Jia Min: How is the IPCC used by policymakers?

In the first few days of the COP, I was rather dejected at IPCC scientists’ persistent failure to address how policymakers could use their results and the specific ways they could, especially since they describe their work as policy-relevant (always while rejecting that it is political or politically motivated, of course). When I asked this question to the main spokespersons for the IPCC at a small side event, they scoffed slightly, before one of them told me that the whole reason why people were talking about 1.5 degrees at this COP was because of the IPCC report, and another asked me, “Do you know how the UNFCCC came about in the first place?” to which I was stumped. It turned out that the first IPCC report completed in 1990 had served as the basis for the UNFCCC. These responses, together with the key messages that “Every half a degree counts”, or “Every year counts”, disappointed me for a few reasons:

  • 1.5 degrees could be a target determined with the science in mind, but was ultimately the result of political negotiations: what science can tell us that the impacts of 1.5 degrees should be acceptable as opposed to 1.4 or 1.3 degrees? (I would grant, however, that this sentiment was also due to my ignorance of how the world came to decide on 1.5 degrees as well when commissioning the IPCC to write a report comparing effects of 1.5 degrees vs. 2 degrees.)
  • Bringing into existence the UNFCCC was a little bit like recalling an outdated CV item which did not address how more recent IPCC publications and activities (with their level of detail and the efforts that go into each) could tell us more than what has already been obvious in less recent publications.

IPCC’s special side event held on 5 Dec, “Climate science for policy”, did not even bother with asking itself that question, focusing instead on sharing findings one could already see in the Summary for Policymakers (e.g. that pathways with low energy demand, low material consumption and low-carbon food carry the highest benefits for sustainability) without describing specifically how countries could use the models for developing national policy, for example, or making choices as to how to achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions.

After some discussions with my fellow Yale-NUS COP24 peers, I temporarily accepted a few possible reasons why IPCC did not seem to be able to give a good answer, and in fact didn’t seem particularly bothered by that:

  • IPCC gains its ‘quotability’ (or usability) from how there is ‘something for everyone’ in the report (i.e. it can be used to justify multiple courses of action, even if those courses of action are contradictory)
  • (related but not exactly the same) IPCC gains its legitimacy from appearing non-partisan and producing completely neutral knowledge
  • For the above two reasons, IPCC is unable to give specific examples of how countries can choose to use the report and what types of actions it should justify, beyond broad platitudes like every degree mattering.
  • IPCC remains policy-relevant insofar as it shifts the discourse (don’t worry, I too am frustrated by the ambiguous meaning of discursive power). By choosing to focus on 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees and articulating clearly the differences between the two, or by choosing to model particular pathways as opposed to others, IPCC is already influencing policy, by choosing to highlight questions and answers for which there is sufficiently high confidence. Scientists, in this way, wield power because of the questions they choose to answer which influence the level of confidence of particular questions. Conversely, however, policymakers wield power over scientists because after all, the topics that the IPCC Special Reports are written on are based on recommendations and discussions and subsequent approval by the 195 countries involved in the UNFCCC (consistently mentioned by the IPCC).

That said, towards the end of the first week of COP, and now having observed from afar the reluctance towards welcoming the IPCC Special Report, I realised how I had missed some very key messages of the SR1.5 that are rather contentious and that genuinely testify to the values that do motivate science (or humanity in general). I give 2 examples below.

(Key messages taken from Thelma Krug’s slides (Vice-Chair of the IPCC) at the Brazil pavilion’s side event on 7 December, on the science-policy interface)

Example 1: “Efforts to curtail GHG emissions may themselves negatively affect the development ambitions of some regions more than others and negate sustainable development efforts.” (and various versions of such a statement urging for attention to be paid to equity)

This statement appears to be a scientific statement, but is a statement that is politically useful to states who are in the “affected more than others” category that calls for financial flows to be directed towards them. This statement challenges us to think about what equity means to us – equity being something many humans care about albeit define differently – and in so doing invokes strong feelings and action even if it is backed by science.

Example 2: “1.5 degree Celsius pathways that include low energy demand, low material consumption, low GHG intensive food consumption have the most pronounced synergies and lowest number of tradeoffs with respect to sustainable development and sustainable development goals.”

The IPCC report also compared climate change mitigation goals against those of the sustainable development goals with a trade-off analysis of sorts. At first glance this result appears not to matter if we want to pursue the SDGs and climate goals separately. Yet it does because the SDGs are arguably gaining more traction (though I am also not well-informed on the political will and the rigour of the financing mechanisms involved) and partnering often faceless climate issues with the SDGs, then proposing ways to minimise trade-offs between them, already frames the two goals as deserving of being put together. The IPCC is thus putting forth a strong argument for the particular mix of demand-focused strategies to 1.5 deg Celsius – low energy demand, low material consumption and low GHG intensive food consumption – as opposed to more supply-focused strategies such as renewable energy share and efficiency. In fact it usefully avoids the word “sustainable consumption” that is used in the SDGs but calls for low consumption.

It thus appears that even though a body like the IPCC may not be in the best position to  openly declare its value preferences (e.g. that equity is important, or how efficiency itself cannot get us to 1.5 deg, and some level of degrowth needs to take place) or advocate for particular policies, just by digging one level deeper, we can uncover these assumptions and framing choices that tell us what scientists actually think and feel. And that help us understand why major fossil fuel-exporting states would oppose welcoming the Paris Agreement rulebook. Or why the Alliance of Small-Island States wholeheartedly welcomed it.

On the whole, thus, we see how the IPCC will never be neutral and more importantly, will never be treated as a neutral document. Yet its perceived neutrality while it advocates for equity and reduced consumption gives power to those who have small voices in terms of wealth, by lending them the bigger, respected voice of science – of course we see now developed countries willing to disrespect the science, but from how often I heard the IPCC SR1.5 being welcomed, I believe and hope it will be a big voice motivating the implementation of the Paris Agreement!