The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 -- Last Week's Outcome in Copenhagen

05/12/2015 11:37 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

Some of you may recall that following the Government Approval Sessions for the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of Working Group 3 (WG3) of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Berlin last spring, I expressed my disappointment and dismay regarding that process and its outcome in regard to the greatly abbreviated text of the SPM on the topic for which I was responsible, "International and Regional Cooperation." I expressed my frustration (and my hopes for the future) in two essays at this blog:

Last week, I was in Copenhagen for what was essentially the final stage of the five-year enterprise of research, writing, and government approval of the various reports of IPCC AR5, namely the government approval sessions for the Synthesis Report (SYR), which summarizes and synthesizes the key findings from the three Working Group reports.

While I was in Copenhagen and since my return, many people have asked me how it went. "Was it as bad as last time?" "Was the material on international cooperation that was deleted in Berlin reinserted, or did it remain out?" "Did other material get deleted?" This essay provides my response to those and some related questions.

The Outcome in Copenhagen

First of all, here's the simplest headline statement: Things improved significantly at the Synthesis Report (SYR) government approval sessions in Copenhagen last week, but in saying this, I am only referring to the material for which I've been responsible. Let me explain.

Overall, as far as this material (SYR 4.4.1) is concerned, the outcome of the SYR approval process in Copenhagen was much better than the outcome in Berlin of the WG3 approval process. Part of that may be due to the fact that I learned some valuable lessons from that previous painful experience. But part was also due to some significant bureaucratic subtleties.

A Positive Outcome, but with Some Important Caveats

I will not drag you through the details of what transpired this past week in Copenhagen (including several sessions that went past 3 am), but here is the bottom-line.

First, the material (from throughout the WG3 report) that was excised from the WG3 Summary for Policymakers (SPM) in the government approval sessions in Berlin was not resubmitted by the Lead Authors in the Synthesis Report SPM for government approval in Copenhagen, because there was clearly no point to doing so. Hence, that excised material did not re-appear in the approved SYR SPM, but, it would be incorrect to say that it was excised again by the governments. If anything, this was a case of self-censorship. (Also, in many parts of the SPM for which I did not have primary responsibility, the government approval process again resulted in substantial revisions.)

For the full Synthesis Report (SYR), however, I was able to reinsert into the draft submitted for government approval in Copenhagen all of the material removed from the text on international cooperation (WG3 SPM 5.2) in the WG3 SPM in Berlin, plus some additional material from the underlying WG reports.

There is a bureaucratic subtlety I need to explain. For the WG reports, the governments have no authority to approve the actual, underlying reports. They only approve the SPMs. But for the SYR, the governments approve the SPM, and also approve the main SYR, but they do so not line by line as with the SPMs, but only section by section.

By working with a number of government delegations in "contact group" sessions over two days, plus holding a series of one-on-one bilateral meetings with nearly a dozen key country delegations over the last few days in Copenhagen, it was possible to revise the text in ways that satisfied the governments (remember, each and every government has something close to veto power), but did not compromise the scientific integrity of the material. How could that be?

This was accomplished by addressing stated concerns not by deleting text, but by adding scientifically-correct text (and in virtually all cases that text came directly from the underlying WG2 and WG3 reports), carrying out some sensible revisions here and there, and — in just one case — deleting a single sentence that was clearly going to be unacceptable to almost all governments. Also, I revised (and, in my view, improved) a figure imported from Chapter 13 of WG3.

As a result, in contrast to what happened in Berlin with the WG3 SPM, the full text on international and regional cooperation in the full SYR essentially survived in Copenhagen.

Some More Key Caveats

I need to emphasize again that I am referring only to the part of the IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report for which I had primary responsibility, SYR 4.4.1, "International and Regional Cooperation on Mitigation and Adaptation." My fellow SYR Lead Authors, with primary responsibilities for other parts of the work, might have very different assessments of the Copenhagen outcome. Some might be more positive, and some would surely be quite negative.

It is also important to keep in mind that the text excised through the WG3 SPM government approval process in Berlin last spring was — by-and-large — not reinserted in the SYR SPM submitted to the governments for approval in Copenhagen. This self-censorship by the Lead Authors, including me, ought to remain an important concern.

A final caveat is in order. As I emphasized in my two blog posts last spring, the SPM of WG 3 was only one relatively small part of the overall AR5 effort. The full reports of the three Working Groups (several dozen chapters), as well as their Technical Summaries, were not affected by government interventions (and presumably not by self-censorship), as they did not require government approval. So, notwithstanding the issues discussed today in this essay, the fact remains that the IPCC's three-volume reports — including the Fifth Assessment Report — largely succeed in synthesizing the best scientific research. The reports are essential resources for understanding climate change and formulating appropriate responses.

The Path Ahead for Assessment of the Science of Climate Change

It is one thing to complain about the status quo. It is another thing to seek to identify potential improvements in the process that can lead to better outcomes in the future.

With this in mind, a group of academic researchers who have been engaged in social science assessment within the IPCC process is organizing an academic workshop scheduled to take place in Berlin in February, 2015, in their capacities as scholars, independently of the formal IPCC process. This workshop on "Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy" will be hosted by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, and co-sponsored by Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, the Mercator Research Institute, and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center.

The aim of the workshop will be to take stock and reflect on lessons learned in past assessments, in order to identify future social science research priorities, as well as options for improving future assessment processes. Workshop participants will include experienced authors and users of IPCC reports, including government representatives; researchers experienced in other social science assessments; and scholars studying the science-policy interface.

I look forward to reporting to you in the future on what I hope will be some constructive outcomes of this new initiative.