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Political censorship can't change facts about climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is continually under attack from governments who want to water down or cut the presentation of scientific evidence to excuse their own inaction. Fortunately, they can't change the scientific facts – though corporations continue to pay groups and politicians to lie about them.

The latest IPCC report Mitigation of Climate Change is the third of the studies released by the IPCC as part of its 5th assessment of scientific evidence relating to climate change. This report, published in April, focuses on what needs to be done to keep the warming below 2˚C.

But around 75% of a key chapter reviewing the impact of international climate negotiations and talks so far, was deleted at the finalising meeting in Berlin. It was reduced to less than half a page.  This might have something to do with the total failure of the UN climate change talks to make any impact whatsoever on greenhouse gas emissions which continue to soar.

One of the chapter's authors, Harvard University’s Professor Robert Stavins, who is the leading expert on international climate negotiations, wrote to the co-chairs of Working Group III to express "disappointment and frustration" at what was done to the work he and colleagues had done over five years.

In his latest blog, Stavins asks the question "Is the IPCC government approval process broken?". He takes care to point out that the full report and technical data were untouched and "retain their full scientific integrity, and they merit serious public attention".

It was the Summary for Policymakers – which as far as most politicians, media commentators and members of the public will get – that was censored. Stavins wonders if it should perhaps be retitled "the summary by policymakers".

He wrote to the three co-chairs of Working Group III and the insight his letter gives into the working is of the IPCC is so important, it is worth quoting extensively. He begins:

I am writing to you today to express my disappointment and frustration with the process and outcome of the government approval meetings in Berlin this past week, at which the assembled representatives from the world’s governments, considered and, in effect, fundamentally revised or rejected parts of the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of IPCC Working Group 3 over a period of five long days (and nights).

He says he was "surprised by the degree to which governments felt free to recommend and sometimes insist on detailed changes to the SPM text on purely political, as opposed to scientific bases", and he continues:

The general motivations for government revisions – from most (but not all) participating delegations – appeared to be quite clear in the plenary sessions. These motivations were made explicit in the “contact groups,” which met behind closed doors in small groups with the lead authors on particularly challenging sections of the SPM. In these contact groups, government representatives worked to suppress text that might jeopardize their negotiating stances in international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The contact group included representatives from of a diverse set of countries, ranging from small to large, and from poor to rich.  Hence, I do not believe that the responsibility for the problems that arose are attributable to any specific country or even set of countries.  On the contrary, nearly all delegates in the meeting demonstrated the same perspective and approach, namely that any text that was considered inconsistent with their interests and positions in multilateral negotiations was treated as unacceptable.  In fact, several (perhaps the majority) of the country representatives in the SPM.5.2 contact group identified themselves as negotiators in the UNFCCC negotiations.  To ask these experienced UNFCCC negotiators to approve text that critically assessed the scholarly literature on which they themselves are the interested parties, created an irreconcilable conflict of interest.  Thus, the country representatives were placed in an awkward and problematic position by the nature of the process.

Over the course of the two hours of the contact group deliberations, it became clear that the only way the assembled government representatives would approve text for SPM.5.2 was essentially to remove all “controversial” text (that is, text that was uncomfortable for any one individual government), which meant deleting almost 75% of the text, including nearly all explications and examples under the bolded headings. In more than one instance, specific examples or sentences were removed at the will of only one or two countries, because under IPCC rules, the dissent of one country is sufficient to grind the entire approval process to a halt unless and until that country can be appeased.

However, as Stavins makes clear, the full report remains authoritative, and so here are 15 key points (summarised by Greenpeace – you can read the extracts from the report they refer to here)

The report further shows that if urgent measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by switching to renewable energy there are "significant co-benefits for human health, ecosystem impacts, and sufficiency of resources and resilience of the energy system", and in particular it becomes easier and cheaper to cut air pollution.
Governments will more and more be made to answer to the people for failing to realise these benefits, at such a small cost to the public purse and, as the report makes clear, with a relative small reduction in growth. In the UK, the ConDems have ushered in a new phase of fossil fuel by giving subsidies and tax breaks to unconventional gas corporations whilst simultaneously withdrawing subsidies from renewables. They are guilty as charged.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
9 May 2014

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