 18Apr95 draft: the version of the Working Group 1 Second Assessment  Report sent out for review before the deadline for comments on chapters in early July 1995
Asheville Meeting of Lead Authors (25-8 Jul) convened primarily to redraft the Working Group 1 Report’s Summary for PolicyMakers (SPM) in the light of comments and in preparation for Madrid
SAR 9Oct95 draft: the  version of the Working Group 1 Report circulated to the governmental delegates prior to Madrid
Madrid Working Group 1 Plenary (27-29 Nov) convened primarily to give line-by-line approval to the Summary for PolicyMakers (SPM) and to accept the underlying Report.
Rome IPCC Plenary (11-5 Dec)  to accept all the Working Group Reports and give line-by-line approval to the Synthesis Report.
SAR: The IPCC Second Assessment Report as published in June 1996, the Working Group 1 part of which is also referred to as the ‘Scientific Assessment’ [pdf].

Palacio de Congresos de Madrid

The Working Group 1 delegates entered the Palacio de Congresos de Madrid under a ceramic banner created by Artigas following a design of Miró.

If we were to fashion a comic strip, or a cartoon for some fantastic narrative of Madrid, we might imagine our evil antagonist as the chief delegate from some fabulously wealthy kingdom in Arabia.

He would arrive in costume from the North African deserts of sand dunes, oil and Mohammad. He would be Mohammad yes, but Dr Mohammad, a scientist with the best education the West could offer, enunciating graciously the lingua franca of modern diplomacy. And he would have the most wonderful Big Oil title, like:

Economic Advisor to the Minister of Oil for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Dr Mohammad Al-Sabban

The Saudi Arabian delegate:  Dr Mohammad Al-Sabban

And so it is Dr Mohammad Al-Sabban from Jeddah who raises his flag once again to speak. Ever polite, but never afraid to re-state his point if it were slightly misconstrued…and persistent…Is he persistent! He is legendary at the various climate conferences for his ability to keep going, tenaciously labouring a point, sometimes solo against the whole room, politely—And just one more matter if you please Mr Chair—miraculously all day and into the night if necessary, one time even until dawn, only stopping when the Chairman simply said Enough is enough! It is diplomacy by exhaustion. And then it becomes consensus by exhaustion as we shall see.

This is the sort of thing that Tim Barnett could not stand for a moment. Tom Wigley has gotten used to it, as much as a scientist could. But then there are the likes of John Zillman who seem to thrive on it. Zillman won’t tell you that. Instead, he will complain of the talks getting bogged down in some nuance, of stalling and blocking with dubious motivation, of marathons session for which no amount of coffee could prepare. But these types like Zillman still managed to stay calm and hang in through the day and into the night and then up again the next morning. They seem to be blessed with some super-human tolerances for what would do in the heads of any of us mortal folk. Mortal folk like Ben Santer for instance. He could only tolerate so much, and this time he snapped. For a moment he completely lost his cool, barking back at the Saudi: If YOU are so interested in this topic then why had YOU not joined the Side Group to discuss it!
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