The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long been regarded as the most authoritative guide to the status of knowledge about climate change. Read any report by a government, international organization, business group or NGO and they almost always start by citing the IPCC to justify action on climate change – both whether to act, and how to act.
In part because of its dominance within this field, the IPCC has been the object of significant attention. Part of this is the persistent attacks on its credibility by climate deniers, of which the best known example is the “climategate” controversy in 2009, prompted by hacks of emails by prominent scientists involved in the IPCC.
This simplistic set of political attacks caused climate scientists and the IPCC to develop new rules for authors, expand review processes, and the like. But there are other, more subtle contestations of how the panel works. The IPCC is an important example of the politics of expertise, and the question of who writes IPCC reports has taken up a considerable amount of academic and policy attention. Two themes have dominated these discussions: the representation of scientists from across the world, especially along North-South lines, and the representation of different disciplines.
Existing research has addressed both of these, but in a recent article in Nature Climate Change, Esteve Corbera, Laura Calvet Mir, Hannah Hughes and I explored them in detail. We focused on the writing team for the Working Group III (on policy responses to mitigate climate change) for the IPCC’s 2014 report. Specifically, we looked at the careers of the authors and constructed social networks of countries and institutions through which authors are connected to each other. This showed a number of things about the participation by authors from different parts of the world, the dominance of specific disciplines in the writing of IPCC reports, and how collaboration outside the IPCC contributes to the importance of small groups of authors within it.
The legitimacy of IPCC reports depend in part on countries feeling some sort of ownership over it – that “their” scientists were involved in some way. Previous research on geographical representation has shown a persistent bias in favour of Northern researchers. However, previous research only looked at the countries that authors represented in the IPCC. Our research showed that the North-South divide is in fact much sharper but also more subtle. A great many of those authors representing Southern countries were trained not only in the North but more specifically in the UK or US, and have taken on forms of knowledge arguably suiting Northern interests. Those two countries are absolutely central to the social network of countries constituted by authors’ career paths, outstripping other industrialized countries considerably. And on the Southern side, Brazilian and Indian authors are much more closely connected to the Northern core than are Chinese or Russian authors, for example. So there is a more subtle differentiation to be made regarding the question of “whose knowledge” is incorporated into IPCC reports than a simple North-South dichotomy.
Regarding disciplines, the IPCC author team is dominated by economists and engineers. Others producing policy-relevant knowledge on climate change, such as sociologists, human geographers or political scientists, are marginal to the report both in numerical terms but also in terms of their involvement in the collaborative networks amongst authors. This is less surprising but nevertheless important. IPCC’s Working Group III is dominated by a large modelling exercise for emissions scenarios, and more qualitative knowledge, for example about what drives increased energy consumption in households, or the political dynamics of global negotiations, is largely absent from the expertise in the writing team.
Finally, when we explored how IPCC authors collaborate with each other, this revealed a small group of 20 to 30 researchers within the writing team (of around 270 overall) who collaborate very extensively and regularly with each other. These are mostly continental European researchers, often organized through research institutes such as the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis based in Austria. These researchers collaborate mostly in the large modelling exercises mentioned above, so this “core group” helps reproduce these particular technocratic ways of thinking about climate change at the expense of more democratic or deliberative approaches.
Why does this matter? It is not that these observations undermine the general tenor of IPCC conclusions, certainly not on the questions important to climate deniers – whether climate change is happening, and so on. It matters at a more fine-grained level of the types of policy responses that might work, or who would benefit or lose out from different sorts of responses.
It also matters in the sense that the IPCC, even in its policy responses report, attempts to present knowledge as much as possible in terms of a “consensus.” This is a clear response to the political or policy imperative for clear messages – politicians want to defer strategically to the IPCC in order to say “we are simply doing what the science tells us to,” as a way of avoiding responsibility. Science, in practice, certainly on the policy side, doesn’t really generate the sort of certainty politicians want.
We can infer from our research, however, that consensus is only possible because the knowledge mobilised in the report comes from restricted perspectives in terms of both geography and discipline. If we opened up participation more broadly – to expand the range of disciplines involved (bringing in sociology, human geography or political science, for example), to enable fuller participation by Southern and Southern-trained scholars, not to say by involving more women – and found ways to incorporate traditional and indigenous knowledge, a consensus report would be impossible. IPCC reports would probably contain many more useful ideas as to how governments and other actors might act effectively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deal with climate change impacts, but there’s no way such reports could be represented as a “consensus.” Governing climate change requires a more complex and mature negotiation between scientists and policy-makers than the simplistic “speaking truth to power” model that both sides currently tend to assume. Both truth and power are already too mixed up with each other in this complicated politics of expertise.