Frequently contradictory evidence regarding the current state of knowledge about climate change, accompanied by sensationalized media reports and rhetoric-laden political battles have made climate change a shaky domain of miscommunication and continual powerplays for legitimacy. In the search for reputable, defensible science surrounding the problem of global climate change, governments, media, and scholars alike turn to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Although often roundly criticized, the regular and reputedly comprehensive assessment reports of the IPCC are the most frequently-cited scientific documents addressing climate change issues, and provide fuel to both climate ‘sceptics’ and climate change policy advocates. But what exactly is the IPCC? How does it come to represent unbiased, objective, and accurate scientific truth? Why do the IPCC assessment reports generate so much heated debate and controversy? Is there a better way to deliver climate science to policymakers who are continually pulled in a multitude of directions by powerful interests and lobbies? The following FAQ will attempt to answer some of these questions, in a more-or-less straight forward manner. As a Contributing Author to two out of the three IPCC Working Groups, I have relatively unhindered access to the IPCC, but maintain (as you will see) one-foot-in-one-foot-out status. As such, it’s vaguely possible to criticize the IPCC with the detachment of an outsider while defending it with the knowledge of an insider.

Who made the IPCC?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an international body, convened in 1988 by two agencies of the United Nations – the United Nations Environment Program, and the World Meteorological Organization. The IPCC’s affiliation with the United Nations is of special importance because it means that any member of the UN (all of which are governments) is also a member of the IPCC. No scientists, individuals, or media representatives are technically ‘members’ of the IPCC. Instead, the only members are the national governments that participate in the UN. There are 192 member countries of the United Nations, which leaves out only the Holy See, Palestine Territories (both of which are observers) and Western Sahara (which is under military occupation by Morocco).

What is the IPCC supposed to do?

The stated purpose of the IPCC is to gather state-of-the-art science on scientific, technical, and socio-economic aspects of climate change in an un-biased, coherent, and comprehensive manner. The IPCC is charged with producing regular, exhaustive reports concerning climate change, which often serve as the foundation of nationally-based climate policies. Given, however, that in excess of 700 scientists and researchers collaborate in the authorship of these reports, many critics have called into question the ability of the IPCC to accomplish any of the goals listed above. This will be discussed in more detail below.

Who participates in the activities of the IPCC?

The ‘Panel,’ or IPCC itself, is composed of all members of the United Nations, as mentioned above, and is thus an intergovernmental organization. Representatives from UN member governments form the IPCC Plenary, through which the most important decisions taken by the IPCC must pass. The Plenary is convened approximately once each year, and makes decisions regarding IPCC budget, procedures, workplan, and the election of the members of the IPCC Bureau.

At the next-highest level of organization, the IPCC is administered by the Secretariat, which is based in Switzerland and composed mainly of bureaucrats (as with any UN agency). The Secretariat essentially organizes all of the IPCC activities, including meetings of the Plenary, the Bureau, and the Working Groups.

The IPCC Bureau is a small, elected group of experts chosen for their administrative abilities, and unparalleled (!) expertise in the field of climate change.

The day-to-day activities of the scientists affiliated with the IPCC (we’ll get to them – finally – below) are organized and structured by a large group of administrators, many of whom have some technical or scientific background in areas of research related to climate change. This group, called the Technical Support Unit, monitors the submission of chapter drafts, organizes extensive reviews of the drafts, compiles various chapters into cohesive Working Group documents, and organizes meetings among all chapter authors, among a host of other activities.

So under the weight of all this bureaucracy we find the lowly ‘experts’ that have been nominated by their respective countries to participate in the meat of the IPCC work – the Assessment Report. In developed countries, it is common practice that these experts hold tenured positions in established academic institutions, while in developed countries (given the dearth of highly educated climate researchers willing or able to ‘volunteer’ a significant amount of time to such a cause), scholars of lesser qualifications are readily admitted in the interests of geographical balance. These experts (called Lead Authors and Coordinating Lead Authors) usually participate in the drafting and editing of one chapter of one Working Group’s report, and are expected to participate in approximately two major meetings each year. These meetings bring together all authors of one Working Group (the three Working Groups operate in virtual isolation from each other throughout the process) so as to ensure that face-to-face contact during the review and editing process occurs and a minimal amount of inter-chapter communication occurs. Contributing Authors are brought on board at the discretion of the core members of each chapter to fill gaps in knowledge and contribute in some way to the drafting and editing of the text.

How is the output of the IPCC structured?

As alluded to above, the IPCC assessment reports are divided into three Working Groups, each of which addresses a different component of the climate change problem. The first Working Group is typically composed of natural and physical scientists, studying issues such as radiative forcing in the atmosphere, aerosols, physical climate processes and feedbacks, sea level rise, and climate modelling. This is the most established group of scientists within the IPCC, and represents the traditional techno-centric approach that has dominated climate studies since the early 1980’s.

The second working group, called ‘Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,’ consists mainly of individuals who focus on disaster-related research and impacts on ecological systems. As the science of climate change becomes more established, and the inevitability of some change becomes more apparent, the findings of this group are rising in relevance and visibility. This group is concerned with sorting out the changes that we will see as a result of climate change, and finding ways to adapt effectively to them.

Finally, the third Working Group of the IPCC, ‘Mitigation,’ addresses the need to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and enhance the ability of earth’s systems to take up carbon (a major greenhouse gas released through transportation emissions and manufacturing etc). In other words, this group is concerned with the costs of fixing the problem, and preventing future climate change before it happens. As such, Working Group III contains the expected host of economists and engineers (and other technophiles), with the occasional physicist sprinkled in.

Each of these three groups produces a massive report, usually nearing the 1000-page mark, which forms the bulk of each Assessment Report. What matters though, is not these reports. The documents that causes the greatest flurry of attention and volley of criticism is the Synthesis Report – a short summary document, which, as the title implies, synthesizes the findings of all three Working Groups. This is the revered pseudo-scientific output of the collective sweat and tears of the IPCC scientists, which is fed to the salivating political masses following an exhausting process of line-by-line negotiating and obstinate quarrelling among IPCC member governments.

Who pays the most attention to IPCC reports?

The media occasionally picks up on particularly sensational bits of information presented in the IPCC assessment reports. For instance, following the release of the next IPCC report in 2007, we will be sure to hear all about how extreme weather events are likely to become more severe and more frequent, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Next in line are politicians. The IPCC assessment reports are intended to provide unbiased input into national climate change policies, but are often reduced to fuel for necessarily biased and inflammatory political agendas (oddly, both pro- and anti-climate policy camps effectively utilize the reports to suit their needs). Next are experts who have contributed to the work of the IPCC and would like to give their own work a dose of worldly glamour and credibility. Finally, the IPCC work occasionally trickles down to astute and determined non-experts who are considering the climate change problem for themselves, as well as eager social scientists who are perverse enough to want the delve into the manifold ways that ‘good’ science becomes a mangled and politicized gob of watered-down goo.

What is the relationship between the Kyoto Protocol, the UNFCCC, and the IPCC?

A frightening morass of counter-intuitive acronyms is likely to discourage even the most determined of interested citizens, in their quest to understand the workings of global climate change politics. What relationship does the IPCC (WGI, II, II, the TSU etc) have to the UNFCCC (CC…CC), the COP/MOP process, and the Kyoto Protocol? Fortunately, there is some underlying logic (shocking, truly) to this system, which can be grasped even by the uninitiated.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force in 1994, and provides an overall policy framework for addressing the climate change issue. This convention was agreed upon in the General Assembly of the United Nations, as the result of negotiation and voting by UN member states. The parties to the UNFCCC meet periodically at meetings called Conferences/Meetings of the Parties (COP/MOP). It is during these meetings that policies such as the Kyoto Protocol have been developed, and the assessment reports of the IPCC are discussed. The Kyoto Protocol is an amendment to the original international treaty on climate change, and its main goal is to set mandatory national greenhouse gas reduction targets. The Protocol was negotiated in (as one might expect) Kyoto, Japan, during the third Conference of the Parties in 1997. It finally came into force in 2005, following the ratification of the agreement by Russia.

The IPCC supports the UNFCCC process by providing scientific and technical advice. As described above, the bulk of this advice takes the form of the periodic major assessment reports, and the more frequent Special Reports on technical issues related to climate change. These reports provide the fodder for deliberations during the Conferences of the Parties and negotiations surrounding policies such as the Kyoto Protocol.

So what?

This FAQ, however verbose and twisted, provides some insight into the inner machinations of the IPCC and related international climate change institutions. The important next step, however, is to carefully consider the ways in which these collaborations and negotiations have fed into the current, seemingly impenetrable, web of arguments and counter-arguments surrounding climate change leviathan. Part II of this FAQ will address questions such as: are IPCC reports scientific or political? What are the criticisms of the IPCC? Are there possible alternatives to the IPCC? Are there parallels to the IPCC in other scientific areas? Perhaps, at last, we will be able to consume the myriad of loudly-voiced opinions, trumpeted by popular media, with some degree of realism and thoughtful criticism.

(Part II can be read here)

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A wildly interdisciplinary path has led Sarah to pursue her PhD through UBC's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. She gets riled about climate change, development, and equity issues, and any reference to P_ris Hi_ton. In her spare time, she cares for her rabbit (Stew) and composes self-congratulatory bios. (Sarah's intro post can be found here)