Climate Change

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

Edited by Julian Morris

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Chapter 2

Who is Driving Climate Change Policy?

A winning coalition of advocacy: Climate Research,

Bureaucracy and 'Alternative' Fuels.

Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen

Research bodies have long given unclear advice on climate change. A recent example from a German research body is the statement that there has been 'a shift in the consensus view of the experts in this field from the predominantly doubtfully negative to the predominantly doubtfully positive'. The doubt to which they refer is the human contribution to climatic change (not change as such). This may be contrasted with statements made by politicians, which rarely exhibit such caution. Indeed, Tony Blair, Chancellor Kohl and President Clinton have all been quoted as saying that (human-induced) global warming is fact, not theory. Nevertheless, few governments have so far done much beyond what was economically attractive to them anyway. This paper considers what is going on.

Developing the Law of Climate Change: a Matter of

Bureaucratic Sustainability

The subject of climate change remains poorly understood. Climate is an extremely complex set of phenomena that the physical and biological sciences are only beginning to explain. Hence there is considerable emphasis, in scientific publications, on uncertainty.

Environmental bureaucracies and experts, as well as organised losers in the competitive world of fuel and energy technology supply, have a strong interest in man-made warming being true and prefer that science comes to a consensus in their support. These three interest groups are supported by environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which they have carefully cultivated since Rio.

As governments are the organisations that are called upon to implement mitigation strategies, they are the primary target of these 'green' pressures. However, because of their broad range of commitments and responsibilities, governments tend to be either unwilling or unable to deliver the policies that are demanded, which typically include increases in taxes on fossil fuels and subsidies to 'renewables', nuclear power, public transport and 'energy efficiency'. The World Bank and aid administrators are also called upon, by the same lobbies, to invest in 'cost-effective global environmental benefits', which typically means the 'transfer' (subsidised provision) of cleaner technologies and fuels to industrialising countries. A small range of projects is already being funded under the climate protection label by national and multinational financial bodies, especially the Global Environment Facility (GEF). These projects and associated activities are enormously complex, requiring the acquisition and analysis of vast quantities of information. As a result, many experts in environmental and financial fields are employed to structure and oversee these projects. It is perhaps not surprising that these people have been amongst the strongest advocates of climate protection policy. Moreover, the World Bank and the UN increasingly rely on such experts to justify policy interventions in client states, including 'Joint Implementation' (JI) projects that the GEF may be expected to fund in the future but which so far have primarily attracted bilateral deals.

The above efforts are now underpinned by an international treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and its associated institutions and networks. The third Conference of the Parties (CoP) of the FCCC meets this December in Kyoto and strenuous efforts to generate real commitments have been made. All the above-mentioned lobbies depend for their continued well-being on further progress being made in the definition of binding obligations under this treaty. These, in turn, hinge upon the existence of credible predictions of dangerous climate change at regional levels. Scientists, acting as experts serving political interests, deliver such predictions via summaries negotiated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), But can science, as a confirmed body of knowledge (and as distinct from statements by scientists), do so?

The FCCC is the outcome of a complex process of global and national bargaining initiated in the mid-1980s by US-based research bodies. Ironically, these were at that time primarily motivated by a desire to protect nuclear power from the onslaughts of the environmentalists. The objective of the FCCC as negotiated so far is the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations 'at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system' (all treaty text cited from Churchill and Freestone, 1992, pp. 240-90). This, combined with the rider that stabilisation is to be achieved

'within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food supply is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner',

remains inoperable until a stabilisation level is agreed, baselines and reduction targets are allocated to countries, and a great deal more is understood about the behaviour of ecosystems. Yet it is impossible to reach such agreements on scientific grounds. Not even global warming potentials can be derived from purely scientific criteria, no matter how politically desirable it would be to be able to aggregate the climate effects of the various greenhouse gases.

In spite of all this, the climate protection régime as developed so far has attracted considerable support. For this to be achieved, several ingredients were essential: science provided the threat, environmentalism provided the emotion, rhetoric and the 'precautionary principle', new energy technologies promised greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, and bureaucracies would provide the labour and intelligence needed to integrate all this into policy by drafting rational plans and devising clever strategies. Only then would politicians be required to provide the resources needed to translate the plan into action. We are about to reach this difficult stage; hence science is being revisited.

The FCCC was drafted by several networks of international experts working for a small number of governments. A close look at the hard substance of the FCCC reveals that its régime effectively codifies the research and data collection needs of the 'international scientific community' under the guidance of certain intergovernmental bureaucracies, which are in turn responsible for raising research funds and planning the global future. Economic development, land use and pollution control take place at the national level and cannot be dictated as easily, if at all, by intergovernmental treaties, although the making of plans may be required. Under the FCCC, reduction and mitigation plans are to be drawn up to:

'formulate, implement, publish and regularly update national and, where appropriate, regional programmes containing measures to mitigate climate change by addressing anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of all greenhouse gases.... and measures to facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change; and promote and co-operate in the development, application and diffusion, including transfer, of technologies, practices and processes that control, reduce or prevent anthropogenic emissions' (FCCC Treaty, Article 4, paragraph 1b).

Resistance to such plans was to be expected and is now clearly observable, for the administrative loads alone are enormous. Governments are required to make inventories of all 'their' greenhouse gases using comparable methodologies and communicate this to the Conference of the Parties (CoP). Energy, transport, industry, forestry, waste management, coastal zone management, water resources, and agriculture impact assessment, as well as research and collaboration, training and education, will need to be reported on.

However, as far as implementation goes, the treaty is a package held together, in logic, only as long as science lends credibility to the claim that human activities cause controllable net surface warming that is 'dangerous'. But who will define 'dangerous', what criteria will be used, and by whom will those criteria be selected? Will economic and political interests prevail (even if 'greenwashed' to persuade the gullible)? Before a definition can be agreed on the basis of sound science, vast quantities of data will, be needed relating to the stabilisation of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations, the stabilisation of emissions, the definition of ecological limits or levels of tolerance to warming based on impact studies, and the methodologies for making national inventories of emissions and sinks.

So far, only the methodologies for greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories have been defined, with help from OECD and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Research bodies and administrations are collecting data sets and designing ambitious strategies that are of benefit to many institutions, especially those which tend to centralise control. Bureaucracies at all levels are being engaged in this enormous task. However, many countries are quite unable to comply without assistance. The GEF has therefore been called upon to fund such efforts under the label of 'capacity building' (in addition to its more conventional role of approving transfers of grants or loans for 'good quality', that is, World Bank- and CoP-approved projects). As a result, the FCCC has been described as a blank cheque for bureaucrats and indeed many of its negotiators have already gained handsomely from consultancies, prestigious UN or World Bank jobs, or access to the world of high politics. What has been overlooked by many, however, is the fact that in many poor countries more pressing national tasks have had to be postponed.

An Alliance Against 'Unsustainable' Coal Use

According to the FCCC, GHG emissions are to be stabilised by the year 2000. This is not a binding obligation and is unlikely to become one. Moreover, the Convention still does not specify what is to happen after 2000 and, although this is likely to be the primary focus of Kyoto, it seems unlikely that commitments will be as stringent as the 20 per cent reduction target proposed in Toronto in 1988, let alone the 60 per cent cut that is often demanded by environmentalists with reference to IPCC statements. The CoP meeting of environment ministries in Berlin 1995 and Geneva 1996 may have taken these commitments a little further 'on paper', but treasuries and politicians remain reluctant to face the likely transition and compliance costs which would fall largely on energy industries and energy users. Australia, supported by Norway, is currently attempting to introduce the more sophisticated 'differential responsibility' concept, well known from the acid rain debate, to counter uniform percentage reduction targets.

Most efforts to limit GHG emissions would involve restrictions on the use of coal, especially in electricity generation. Indeed, such a policy is already being pursued by the GEF when funding projects on the basis of the costs per tonne of carbon dioxide removed. Table 2.1 hints at the reasons for the attack on coal and at the motives of various energy players.

Table 2.1

Relative Carbon Dioxide Emission Factor Estimates for Different Fuels

Fuel CO2 Emission Factor

Natural Gas 15

Oil 18

Wood 19

Coal 25.3 (very variable)

Nuclear 0 (excluding construction and transport)


Source: OECD(1991)

The attack on coal can be explained by non-environmental motives. Rising oil prices during the 1970s had created new winners in the world of energy supply and R&D: more efficient technologies, nuclear power and renewables. Gas was not yet available for electricity generation and energy demand was expected to rise steeply, a development that has become fact only in parts of the developing world. During this period, energy suppliers were not attracted to climate change, though the issue was already being debated in research circles and members of some national bureaucracies noted an opportunity for expansion of their role. The market did not yet need an ally in environmentalism - prices alone were moving options away from low tech fossil fuels towards the options advocated in response to the 'energy crisis': nuclear power, 'renewables' and gas exploration. When fossil fuel prices began to fall again in the mid-1980s (and they fell especially sharply in 1986), the situation reversed and the newcomers sought a green ally. Powerful commercial incentives began to operate to demand official measures to maintain the competitiveness of 'clean' energy in the name of 'sustainability'. The IPCC was conceptualised in 1985, planned in 1987 and began operating in 1988.

By the mid-1980s, non-fossil energy interests and several major governments strongly committed to new technologies and fuels because of sunk investments, felt sufficiently threatened to pay attention to environmentalists and scientists disseminating worst case scenarios: the global hothouse, floods and hurricanes. However, stagnant demand and falling prices are not an easy context for governments to subsidise higher cost energy options. Further research to reduce uncertainties seemed more attractive and extant scientific knowledge appeared to justify that. Moreover, some emissions reductions were being achieved through the transition to natural gas (which also boosted the revenue of certain oil companies and countries). So the main economic losers (nuclear, 'renewables', 'energy efficiency' technologies) began to look for help from the well-prepared environmental lobby. Fossil fuel interests, the villains of the piece according to those who subscribe to the man-made global warming story, replied in kind, turning to scientific uncertainty for support but pointing to population growth and China's rising energy demand or consumption by the rich as the real culprits.

Yet intervention was not as readily forthcoming as had once been hoped for, or feared. Fossil fuel prices were too low. Many countries will fail to stabilise their carbon dioxide emissions by 2000. While this gas can now be removed from plumes, and R&D concerned with carbon dioxide fixation and 'zero emission power generation' is booming in technologically advanced countries, subsequent containment is only economically feasible where CO2 is not a pure waste product. Technology promises much but, as is so often the case, the constraints will not be technical but economic and political. Reducing GHG emissions per unit of energy generated is feasible over time but, because of energy demand growth, this is not likely to deliver overall reductions of the nature apparently needed to stabilise concentrations at predictable levels.

The observable climate strategies of several governments are therefore better explained not as responses to environmental pressure, but as 'side effects' of their energy policies or energy demand developments. 'Activist' countries usually have energy policy interests which 'naturally' converge with emission reduction. For example, Britain could not have waxed in support of 'precaution' had not privatised industry been forced into price competition and therefore delivered emissions reductions by fuel switching, and had not the Treasury agreed to subsidise nuclear power for political reasons. Many UK coal-fired power stations were closed in the early 1990s and more are likely to follow for purely commercial reasons. The 'cleanest' option for 2000, it has been shown for the UK, would be a mix of only gas and uranium, which is also likely to be the cheapest, at least in the short run.

German emissions limits have been achieved primarily because of the industrial collapse of eastern Germany and the same is true for the countries which once formed the USSR. We can see that governments support GHG emissions targets for a variety of non-environmental reasons: to strengthen national nuclear industries (e.g. Germany), to enhance export potentials for gas or nuclear electricity (e.g. France and Norway), or to attract aid flows. The EC attempted to use the issue to strengthen its own competence by trying to introduce a Community tax through the back door.

Economies heavily dependent on coal for electricity generation face the most serious difficulties if required to reduce emissions rapidly, and have therefore been noted to be among the most sceptical about global warming, even though technologically advanced importers of oil or coal may be sympathetic to a degree of emission control in order to encourage energy efficiency or to promote advanced energy technologies, such as Japan and Germany. The Bush administration's refusal to accept stronger commitments is said to have stemmed from the wish to protect oil and coal interests. The change in attitude by the Clinton administration was probably related more to pro-gas changes in US energy legislation, an approaching election and declining reliance on coal than to new scientific understanding. Expected benefits from Joint Implementation (JI) in Eastern Europe and Russia are likely to be decisive in future. As the USA became less willing to defend fossil fuel interests, Australia as a major coal exporter has come to adopt this role. With no nuclear power and little gas, the Australian green vote was too small to keep the discredited Labour government in power.

To industrialising countries such as China the whole issue is primarily one of attracting cheaper money into their infrastructure developments. In 1992, the World Bank argued that world use and production of energy 'can only be changed marginally in the next thirty years' because of 'weak administrative and institutional structures' (World Energy Council, 1993, p.20). This was clearly an invitation for 'capacity building' and joint implementation projects which the Bank is now actively pursuing, although serious power struggles continue over who precisely is to define the criteria for the use of international funds available for the implementation of the climate treaty.

A great deal of economic and political activity concerned with 'energy' is therefore justified with reference to 'science', or rather to threats which are claimed to be predicted by science. One may therefore wonder how the international institutions of science managed to raise and sustain the global warming threat in the first place? In the early 1970s there had been the threat of cooling, a possibility discussed at the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on Environment and Human Development with reference to aerosols and especially dust particles; but this scenario was of little interest to the energy world.

Earth Systems Research - Underpinning Science Advice

The early efforts of the natural science research community, including the famous Villach meetings of the mid-1980s, are described by me elsewhere. Here, only the attractions of climate change to scientific bureaucracies are summarised. Climate change now constitutes a key label for very large 'policy-relevant' or 'strategic' research packages involving significant amounts of administrative supervision and assessment by bureaucracies ranging from the OECD and the EU to most UN agencies and national research councils. The IPCC fits into this network as the body which best represents the interests of science in government, or directly funded by it. In the fields concerned, this covers most scientific research. Global modelling and earth observation, the tools of climate research, are 'big' science and take place largely outside universities. Their financial foundations are precarious because they tend to be directly dependent on political good will.

The World Meteorological Organisation's (WMO) interest in climate change research dates back to the mid-1970s, when its Climate Panel recommended a research programme on the subject, although even in 1979 delegates to the WMO, especially those from Britain and America, remained doubtful whether climate (as opposed to 'weather') should become a major focus for WMO administered research. However, by 1981 a World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) was underway, albeit short of funding. It soon became a major part of the 'global change' research agenda which aims to model the physical Earth, including land use and emissions. In this effort WCRP supplements the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP), as well as research on environmental monitoring and climate impacts undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)). The IGBP is now being implemented with the support of a number of national secretariats in the major research nations, UNEP, WCRP and UNESCO's oceanographic programmes. Further stages are planned. Behind these intergovernmental institutions is the International Council for Scientific Unions (ICSU), the scientific bureaucracy of academic natural science. The IGBP System for Training, Analysis, Research and Training (START) programme is aimed at strengthening the scientific capacity of poor countries and is assisted by the GEF. Links between IPCC and IGBP, and national research bodies, can be demonstrated by cross-membership of senior research managers and scientists.

All the above programmes were heavily influenced if not designed by US science administrators in the early 1980s. While the pure objective is the full understanding of the physical systems of the planet Earth, including the impacts of the human species as first envisaged by American scientists in the 1950s, the US agenda was written as 'a step in the evolving process of defining the scientific needs for understanding changes in the global environment, changes that are of great concern' (US National Research Council 1990). It was disseminated globally for approval and implementation by ICSU in response to a concern that the climate threat had so miraculously created. The research is primarily defined by and for those working in the natural sciences and will take another decade or so to complete. Achieving its objective will involve more attention to complex biotic feedbacks often heavily influenced by human activity, such as land-use changes, and also to ocean circulation, the hydrological and the carbon cycles, as well as the 'socio-economic assumptions' of emissions scenarios fed into the physical system. The economisation of nature and human nature is being promoted by this research agenda through the use of global models to forecast the impact of economic regulations, such as taxes, on world GNP and speculation about the costs and benefits of both global warming and its mitigation in dollar terms. However, in general economists have been more careful that some natural scientists, including leading IPCC figures, in advocating energy policy on the basis of their theoretical findings.

The Functioning of IPCC

The IPCC emerged from inside the WMO with the help of UNEP and ICSU research networks. It periodically releases ambivalent summaries specifically addressed to policy-makers, as well as long scientific summaries addressed primarily to the scientific community. Only the former are read outside the scientific community and have attracted attention and resources to international research programmes. The latter serve to focus the research carried out under these programmes and thereby help to ensure that subsequent findings follow the general pattern.

The IPCC stresses available technical solutions and its famous 'scientific consensus' is designed by scientists and government officials joined by common interests to keep the ship afloat. The underlying IPCC promise to politicians is that climate change is sufficiently predictable and will eventually allow rational decision-making at the global level. In theory this may be true.

The individuals on the IPCC governing body primarily represent the interests of natural science research, although recently some mainstream economic modellers have been added. IPCC working groups have paid little attention to why governments find the implementation of technical options for reducing emissions difficult or even impossible. Politics and the need for understanding society, as distinct from collecting socio-economic data, were largely excluded from earlier deliberations. Research relevant to the IPCC concerns subjects that political leaders considered 'safe': technical matters, such as the diagnosis of future environmental problems, were to be explored with the aid of the latest developments in space and information technology. Much of the research upon which the IPCC draws is directly funded by government and prescribed by environment ministries.

The IPCC governing body consists of a small secretariat and bureau of about 50 people, with the former based inside the WMO in Geneva. The plenary body brings together leading government scientists and research managers with diplomats and government officials. The bureau is the facilitator of consensus and originator of policy-makers' summaries which are released to the media and the world of politics. The scientific work of the Panel takes place under the supervision of approved scientists whose main task is to co-ordinate the reports of working group[s and attract funding for underpinning national research; the IPCC itself does not do research or fund it. The former NASA ozone scientist and chairman of one IPCC working group (WG), Robert Watson, has also acted as adviser to the US President and is currently an employee of the World Bank. He has recently replaced Professor Bert Bolin as chair of the full IPCC, illustrating the fusion of science and government in the IPCC.

The collection and writing up of information is in the hands of selected lead authors in charge of a large number of subgroups of three (original) working groups - WGI, WGII and WGIII - covering science, impacts and responses respectively. WGs I and II reflected the existing research instruments of WMO and UNEP respectively. WGIII served the needs of governments more directly, allowing officials to meet policy advocates from NGOs and industry. It remains the responsibility of each WG to gather and evaluate 'sound', i.e. trusted, knowledge and draw advice from it. The next report is due in 2000, and work schedules have already been defined. Science is to be 'discovered' according to politically defined schedules.

For example, WG gathers and assesses available scientific information on climate change science. Its co-chairman remains Sir John Houghton, a British meteorologist with strong religious views and a long career as a government adviser. Only his group was able to base itself, in 1987, on a well-established research network and close links with large climate research institutions in North America, then USSR and Germany (Max Planck Institutes), as well as national meteorological offices. This group is still working effectively from a small secretariat within the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in the UK, partly funded by the UK Department of the Environment (DoE) and using MET Office research facilities and observational data funded by the DoE. The IPCC structure reveals a highly linear model of policy process in which 'science' thinks and recommends in isolation from society, while politicians accept and implement the facts and uncertainties. This model is unrealistic because it ignores politics and does not admit to the uncertainties of science. The assumption (known as the 'Enlightenment Fallacy') that knowledge automatically produces response is accepted without question. This serves the interests of science (or at least certain sections of the scientific establishment, which benefit from increased funding). The British political class also benefits from its support of the IPCC because of the opportunities this offers to pursue low-cost UN environmental diplomacy and to transfer of information, capacity and technology to the 'South' (with all the attendant voter appeal of such politically correct actions.).

Policy Advice from Science and the Politicisation of the IPCC

Recent warming predictions made in the UK have declined significantly, although one would hardly think so on the basis of political announcements, press reports, even IPCC statements as reported by the UN. Few dare to challenge the science underlying even moderate warming prediction, although even the famous scientific consensus has recently been described as 'limited'.

Global warming believers usually argue that the IPCC at least confirmed the need for mitigation action in 1995. Closer examination confirms that previous ambiguities continue. In March 1995 it was agreed that:

'...This qualitative evidence does not prove conclusively that a cause and effect relationship exists between anthropogenic activities and the response of the climate system, nor does it allow us to quantify the magnitude of the effect. However, the best evidence that we have at present, drawn together from quantitative studies and qualitative sources, indicates that human activities have had an identifiable effect on climate' (Callender, 1996, Appendix)

Note that the claim is not 'climate change' or even warming, but simply climate.

By November 1995, after intense debate and several other formulations, this became the better known:

'Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors. These include the magnitude and patterns of long term natural variability and the time-evolving pattern of forcing by, and response to, changes in the concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and land surface changes. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate. ibid.).

By what criteria was the evidence 'balanced'? Advocates may still select between two positions, which may be contrasted with the 1990 IPCC Science Report. This predicted 'with certainty' a rate of increase of global mean temperature during the next century of about 0.30C per decade '[which] will result in a likely increase ion the global mean temperature of about 10C above the present value by 2025' (Houghton et al., 1990, p11). Certainty apparently created in one phrase, by the use of 'will', is taken away in another, by the use of 'likely'.

As far as 'closed' science understanding is concerned, a view made in 1987 that '...the range of scientific uncertainty is currently so large that neither "do nothing" nor "prevent emissions" can be excluded from consideration (Warwick and Jones, 1988, p. 62), surely still holds today for reasons to be mentioned below. The two authors pleaded in the late 1980s that it was imperative to extend full support to a two-pronged research effort that would narrow the range of scientific uncertainty regarding the greenhouse effect, while identifying and defining ways in which socio-economic and environmental systems were likely to be affected. This early plea completely ignored two research areas, solutions and adaptation, which have since been battling to be included in the research agenda.

The impact of research agendas on policy raises major questions about the nature and funding of contemporary, government-funded science with its short-term contracts and the myopia inherent to political decision-making. Natural science appears to promote itself increasingly with reference to environmental threats, which it promises to be able to measure and predict. The reduction of uncertainties is then linked to cost savings and competitiveness, the mantra of contemporary politics and business. If 'big' research plays its cards right, it may be allowed to research climate change for another decade or so. It will continue to predict warming by relatively simple mathematical computations that are easily manipulated. The activities of the scientific community and the IPCC as suppliers of information to environmental administrations are therefore of significance in any explanation of climate policy.


Scientific advice derived at the frontiers of research is by nature inconclusive. Research thrives on debate and controversy, not on consensus. The political weakness of science that is funded to be consensual and policy-relevant tends to bring forth advice that is ambiguous because it strives to serve all parties. In the end, scientists may become unwilling to involve themselves in policy debates. Climate change politics so far have largely created proposals and data that have transformed the noble goal of protecting the global atmosphere into a utilitarian game about regulatory intervention and planning at a time when governments were trying to escape such public responsibilities. The 'South' may be the first victim, or beneficiary, of this development.

Climate policy cannot be understood without a more sophisticated view of the role of science and a better understanding of the coalition of non-environmental interests, both commercial and bureaucratic, which now drive the issue internationally. Where this coalition will take us is not clear.

 Written by Sonja B-C. pub. 1997


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by Ivor Catt in mar99

Footnotes and references omitted