UNEP Perspective

Mack McFarland
United Nations Environment Programme

About three months ago, I was at Buffalo Springs National Reserve in Kenya where I live. In the evening I went down to the dining area, walked to the edge that overlooks a watering hole about 30 meters away, looked down, and saw a large crocodile only about six or seven feet away. The crocodile was laying next to a warning sign: "BEWARE OF CROCODILES! DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT!" The sign was obviously misplaced.

It occurred to me that proper placement of a warning sign is something like what we are trying to do to meet the ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): The ultimate objective of this Convention is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. I hope we do a better job of establishing the positioning of that sign than those who put up the warning about crocodiles.

Now we are trying to establish the position of a climate warning sign. You have heard a number of opinions on positioning that sign. Arguments that if you put it too close, there could be significant economic impacts, impacts on standards of living. If you put the sign too far away, we could be surrounded by crocodiles before realizing it. We're not sure what is out there, what kind of crocodiles or other hazards may be waiting. Climate change is clearly a very important issue with high stakes. So where do you go to get good information on the issue?

A quote from a book by E. Bright Wilson, Jr. ("An Introduction to Scientific Research," McGraw Hill, 1952) in a section titled "Bias and the Experimenter" is relevant: "No human being is even approximately free from such subjective influences; the honest and enlightened investigator devises the experiment so that his own prejudices cannot influence the results. Only the naive or dishonest claim that their own objectivity is a sufficient safeguard."

The mechanism used to provide information as a basis for decisions on how to meet the ultimate objective is, in effect, an experiment. Design of that experiment, that mechanism or process, is critical. You have learned from Professor Bolin that there are some 10,000 references in the current Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that is due to be published soon. There is no one that can cover all of this material, that can be an expert in all of the fields covered by these references. Individual biases might stem from a lack of understanding of the full range of subjects that must be covered. Others may come from different value systems. So how do you design a process to get good information as a basis for decisions?

I believe that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change process is a sound way to provide good information. There are principles within that process that are aimed at providing the best available information, and providing that information in a manner that is useful to policy makers.

Quoting from the IPCC Procedures, "The role of the IPCC is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio- economic information relevant to understanding the risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation."

The IPCC reports were prepared following those procedures. Sources of information for the reports are primarily the peer reviewed literature. If a manuscript is referenced that hasn't been through peer review and isn't readily available, it must be made available to all of those that are preparing and reviewing the report.

In an earlier presentation, the IPCC report was referred to as a U.N. document. Although sponsored by U.N. agencies, the reports are prepared and reviewed by leading independent experts from around the world, from academia, government laboratories, and private laboratories.

Working Group I, the physical science part of the document, was prepared by 390 experts from at least 50 countries. For Working Group II, the one that deals with adaptation and mitigation, 509 experts from 57 countries were involved in the preparation, and 92 experts from 36 countries were involved in Working Group III report preparation.

The Working Group I report was sent to some 800 experts from around the world for review. In addition this report (as well as all others) was distributed to some 200 governments and organizations during the review process. The Working Group II report was reviewed by 700 experts from 58 countries. For Working Group III, 129 experts from 30 countries, actually sent in written reviews on the report. It was distributed to many more who had the opportunity to comment on it, should they choose.

To assure policy relevance, IPCC Procedures state: "IPCC assessments should be neutral with respect to policy, although they may need to deal objectively with scientific, technical and socio-economic factors relevant to the application of particular policies." To insure this criteria is met, all of the issues that are important for policy decisions are covered; not only the physical sciences and the impact sciences, but also the technical options and the socioeconomic aspects.

Governments are involved in outlining the subject to be covered to insure their policy questions are addressed, and governments and organizations participate in the preparation and the review of the documents. Coverage, preparation of outline and participation assure provision of information that is relevant to those that have to make decisions.

As a result of the process, I believe that these documents have significant value. They are as objective as I think you can make these types of documents.

Consensus within the community is built through preparation of the documents. I don't mean that science should be a consensus process, but these are documents for policy. When you begin preparation of such a report, you will find that there are scientists who have an understanding of one, or even several aspects of the issue, but don't have an understanding of the entire range of subjects that are needed as a basis for decisions. Through the discussions in the preparation and review of these documents, there is a sharing of information which builds consensus within the scientific and technical communities around many key pieces of information.

As a result, you have a consistent message going out to decision makers around the world. In the absence of this process, you might have one expert with a lot of knowledge in one area, giving his government or decision maker one perspective, while another expert with an equal depth of knowledge in another area telling his decision maker in his government or organization a not inconsistent but different message.

With consensus and a consistent message there is a common basis as a point of departure for policy debate.

I am sure you have all heard criticism of the process. My observation is that it is not a fault of the process. There have been some problems with participation, and I think the criticisms that you have heard stem from the way some participants have behaved in IPCC meetings.

I believe there should be principles that the participants should follow.

  1. Attempt to remain objective.

  2. Synthesize information and views. Information and interpretations of information from different disciplines must be synthesized to provide a meaningful assessment report.

  3. Avoid policy debates. There is a place for policy debates but the IPCC is not the place. If policy debates occur here, you distort the basis for the decisions. To the maximum extent possible, the participants should avoid value judgments. Where it is essential that some sort of value judgments be made, socioeconomic analysis for example, the value judgments should be clearly spelled out in the report.

Go To Discussion - Session IV