The scientists and the apocalypse

The meeting of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Sundsvall, Sweden, August 1990, witnessed a Third World revolt that was premeditated and forewarned. It had already begun in the previous working group meetings set to develop international policy responses to the climate crisis. But only in Sundsvall, under the leadership of Brazil, did it succeed in smashing this carefully conceived science-to-policy process at its very nexus. Within months the revolution was complete.

Cover of the foreign edition of Climate change: the factsAt the United Nations General Assembly that December, the climate treaty process was taken from the IPCC and its UN parent bodies—the Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). Instead, a new negotiating committee would report directly to the General Assembly, where the poor countries commanded an overwhelming majority. The IPCC, dominated by scientists from rich countries, was directed to serve this new committee in the interim, until a subsidiary body for technical advice could be established. As for the two peak science-policy organisations who first conceived the IPCC, by winter 1991 they were out in the cold.

This banishment from the treaty process was particularly shocking for UNEP. In the afterglow of its success with the ozone treaty, it was coming up to the 20th anniversary of its inception at the 1972 UN Stockholm conference where global environmentalism was born. Riding a new wave of environmental consciousness, another grand conference was in the planning to mark the anniversary. The Rio ‘Earth Summit’ of 1992 would be the biggest UN talkfest to date, with its policy centre-piece The Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). But few would ever guess just how much this Convention was a political triumph not for UNEP but for the conference hosts, Brazil. Its success would set in train the role of the poor countries in the climate treaty negotiations where the talks would stall and stall again with their repeated attempts to use the pretext of warming mitigation to increase the flow of aid.

In The Age of Global Warming Robert Darwall details how global environmentalism concentrated itself onto the global warming scare. Here we take up with a group of activist climate scientists, tracing how they enter this political game, how the greater politics of the UN quickly overwhelmed and corrupted their science, and, finally, how the academies of science were soon dragged down with them….

This is the opening of my essay in the new book Climate Change: the facts, available in ebook from Amazon, or in print from the IPA.

Enter the Economists Part II


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


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:
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.)


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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