The Future Role of Economics in the IPCC

04/19/2016 06:50 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2017
Industrial pollution nature disaster concept, double exposure.
Industrial pollution nature disaster concept, double exposure.

Despite attacks from "climate skeptics" and other opponents of action on climate change, as well as its own missteps, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is broadly viewed as the world's most legitimate scientific body that periodically assesses the economics of climate change for policy audiences. But growing inefficiencies and other limitations have made the IPCC an increasingly problematic forum for qualified scholars. This has been particularly true with regard to expertise from economics.

In an article that has appeared in the journal, Climate Change Economics, "Reforming the IPCC's Assessment of Climate Change Economics," my colleagues and I draw on our personal experiences writing the most recent IPCC report to identify some of the main problems faced by this institution and to propose some possible solutions. My co-authors are, in alphabetical order: Gabriel Chan (University of Minnesota), Carlo Carraro (Ca' Foscari University of Venice), Ottmar Edenhofer (Technische Universität Berlin), and Charles Kolstad (Stanford University).

Background and Context

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program to assess and synthesize scientific research on climate change, its impacts, and response options. The IPCC is governed by its Plenary (composed of representatives of member governments), Bureau, Executive Committee, and Secretariat, which have distinct roles to provide oversight, develop procedures, and facilitate operation.

Coverage of the scientific literature is divided into three Working Groups that respectively assess climate change science, impacts and adaptation, and mitigation. Authors are nominated by national governments, and selected by the IPCC Bureau. Authors serve as Coordinating Lead Authors (CLAs), with responsibility for leading the writing of a chapter, or as Lead Authors (LAs), who serve on a chapter team and participate in the writing process. CLAs and LAs participate in numerous meetings held at diverse locations around the world. Other experts serve as Contributing Authors (CAs), but the process for nominating these contributors is less formal, and the CAs typically do not participate in meetings and deliberations.

The assessment cycle for each round of the IPCC begins with a scoping process, with government representatives, together with a large group of scholars and other interested parties, drafting outlines of each chapter of the IPCC. Following the scoping process, the IPCC Plenary approves the outlines, sometimes after some modification.

CLAs and LAs are then nominated and subsequently approved by the IPCC Bureau. CLAs and LAs serve as volunteer labor (although some have their travel expenses reimbursed). In the Fifth Assessment Report Working Group III process, Lead Author Meetings (LAMs) were convened four times from July 2011, to July 2013. These meetings took place in Changwon, Korea; Wellington, New Zealand; Vigo, Spain; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Over the course of the LAMs, CLAs led their chapter teams to review relevant literature and prepare chapter text, tables, and figures.

At three points during this process, external Expert Reviewers and government representatives submit detailed comments on subsequent draft. These comments, numbering in the many thousands in AR5, are made public following the assessment cycle, and, are checked by appointed Review Editors, who confirm that authors have replied adequately to comments. After four drafting rounds, the Working Group reports are preliminarily finalized.

Towards the end of the assessment cycles, authors of each Working Group, primarily CLAs, engage in writing two summary documents for each report, a Technical Summary (TS) and a Summary for Policymakers (SPM). The Summary for Policymakers is subject to line-by-line approval by the IPCC Plenary (that is, the governments). By the way, in case you're interested, I have written about these government approval processes at length in previous essays at this blog: Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken? (April 25, 2014); Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up (May 3, 2014); and The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 — Last Week's Outcome in Copenhagen (November 4, 2014).

Finally, concurrent with much of the chapter-drafting process, a subset of CLAs and LAs from all three Working Groups convene to draft a Synthesis Report (SYR) and its own Summary for Policymakers.

I'm exhausted, just having written that summary of the multi-year process in which we were engaged in the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report.

Categories of Key Reforms

I hope you'll turn to our article in Climate Change Economics to read about the procedural and substantive reforms we propose. So, here I'll provide just a list as a guide to what you can find in the article.

We propose four potential procedural reforms that could lower the cost for volunteering as an IPCC author:

  • Improving interactions between governments and academics
  • Making IPCC operations more efficient
  • Clarifying and strengthening conflict of interest rules
  • Expanding outreach

In addition, we propose three reforms to the IPCC's substantive coverage to clarify the IPCC's role and to make participation as an author more intellectually rewarding:

  • Complementing the IPCC with other initiatives
  • Improving the integration of economics with other disciplines
  • Providing complete data for policymakers to make decisions

Looking Forward

My co-authors and I all found that working for the IPCC was at times enormously frustrating. As an IPCC author, particularly as a CLA, scholars can at times feel as if they are inside a political process, forced to respond to critical government comments based on political sensitivity, and even directly negotiating text with professional climate negotiators during the SPM Approval Sessions.

Despite such distractions and frustrations, however, the group of us believe that the IPCC remains a critical institution for the communication of scholarly knowledge about climate change. Engaging governments in often detailed deliberations over climate science, economics, and policy helps build a knowledge base that is broadly based. And the process of consensus-building around the SPM and the work of the underlying chapters play key motivating roles in driving international climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Going forward, the greatest risk is that scholars with sound and balanced understanding of the relevant literature may be deterred from participating as IPCC authors, and thereby surrender the process to quasi-academics with political motivations. The potential harm to the policy process (and the reputation of academia) would be very great.

To prevent this from happening, the IPCC needs to reform its operational procedures and substantive scope so that qualified scholars perceive the time investment as authors to be worthwhile. At the same time, scholars of climate change economics should not dismiss the opportunity to provide a significant public service by volunteering for the IPCC in its future assessments.