The upside of down

Ehsan Masood
29 November 2006

Africa is the continent whose peoples contribute the least to global warming but whose people are predicted to suffer the most from its effects. The injustice inherent in this situation is one of the greatest challenges facing the architects of global climate-change policy. It also highlights the symbolic importance of Nairobi, Kenya, as the location of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on 6-17 November 2006.

Symbols matter, but reality bites. What many are now calling "climate justice" was not reflected in the conclusions from the conference. Talks on further reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions have been postponed until 2008; so far, both the United States and other advanced developing nations are reluctant to embark on a process that they are united in believing will be harmful to the growth of their economies.

Stalemate of sorts, you might think. Yet it is too easy to see the glass as half-empty. The reality is that a global consensus of sorts on climate change has never been higher. The argument now is not one of principle, but of operational detail, about what to do about climate change. The nature of the questions now being asked reflect the shift in thinking that has already taken place:

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of global climate change:

Tom Burke, "Climate change: time to get real" (29 September 2006)

Simon Zadek, "Accountability: the other climate change" (31 October 2006)

Andrew Simms, "The climate-change choice" (1 November 2006)

John Elkington, "After Stern: fixing the climate machine"
(2 November 2006)

Saleemul Huq & Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change: from science and economics to human rights"
(7 November 2006)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test"
(10 November 2006)

Adam Poole, "Nairobi fallout: the climate-change future" (22 November 2006)

Ian Bray, "Nairobi's missed chance"
(29 November 2006)

  • how (not whether) we should adapt our lifestyles
  • how business, and the business of energy, needs to change
  • how agriculture, business and industry in developing countries can grow more environmentally sustainably, and not repeat the mistakes of developed ones
  • what will be the associated costs of these and other scenarios
  • who will foot the bill.

The change is also registered in the way that world leaders (such as Tony Blair), political celebrities (such as Al Gore), and business leaders (such as BP's John Browne) continue to sound an alarm on global warming. It is easy to forget that just a few years ago, the opposite was mostly true: if the leader of a rich nation or a multinational corporation made a statement on global warming, it would be more likely to question the evidence, or to reject the need to take action.

The enhanced profile of Al Gore himself - today, the confident and entertaining performer of his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth - is an index of the process. At the landmark Kyoto climate conference of 1997, the then US vice-president cut a nervous figure. He flew in late - indeed, he was not expected to come. At the time, he was a lone voice on the issue in the US Senate, which was overwhelmingly hostile to any mandatory carbon limits. In Kyoto he was squeezed by an alliance of US auto and oil companies and ministers from Opec countries; each denied any human connection to global warming and determined to bury talk of a legally-binding effort to cap greenhouse-gas emissions.

Timothy E Wirth was President Clinton's highly-regarded diplomatic point man on climate change and, like Gore, knew there was a problem. He told a pre-Kyoto meeting of British journalists that American lawmakers would never accept cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions until the effects of global warming began to hit the American people. Wirth never made it to Kyoto; he resigned his post a few weeks before the start of the conference.

Policy by conversation

How things have changed. Among the many reasons why politicians and business leaders now sing a different tune, is a quite remarkable group of researchers known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It comprises hundreds of natural scientists and social scientists, drawn from universities, think-tanks, business, government and NGOs, from both developed and developing countries. Every five years, they review the latest findings in climate-change science, policy and economics. Since 1995, the panel's members have progressively been more certain of a human fingerprint on global warming.

The IPCC has enormous influence. The Kyoto Protocol, in which developed countries have agreed to make modest reductions to carbon emissions, owes its existence to an IPCC report that concluded after much debate that the balance of evidence suggested human activities are warming the planet. Its upcoming report (due in February 2007) will likely have a big impact on the 2008 talks on what should be done once the Kyoto mandate expires after 2012.

Just why the IPCC is so special is a moot point. As an organisation whose administration is firmly inside the United Nations system you would expect it to be perched on the fence. It was set up in 1988 jointly by the UN Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation. Governments have a say in who gets to be a member, and a committee of government-appointed scientists sign off the all-important summary reports, which are picked up by the media and politicians. Yet despite this it remains fiercely and resolutely independent.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council/Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006), and co-editor (with Daniel Schaffer) of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press). He has also edited How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network

Among Ehsan Masood's articles in openDemocracy:

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

"Physics in revolution" (October 2006)

The IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, the chairs of its working groups and its ordinary members are appointed by governments - but they cannot be bullied by them. It helps that members do not earn a living from the IPCC. What this means is that anyone outside of a government post can provide an opinion without worrying about losing his or her job.

That said, the IPCC's success in helping to shape policy based on the best available knowledge is also rare. It has spawned a number of copycat initiatives (in agriculture and biological diversity, for example). Each of these initiatives has published world-class scientific reviews, but has failed to repeat the political influence enjoyed by the original. The reality is that most researchers can only dream about having more influence on policy. More often than not, advice will be ignored; and research findings suppressed if they do not conform to existing ways of thinking inside government departments.

Worse still are those who discover that their work is being co-opted to support existing opinions and agendas, as a British parliamentary inquiry into research in policymaking confirms. At the same time, politicians often regard the act of ignoring expert advice as a test of leadership, or (as the late British prime minister James Callaghan once famously said) a rite of passage.

Could we see the likes of the IPCC in other fields? I hope so, but we cannot be certain. In his new book, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation, Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, says that if anything, the voice of the expert in policymaking should expect to be further diluted now that all of us increasingly have access to the same knowledge. Experts, he believes, cannot expect to dominate policy advice as they once might have done.

But if we are all experts now, Homer-Dixon correctly points out that we need to find new models for including many more people in conversations that inform political decisions. We still need criteria for distinguishing between different kinds of advice. In a small way, the IPCC offers answers to some of these questions. The panel's reports are the result of a giant and ongoing conversation: between people from different disciplines, different professional communities, and different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Researchers from some countries have greater representation than others. Some disciplines are more dominant than others, but no individual, community or country has a veto.

The organisation is free to speak truth to power. Some powers may not like what they hear, and others may try to undermine the message. But under the rules that governments have themselves set, they are obliged to take note of what the IPCC is saying and (eventually) act accordingly. It's an achievement in itself, and it suggests that we have only begun to tap the potential of that much-cited but little-practised idea: "global governance".

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