Checks and Balances in Climate Assessment – A Guest Weblog By Hendrik Tennekes

A few weeks ago I promised to write an essay on checks and balances in climate assessments. I realized that this was going to be a tough endeavor. I am not a policy maker by profession, and I want to be fair to all parties in the climate debate. In this essay I will analyze the shortcomings of the search for consensus, and suggest an alternative by which the IPCC Summaries for Policy Makers are replaced by Policy Assessments by Policy Makers. Since all problems of present and future climate hit hardest in countries where poverty reigns, I will follow David Henderson and advocate a strong involvement of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I am not a dreamer. As a long-time civil servant I know only too well that some people will always attempt to find ways of working around the rules of the game if they get a chance. I don’t believe in a make-believe world where everyone is playing fair. But I do believe that the rules of the game can be written such that negative consequences are minimized. A system where the advocates for competing parties have to argue their cases before an independent judge seems preferable above a system that aims for artificial consensus. In the same spirit, I am a fan of the separation of powers in government. A system by which authority is divided among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches makes it hard to hide conflicts of interests and one-sided advocacy attempts.

Fortunately, I do not have to start from scratch. Here in Holland, the Environmental Assessment Agency is charged with the duty to provide independent climate assessments to Parliament and the Executive Branch. It was not easy to make this change in the civil service machinery, however. The State Institute for Public Health and Environmental Quality fought the idea tooth and nail for many years. The civil servants there had become accustomed to doing research and advocacy simultaneously, which gave them plenty of opportunities to directly influence the policy development processes in the Ministries of Public Health and of Environment. But the National Advisory Council on Science Policy argued, successfully in the end, that a research institution cannot be the sole judge of its own research.

This system is not perfect. No system is. The demarcation lines between the tasks of the Assessment Agency and those of various research organizations and environmental groups are trespassed at times. Poorly guarded boundaries encourage two-way smuggling. On the other hand, well-defended boundaries can prevent valuable cross-fertilization. In any case, no boundary is ever completely impermeable, and to pretend otherwise is dangerous. Thus, I feel the agency is doing a fine job overall. Its adaptation report of October 2005 contained no alarmist language whatsoever, and was reasonably fair in comparing the pros and cons of global warming for various sectors of society. In recent months, Agency officers have spoken loud and clear when necessary.

I am not sufficiently knowledgeable on the civil-service situation in the USA, but I was involved in some of the processes that led to the creation of IPCC in 1988. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) realized from the very beginning that their dreams of a United Nations Climate Ministry would be far beyond their grasp. There exists no World Government; autonomous nation states are unlikely to accelerate any progress in that direction. The Constitution of the USA is a testament to the farsighted Founding Fathers, but that example will not be followed soon anywhere else on the globe. An intergovernmental agency like IPCC is about all one can hope to achieve.

The formation of IPCC was affected in no small measure by prominent physicists associated with WMO. The global physics community has dominated the fast track to research funding as long as I can remember. Incessant propaganda claiming that physics is the foundation of all the natural sciences has been very effective. It creates an atmosphere in which the entire world seems to be waiting for the ultimate discovery of the Higgs particle or the next great discovery in astrophysics. The fund-raising successes of the physics community, however, depend in no small degree on the principal weakness of the peer review system. I know this is a sensitive issue, as all respectable scientists revere peer review, notwithstanding its shortcomings. As I see it, peer review is about the best possible way of weeding out substandard research results. It is not perfect; the occasional sloppy paper slips through. But that is not the core of the problem. In peer review, specialists in a particular sub-discipline evaluate the manuscripts of their immediate colleagues only. They share the same set of assumptions on the comparative relevance of their discipline. They are unlikely to interrogate their colleagues on matters beyond the technical accuracy of their work. And they refuse to involve scholars and scientists from other disciplines in the assessment of the broader relevance of their research and of the programs in which their research is embedded. To give a concrete example: the physics community will not allow any biologist or climate scientist to pass judgment on its programmatic choices.

This has worked well for physics. The physics community appeals to peer review to make sure that they do not have to submit their plans for independent assessment. They much prefer to deal with bureaucrats in funding agencies directly, without spies from other disciplines sitting in. They have succeeded in maintaining this routine because such matters as the Big Bang have no relevance to the welfare of society. In other disciplines, such as aerospace engineering or medical research, this would be inconceivable. The Federal Aviation Agency is the national watchdog for the aerospace industry, and the Food and Drug administration is the civil-service assessment agency for the food we consume and the medicines we swallow. I would not want it any other way. I am willing to believe most producers of goods or information are honest, but I do insist on separation of powers, on a system that provides appropriate checks and balances.

How to restructure IPCC, with this many boundary conditions around?
It is easy to criticize the current IPCC process. Are there plausible alternatives? Experience has shown that the scientists who author the three assessment reports find it hard to cope with the conflicts of interest involved when they have to collaborate with the diplomats who have final say over the precise texts of the Summaries for Policy Makers. In earlier years, scientists who felt the Summaries were too alarming quit the IPCC process out of desperation. The current round of negotiations alienated the scientists who felt the final texts were watered down too much by the diplomats. I propose that these dilemmas be avoided by a clear division between the duties of the scientists who write the Assessment Reports and the governmental representatives who write political documents. I prefer that Scientific Assessments be written by scientists and Policy Assessments by policy makers. The idea that Summaries for Policy Makers should be political distillates of scientific documents causes endless confusion; it should be abandoned. Nobody should be party to the scientific assessment first and then show up at the political negotiations as a government representative or scientific advisor to a diplomat. Strict adherence to the maxim that scientists should not act as disguised policy makers and vice versa would make entanglement of interests a lot harder than it is now. I don’t mind that senior scientists participate in the writing of Policy Assessments by Policy Makers, but those that do cannot participate in scientific assessments.

An arrangement of this type solves some other chronic problems as well. The much-proclaimed consensus that the IPCC process is designed to generate is a diplomatic necessity but a scientific monstrosity. I readily admit that policy makers have to aim for consensus. The final products generated by the IPCC process are addressed at the governments that gave IPCC their instructions. Differences of opinion have to be removed by negotiations before the political texts are finalized. In diplomacy, there is no other way. But diplomatic bargaining is a job for diplomats, not for scientists. One cannot bargain with scientific evidence, and one should not bargain with scientific opinions. Repeated claims that 2500 scientists are involved in the IPCC process appeal to primitive perceptions of science in the general public. Scientific opinions have an aura of objectivity; this perception is cleverly exploited by the IPCC staff. I much prefer a diplomatic consensus that stands on its own feet. That way, everyone can see who is responsible for what.

If the assessment process is split in the way I propose, the scientists involved in Scientific Assessments get the breathing space they need to represent the full range of evidence and opinions circulating in the scientific community. They need not aim for artificial consensus and could safely welcome both alarmists and skeptics of various kinds in their midst. However, the freedom to embrace a wide range of opinions will not work if the recruiting process for scientists willing to get involved in writing Assessments remains as obscure as it has been so far. The concept of checks and balances requires that power be distributed among a sufficiently large number of independent bodies, in a manner that is transparent to outside, critical observers.

At present, the selection of scientists contributing to the three Working Groups is done by the anonymous IPCC staff, which itself is recruited informally from the meteorological and environmental communities. I believe that the selection process for contributing scientists should be run by the National Academies of Science of the countries involved, or equivalent blue-ribbon groups in countries without such institutions.

Actually, the idea that Summaries for Policy Makers should be transformed into Policy Assessments by Policy Makers also gives much-needed breathing space to the policy makers. In the arrangement I propose, policy debates can become multi-dimensional and explicit. Let me borrow Roger Pielke Jr’s way of making this clear in response to a draft of this essay:

“The only way for IPCC to become accountable would be to ask that it explicitly engage in a discussion of policy options, with the intent to lay out a wide range of possible actions. To do this in a fair way would require the representation of a plurality of perspectives in the assessment process. If IPCC pretends to engage publicly only in questions of science and impacts, the politics will enter through the back door.â€?

The hardest problem of all is the bureaucracy that runs the show. The IPCC staff has acquired the same habits that bureaucrats everywhere employ. The staff is not required to divulge its internal processes and is therefore free to operate as an advocacy group for a limited range of interests. They do much of the homework behind the scenes, they engage in lobbying wherever they smell advantages, they remain invisible when they recruit scientists for the assessment process, they write draft reports and press releases, and so on. I cannot blame these anonymous bureaucrats. This is the way things work in practice everywhere. Bureaucrats play their games under the table, where the constitutional separation of powers cannot reach them. I know of no way to redress this.

But I did come across an alternative proposed by David Henderson, the former OECD economist who was the lead author of the Dual Critique of the Stern Review a few months ago. Henderson wants to involve the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in climate change assessments. Let me quote from the text of lectures Henderson gave in Australia and New Zealand in February and March of this year:

“My first proposal is for joint action on the part of an international group of central economics departments and agencies in the governments of the thirty member countries of OECD. These various departments and agencies could become involved in the policy process collectively, to good effect and without delay. The mechanism for this is OECD itself. A distinctive feature of OECD is that it is the only international agency in which ministers and officials from these departments and agencies are able, if they so wish, to review systematically issues across the entire spectrum of microeconomic and structural policies. They can do so, with secretariat back-up from the OECD’s Economics Department, in and through the Economic Policy Committee, which is their own committee.â€?

Henderson goes on and states:

“My second proposal is that funds should now be made available to commission, prepare and publish a full independent review of the Fourth Assessment Report. The review would cover the whole range of issues and topics, economic and procedural as well as scientific, and policy-related as well as analytical. Its preparation would be entrusted to an international team of authors, reporting to a suitably constituted steering group.â€?

These proposals appeal to me. The bureaucrats in IPCC have been able to operate without having to worry about countervailing powers. Absent these, mere humans cannot make balanced assessments of anything. If OECD were to take the lead in organizing Assessments of the IPCC assessments, it would establish a level playing field, in which all matters that have been swept under the rug finally will have to be dealt with. If the economists of OECD get involved, the unavoidable evaluation of costs and benefits of various proposals would become an integral part of the assessment process. I am stating this with some emphasis, because environmental bureaucrats have a habit of framing issues such that they are not responsible for the consequences. They refuse to engage in discussions of the cost-benefit ratio of their proposals. They avoid getting involved in questions concerning poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment.

Before I finish this essay with a personal note, I want to quote Daniel Sarewitz, who responded to a draft of this essay with the following comments:

“Part of the problem with science is that we want it to provide answers. We need to understand that science, like humanity, is imperfect, laden with ambiguities and contradictions, and always, always, less literally useful the closer it is to human practice and experience. If we could be comfortable with that, then maybe all these other expectations could be tempered.â€?

I share these concerns. There is no answer to the many dilemmas of climate assessment. We should not expect from science what it cannot deliver, and we cannot expect scientists to be superhuman. But we can and should attempt to make assessment processes a little more accountable. That is what I have tried. I know my proposals leave several problems unsolved, but I take that in stride.

Finally, I am not a lawmaker. Designing the procedures that will establish the much-needed checks and balances in climate assessments requires the efforts of many professionals. I know I have a limited perspective, but I will be happy to participate in deliberations that lead to the desired objective.

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