by Falk Schützenmeister
The fact that relative small scientific mistakes, public misperceptions of the scientific method, and maybe the misconduct of a few can shake up a major field of international policy indicates that the institutional coupling between science and policy is too tight. The reputation of Harvard would never be at stake only because a few alumni became felons. In climate research, the outcome of international negotiations depends on a level of moral integrity among IPCC scientists that is unlikely to be found in priesthood.
At the onset of environmental science the tight coupling of technological systems and the rigidity of organizational structures were identified as reasons for low resilience and a high risk of catastrophic outcomes (Perrow). Ironically, today’s climate regime and the coupling between science and policy is an example for a high risk system where the failure of one small element (which might not even be at the core of the system) can endanger the whole.
One reason is a common misperception about the role and the functioning of the IPCC in science as well as in policy. Scientists often believe that the current deadlock in climate policy is due to difficulties to effectively communicate science to politicians (and the public). However, the IPCC has also a legitimatory function. In policy and public, the fact that a high number of scientists agree on something might count more than on what they actually agree.
The line by line approval of the Summaries for Policy Makers of IPCC reports constitutes a consensus about science (not policies) among the parties of the FCCC (governments). Nevertheless, some IPCC scientists feel uncomfortable about consensus since scientific progress is driven by scrutiny. Sure, most climate researcher identify themselves with the IPCC process and they trust the work of colleagues (cf. Bray). Nevertheless, reviewers discuss findings in their fields and in adjunct areas. They are not necessarily able to scrutinize the sophisticated findings of colleagues from other disciplines. The number of scientists who reviewed the glacier melt in the Himalayas is certainly pretty small, but it is treated as a consensus of 3000 scientists.
How could the problems of the IPCC (and climate policy) be solved? I am aware that the following ideas might contradict IPCC’s mandate under the FCCC. However, a possible reform should embrace the fact, that the IPCC is the most important source of climate change knowledge throughout society (and not only for international climate conferences).
From a theoretical point of view, looser couplings of organizational elements, disciplines, and societal domains (science and policy) are required. Flexible structures could focus different parts of the IPCC to address specific problems (e.g. fast Arctic ice melt) while uncertainty or even failure could be isolated from spreading and affecting the overall credibility of the IPCC. Social learning and experimentation requires institutional diversity (Ostrom) in order to distinguish approaches that work from such that do not. What design recommendations follow from a social learning perspective?
1. Looser connections between the IPCC assessment process and international climate negotions: The IPCC will remain the authoritative source for knowledge in international climate negotiations. However, IPCC assessments should focus more on the needs of national and local policy-makers who try to implement climate policies despite the deadlocks of international climate policy. There is a need for local knowledge and many actors already use IPCC reports. Successful local action could also positively influence the international process.
2. Loose coupling between working groups: Today’s IPCC is too big and it addresses too many questions in order to reach a scientifically grounded consensus (shared knowledge) across all working groups. At the same time, IPCC reports are not specific enough to inform action on different levels of governance. With focus on local effects of climate change and regional adaption strategies, the IPCC is likely to grow further. However, the global physical processes driving climate change are still at the center. The claim of scientific consensus and the certainty of findings should be based on WG I where they actually exist. In contrast, the assessment of the effects of climate change and mitigation/adaption strategies cannot be limited to a global perspective. Besides WG II and III, a number of specific assessments about regions and sectors will be necessary. However, the experimentation with new forms of assessments requires that they do not affect the credibility of the core assessments.
3. Installation of assessments about assessments: A situation where a relative small assessment body would summarize the basic physical principles of climate change and a number of specialized assessment institutions that would tackle specific problems would fall behind today’s achievements if there were no evaluation of different approaches. In order to use a variety of assessments as a dynamic form of social learning an assessment of assessments would be necessary. A new WG IV could have a reflexive role within the IPCC and assess the use and impact of IPCC assessments including credibility crises.