Scientific truth isn’t negotiated in the dead of night behind closed doors.

Since Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been in a meeting. The purpose of that meeting is to take a document authored by scientists and ensure that its wording is palatable to the powers that be.

Called the Summary for Policymakers, this is a 30-page précis of the IPCC’s as-yet-unreleased Working Group 1 report (which is expected to total 1,000 or so pages).

At the meeting, one sentence after another has been projected onto large screens. Diplomats, bureaucrats, and politicians from dozens of UN nations have haggled, horse traded, and negotiated. Eventually, phrasing that everyone can live with has been agreed upon. Then they’ve moved on to the next sentence.

The meeting is closed to the public. It is closed to the media. No minutes are kept. But let us imagine that a television camera had been smuggled inside. What would we see?

In 2010, IPCC insiders answered a questionnaire sponsored by the InterAcademy Council (a collection of the world’s science academies). Their anonymized answers paint an unflattering picture of these meetings.

First, here are some general impressions. The remarks appearing below are all direct quotes:

I suspect that.anyone who has not been involved in this process would scarcely believe how this meeting is managed; the expense, the length of the sessions, and the apparent pickiness of some of the discussion would strike many as a very poor way to conduct international business. (p. 114)

this was an agonizing, frustrating process, as every sentence had to be wordsmithed on a screen in front of representatives of more than 100 governments, falling farther and farther beyond a realistic schedule by the hour. In Brussels in 2007, the process ran all night on the two final days. (p. 334)

I have observed the behaviour of the delegations from individual countries which certainly reflects a completely different mindset than my own as a scientist. The political intrigues which appear to be well known on the international scene are popping up again and again. (p. 43, a few typos edited out)

In my experience the summary for policy makers tends to be more of a political process than one of scientific précis. (p. 278)

This is a pure political process. (p. 373)

While those who answered the questionnaire expressed a range of views about whether the final version diverged dramatically from the one drafted by the scientists, many individuals expressed serious concern:

The requirement of unanimous line-by-line approval of the summary for policy makers by member states.can undermine the scientific process. (p. 73)

often we see in the discussion that scientific merit gives way to political priorities. (p. 109)

This is an awful procedure and should be changed. It has far too much politics and the final version has little relation to the one suggested by the scientists. (p. 139)

While answering the questionnaire, other individuals warned that these meetings can introduce errors. Attendees may end up agreeing to particular wording not because they’re convinced it’s accurate but in the interests of moving the meeting along. Material appearing toward the end of a summary document may also be rushed through:

It was a bitter process.At the end when time was out and everybody was tired something was changed and passed in a hurry and carelessly. (p. 578)

Precious time was wasted.and resulted in a rush to finish the report. (p. 134)

the policymakers summary finally passes via the process of ‘attrition’ [rather] than ‘reason’. (p. 79)

tends to be very slow at first, but then to proceed in spurts, with a major acceleration towards the end as minds are focused on the need to approve an assessment before the Plenary time runs out! (p. 293)

An IPCC press conference is scheduled for tomorrow. There, the politically sanitized version of the summary will be released. As if the previous, four-day-long meeting had never happened, IPCC officials and journalists will solemnly tell us that “science has spoken.”

Had this IPCC meeting been televised, the average Jane and the average Joe would have seen for themselves that scientists aren’t in charge at the IPCC. Moreover, the average person understands something that many journalists reporting on tomorrow’s press conference will manage to overlook:

Scientific truth isn’t negotiated in the dead of night behind closed doors.


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