Science in international negotiations
The Climate Change Convention: a load of hot
The fashionable political science view of professional
activities in international affairs is 'epistemic.' In the academic
jargon, professionals form their own communities and, exercising
an international view of the issues, are more loyal
to each other than to their nation-state.
It may be commonplace and unquestioned in much
of academia, but it is just a theory. In fact, it's
probably not true. My research into the negotiations and
promulgation of the UN-brokered Climate Change Convention suggests
that common sense ideas of political processes, power struggles
and national questions took front seat.
My conclusions go further: scientists and politicians,
it is suggested, are involved in an overt and covert struggle
within the nation state and between nations for power, prestige
and money, even when the issue is science.
Worse still, believing and proclaiming otherwise
- as many politicians, UN officials and media commentators
have done - carries some significant costs. I try to spell
these out. They include handing over decisions to politically
and nationally inspired scientists who can then set the agenda
for spending and research.
Not so important? I don't think so. Contrast
what France and Germany wanted to do - take precautionary action
- to what finally emerged. And Britain's hard-nosed attitude
against action not only jeopardized its reputation. It also
left the country well behind in the technological race to control
greenhouse-gas emissions. Eight years on from the first negotiations,
things don't seem to have changed much.
Science is neutral, objective and fact-based,
right? At an international level, this is one way to escape
nationalist competition, emotionalism and special
interest pleading. For politicians anxious to broker
a deal, whether internationally minded or not, scientific opinion
can provide the impetus for accepting an agreement whose
impact on the national interest is uncertain. Such,
I think, is the generally accepted political and bureaucratic
view in international organizations of the role of science in
So at the global level in particular, politicians
often turn to specialists, and notably to scientists, for their
opinions on the technical aspects of issues subject to public
policy decisions. Almost every international agreement depends
on a series of expert reports that are thought to give the framework
for the negotiations.
In such issues, scientific consensus is
considered a major requirement. Politics and science are often
contrasted, with science praised for its neutrality in policy
issues. However, especially on environmental questions, the
search for consensus has significant shortcomings, as the history
of the 1992 Climate Change Convention indicates:
- Pressures for a common view force
advice-givers to gloss over important scientific uncertainties.
- These uncertainties can be exploited by
stakeholder governments to the detriment of effective action.
- Artificial polarization, particularly as
portrayed by the media, can then work against the interests of
democratic decision-making, though it makes interesting (and
therefore profitable) reading.
- Scientists in one nation or group of nations can themselves
take over the consensus process for their own purposes.
What conclusions can we draw, then, about science
in politics or politics in science as revealed by international
negotiations for a climate change convention? Neither a 'realist'
(nation-state based) nor a liberal-pluralist view of such activity
- the two most common approaches used by political scientists
- provides an adequate understanding of the forces involved.
The most common alternative political explanation - based on
a neo-Marxist approach - fails to account for a large part of
what took place. A combination of these perspectives, which
might be termed 'post-realism' in approach, suggests that 'civic
science' (Lee, 1993) is as political as any other public activity,
subject to the same pressures and exploited in the same way.
The Framework Convention on Climate Change entered
into force on 21 March 1994 in less than two years after it
was signed by leaders of over 150 nations at the United Nations
Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de
, 1994:34). According to its
closest political analyst, it "codifies the largest global research
and data collection effort ever undertaken" (Boehmer-Christiansen,
As the technical basis for decisions taken under
the Convention, scientists played a key role in providing advice
to the political phase of the negotiations. An Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in November 1988 as part
of the negotations, assembled a number of views on the scientific
issues and indicated the degree of consensus it found on each
What the scientific issues are, how justified
the scientific views are, are not my concern here. This review
looks at the process involved and the political factors in the
consensus-building exercise rather than the content of the scientific
opinion and the panel's advice. It will not, therefore, refer
to the details of this assessment except in so far as public
policy is concerned, and I take no view of the scientific issues.
A summary of the panel's report is, however, given in
the Panel Said
What I do want to do, in part, is tomake a critical
exploration of the influential ideas of Sonya Boehmer-Christiansen
with regard to the IPCC (in Boehmer-Christiansen, 1995) and
of Peter Haas's theories of epistemic consensus (in Haas, 1992).
I looked first at the process by which scientific
consensus was achieved. This raised questions of whether the
report represented accurately the opinions of the scientific
community (and, contrary to most of the convention's proponents,
I think it did not). In fact, it's a moot point whether consensus
is a valid approach in environmental matters.
Through the example of the Convention, I have
tried to highlight some of the political issues involved before
going on to the wider implications. My research concluded with
an examination of the process from the three paradigms or traditions
usually employed in global politics studies - realism, liberal-pluralism
and Marxism - and suggests that the academic interpretations
in fact reflect an alternative approach (which I have dubbed
'post-realist' because it embraces theories that the world of
nation-states has suffered a loss of authority and autonomy,
and that image-conscious activity may determine international
action quite as consciously as political interests - indeed
national interests may be expressed through 'neutrally'-phrased
The scientific consensus
First, the process. In producing its report,
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analysed
thousands of scientific papers and the lead authors for each
section were chosen to "reflect a balance among difficult points
of view" (Bolin, 1994:97), with "at least one specialist from
a developing country" (ibid). The IPCC's chairing scientist,
Bert Bolin of Sweden, described the panel's task as "to assess
knowledge rather than to recommend measures to be taken", a
significant form of phrasing from a political as from a scientific
point of view, as I later indicate. It is worth noting, however,
how close this phrasing is to what most people would seem to
consider the proper role of science in political issues.
The first panel report was the work of some 200
climatologists, reviewed by another 200 (Gribbin, 1990). The
(Working Group II) review of available scientific and technical
literature on possible impacts, scheduled for completion in
September 1995, involved more than 200 contributors (ibid).
Drafts of this 1995 Second Assessment Report were circulated
to nearly 800 'experts' for review (Moss, 1995:4).
John Gribbin has pointed out that the world total
of climatologists is only some 400, so presumably nearly all
were involved. More significantly, the consensus achieved in
the Panel Report on a subject with numerous scientific uncertainties
has been widely praised.
The scientific consensus indicated in the report
has often been contrasted with the disagreement over the measures
that should to be taken and the commitments made (Bergesen and
Sydnes, 1992:36; Wynne and Mayer, 1993:33; Paterson, 1994:175;
Clayton, 1995:111). Helge Olde Bergesen and Anne Kristin Sydnes
declare: "It is noteworthy that the climate scientists succeeded
in producing an assessment (of a highly political issue) that
appears both independent and legitimate (1992:35). They comment:
"Attempts to exert political influence on the scientists invariably
failed" (ibid), and add: "Despite aggressive criticism from
certain individual scientists, the IPCC consensus still commands
wide recognition and respect" (ibid).
Dr Jeremy Leggett, the scientific advisor on
global warming for a major environmental campaigning organisation
(Greenpeace), agrees with Boehmer-Christiansen in describing
the IPCC work as "an ongoing scientific consultation process
which, in its breadth and depth, is without precedent" (Leggett,
1993:43). Both Leggett and Boehmer-Christiansen, however, voice
disquiet at assumptions that the consensus so far achieved can
claim to be objective or represents value-free science.
The problems of consensus
At the end of 1991 Greenpeace polled the 400
climate scientists for their opinions on global warming (
, 1992). Of 113 who returned the questionnaires
(ibid), about half thought a runaway greenhouse effect possible
if no mitigating measures were taken (Leggett, 1993:46). Some
13 percent thought it probable (ibid). Leggett notes: "This
worst-case analysis was not articulated in the IPCC report"
and described the acceptance of lowest common denominators in
the consensus as "a partial failure of the science advisory
Boehmer-Christiansen (1995:3) goes further: "This
informed IPCC opinion or set of negotiated best guesses reflects
the conclusions not of
scientific community, which
has no recognised process of consensus creation and would be
shocked by the idea, but of a group identified as a handful
of research managers close to a small number of governments."
Not surprisingly, these governments were among the most active
in the negotiations, if not in action to reduce emissions of
so-called greenhouse gases.
Whatever the consensus achieved in 1992, it was
no foregone conclusion. In his history of scientific opinion
formation about acid precipitation, stratospheric ozone depletion,
and global warming, a Republican Presidential advisor in the
US, Michael Kowalok, points out that a pioneering 1985 meeting
in Villach, Austria, bringing together climate scientists from
29 developed and developing countries, reached conclusions that
"sharply conflicted with the conclusions of earlier groups"
(Kowalok, 1993:36). He also noted that many researchers into
these environmental issues were sceptical about the theories
and even about their own research findings until they were able
to exchange information with colleagues from around the world
The panel chair admits: "IPCC's conclusions have
been criticized in
, other parts of the scientific
literature and, to a greater extent, in the popular press, mainly
for lack of openness about uncertainties and for brushing aside
controversies" (Bolin, 1994). However, Bolin also argued that
only "a few scientists [...] believe that little can be said
about future climate based on our present knowledge" (ibid).
Among those criticizing the IPCC assessment,
the most respected is probably Professor Richard Lindzen of
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even Leggett (1993)
describes him as a "world class meteorologist."
Among climate scientists, however, there is no
doubt that Lindzen represents a minority view. Further, his
associations with industry have made him suspect (see below).
In fact, the IPCC academic opponents influential
in US official circles have all come from outside the meteorological
community. Professor William Nordhaus, for example, is a Yale
University economist. The campaigning environmental magazine
remarked: "Nordhaus's views on global warming
are neither an aberration within his profession nor are they
without consequence" (1992:42). John Gribbin further reported
that the two scientists who had President Bush's ear in their
criticisms of the IPCC consensus were an astronomer and oceanographer
The politics of consensus
But what kind of consensus was, in fact, achieved
by the scientific panel? Matthew Paterson (1994:185) declares:
"The IPCC Report, as a consensus document, was fairly cautious,
especially in its assessment of potential impacts." The IPCC
chair has made clear his approval of caution: "I believe that
balanced and careful reviews of current knowledge are of great
value both to help public awareness and to assist political
decision-making"(Bolin, 1994). Clayton notes approvingly: "Without
the network of self-critical scientists in panels such as the
IPCC there would be no credible consensus on which to base international
action" (Clayton, 1995:128).
On the other hand, Boehmer-Christansen (1995:2-3,8)
argues that the IPCC ideal of consensus enabled British scientists
to deliberately take a lead in the assessment work with an agenda
of their own, and one which increasingly also served the interests
of the UK Government (p13). In a British Government publication,
K. Mason even asserted: "Atmospheric issues [...] allow the
UK to exercise its science leadership [...] and maintain a seat
at the [international] table in terms of future standards, responsibilities
and opportunities"(Mason, 1993:33).
Under such pressures, the IPCC became narrowly
'scientific' rather than pro-active, against German and French
demands for immediate action in place of more research (Boehmer-Christiansen,
1995:12). At the same time, the negotiations were put in a legal
context which maintained British sovereignty over national control
measures rather than ceding them to the European Commission
(ibid). Speaking to the Second World Climate Conference in 1990,
the UK Prime Minister of the time, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, perhaps
not surprisingly, praised the scientific consensus, describing
it as remarkable (ibid:13).
Academic John Vogler (1995:204) pointed out the
politics behind the science in the climate change issue. The
creation of the IPCC, he says, represented "a successful attempt
by governments (notably the US government) to assert national
control over the climate change research process".
The IPCC was set up as an intergovernmental panel,
and the working groups for the scientific reviews consisted
of national scientists funded by research agencies, with inevitable
criticisms that they represented national interests (ibid:205).
Boehmer-Christiansen points out that Bolin is a research manager
close to the Swedish government (1995:10).
Developing countries saw themselves as poor relatives
at this banquet. Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain from a New Delhi
scientific 'think tank' accused the US-based World Resources
Institute of "politically motivated mathematics" when WRI produced
a "global pollution" league table which put India and China
among the top ten contributors to the greenhouse effect.
The Indian think tank researchers pointed out
that the world's two largest nations do not appear among the
20 major problem states if the league table is calculated according
to per capita emissions (Pearce, 1992:55).
This is not a rare source of tension. Vogler
notes similarities with complaints from developing nations that
demands for specialized technological knowledge kept them out
of the decision-making process for international telecommunications
(documented in Jasentuliyana and Chipman, 1985) while these
complaints were treated as attempts to "politicize" the negotiators'
technical work (Vogler, 1995:205)
The political sides in the debate came sharply
into focus within the European Union. The British conflict with
France and Germany has been already noted. In the debate on
control measures, the European Commission, its Environment Directorate,
and the governments of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands
pressed for an energy/carbon tax, with the tactical support
of others (Bergesen and Sydnes:40). The Brussels lobbies of
the electricity industry and large users of industrial energy
such as chemical, cement and steel groups fiercely opposed such
taxation, and the proposals were dropped (ibid).
Bergesen and Sydnes suggest that the European
Commission's ambitions to play a major role in world politics
lay partly behind its efforts for the Climate Change Convention,
particularly because of the vacuum left by US reluctance to
take action (ibid:40-1). In the US, Leggett records, the minority
scientific view was financially underwritten by parts of the
energy industry: "Lindzen's conclusion that the threat of climate
change has been overestimated by the IPCC has found strong favour
with the coal and oil lobby, who advance his ideas in their
publications on global warming, and fly him regularly to international
venues to promote his conclusion" (Legget, 1993:45).
The threshold of danger
Leggett makes a more fundamental objection to
Bolin's attempt to separate scientific advice from assessment
in the IPCC report on global warming: "Nowhere is an attempt
made to define the threshold of danger. Nowhere is the timeframe
for natural adaptation stipulated. However, even the most cursory
consideration of ecology shows that the Convention fails by
a mile to meet its objective with adequate commitments. [...]
There is no requirement for any government to stabilize its
national emissions at any level within any time" (Leggett, 1993:51).
To broaden the perspective from the previous
narrow focus for one moment: Bryan Wynne and Sue Mayer (1993)
contrast 'reductionist' British approaches to environmental
science with German acceptance of multiple interactions and
composite variables. Regulators are drawn into restricting only
those relationships where cause and effect be either proved
or shown to be reasonably unambiguous, they suggest. "These
attitudes have not only left Britain with a damaged international
reputation as an environmental laggard. They have also left
the country way behind in the development of many types of clean
technology that could be valuable export earners."
The politics of science
As numerous authors have pointed out, most scientific
activity has a socio-political dimension. "The acquisition of
knowledge is not a pure and objective affair, but depends on
circumstances, relationships and available tools," Kate de Selincourt
has stressed in reviewing a work on the sociology of science
(de Selincourt, 1995: 47).
At the most basic research level, as O'Riordan
(1995:7) indicates, individual scientists rely on peer review
- that is, the opinion of others in the scientific community
- in validating theories. De Groot (1993) notes the importance
of normative evaluation in the evolution of science.
"The scientific establishment is itself an interest
group with careers and research budgets to protect, just as
the bureaux of the various scientific and functional organizations
will compete for the scientific and policy 'turf'," Vogler (1995:205)
remarks. He considers that the climate change issue provided
"ample evidence of the interplay of special interests within
a very extended epistemic community" (ibid).
The concept of "epistemic communities"
was developed by Peter Haas (1992) to focus attention on the
communities of "experts" that have grown up in the world of
environmental policies, influential in defining the dimensions
of a problem and proposing solutions (ibid:42-3). He defines
epistemic communities as "transnational networks of knowledge-based
communities that are both politically empowered through their
claims to exercise authoritative knowledge and motivated by
shared causal and principled beliefs" (ibid:41). Though direct
descent is denied, Vogler sees links with the older "neo-functionalist"
view of international organization, particularly in its opposition
between politics and "ecologically sound consensual knowledge"
Environmental issues, in particular, tend to
involve political and social as well as scientific issues. Keith
Clayton (1995:128) argues "The environmental sciences exist
in a world of power, prejudice, wishful thinking and unjustified
alarm." O'Riordan (1995:112) comments: "One can see very quickly
how science can be ambushed for ideological and political purposes."
Boehmer-Christiansen described the global warming
issue as "greenwash for unpopular energy and taxation policies"
(1995:1). O'Riordan (1995:6) also argues that the function of
the IPCC in part was to provide formal justification of international
control measures that would be expensive and cost jobs.
Boehmer-Christiansen further suggests that opportunistic
responses to political developments, rather than new findings
as claimed by scientists, led to policy changes (1995:10). As
for the panel concern with consensus, she comments: "What consensual
knowledge does improve is the influence of its creator" (ibid:2).
In the case of the IPCC, British research leaders were able
to switch much of the national research activity towards global
environmental change at a time of severe reductions in other
fields (ibid:8), while increasing centralized control over British
science policy (ibid:1).
Buying scientific credibility
O'Riordan notes that scientists have almost as
much credibility with the general public as medical practitioners
and the clergy. Journalists and politicians are at the bottom
As a result, O'Riordan reports, industry is seeking
alliances with environmental scientists across a broad range
of issues. Epistemic community theorists, too, as Vogler points
out, realize that they can only change attitudes if the power
structure is understood and used (1995:209). Clayton declares:
"Good environmental science has to be both interactive and politically
It has even been observed of the climate change
scientists: "The function of IPCC has been to co-ordinate and
initiate research" rather than provide policy advice (Underdat
and Skodvin, 1994:35)
Science and the three paradigms
How to interpret what took place in the climate
change negotiations? Boehmer-Christiansen adopts largely a realist
(state-centred) interpretation of events. Haas, quite clearly,
is on the other side of the scale: liberal-pluralist in his
suggestion that international networks of experts make their
However, the realist view does not take account
of the way in which government policy was manipulated by scientific/research
managers, and epistemic-community theory neglects the predominant
role played by governments in the way scientific advice was
encouraged or received. Citing the US refusal to act on acid
emissions and the British decision to stop dumping sludge in
the North Sea, O'Riodan (1995:6) concludes: "Where urgent action
is desperately needed, then scientific advice is often subservient
to political expediency. [...] Where a problem is not perceived
as urgent, [..]scientific advice is welcomed as a justification
for delay." (he actually said "no scientific advice is welcomed..."
but the accompanying illustration makes it clear that this is
a typographical error).
A utilitarian hypothesis
Vogler sees the inadequacies of both perspectives
and suggests a "utilitarian hypothesis" of stable and self-sustaining
regimes (1995:207). "The recent history of environmental rgime-building
and change reveals that, contrary to the fixed motivational
assumptions of both realism and liberal utilitarianism, shifting
public values and their articulation by what might loosely be
described as idealistic political movements cannot be discounted,"
he observes (ibid:208).
Such multiple-paradigm explanations are common
enough in global political issues that they require a collective
label. I would suggest "post-realism", recognising the predominant
role of state institutions in the present international system,
while giving full weight to other factors, such as industry
and epistemic communities. "Post-realism" accepts that science
policy is expressed internationally through the "world of states"
(Miller, 1981:12) but it can only be fully understood via John
Burton's "cobweb model" (Mitchell, 1984; p62) of political structures
and processes rather than through the "billiard ball" (conflictual)
A cobweb model, modified
This cobweb model needs to be supplemented in
two crucial directions, however, to be functional in this, as
in many other spheres. The minor amendment is that the cobweb
model is not taken to imply a "world society" that is differentiated
from a more primitive world of international relations (ibid):
it can deal with a "broken cobweb" in which parts of the global
polity cannot be described as part of global politics.
More substantially, post-realism (accepting the
contributions of liberal-pluralism and Marxism to political
theory) requires analysts to specify the dynamics of the links
between the strands of the "cobweb". To use a biological analogy,
it tries to move global politics forward from taxonomy towards
ecology without getting stuck in natural history.
Both Boehmer-Christiansen (1995:7) and O'Riordan
(1995:6) note the legitimation role of science for political
decisions, which seems to place this special community outside
the control of normal political actors, even when it "extends
science into the world of politics, commerce and social change"
Through the issue of global climate change, Boehmer-Christiansen
suggests, "the global R&D enterprise discovered a new value-free,
fundable paradigm[...] Opportunities to address 'policy-makers'
proved to be an irresistible invitation for research leaders
to tell governments how little knowledge they actually possessed
and how much more would be required for rational policy" (1195a:3,11)
Rom Harr has pointed out that the class-permeated
theories of straightforward Marxism offer "too general a thesis
to be convincing as an explanation for the origin and spread
of specific scientific ideas" (Harr, 1985:193). However, David
Bloor, arguing from a neo-Marxist perspective in
and Social Imagery
(1976, cited by Harr ), has suggested
that scientific preferences lead to the appearance of certain
sorts of ideas which, looked at rather broadly, will be seen
to be correlated with the class interests of the scientists
involved (ibid:194). This argument is treated more sympathetically
by Harr. However, it does not presuppose a dualistic Marxist
view of class. The Weberian view of class as a collection of
similar interest groups seems equally valid.
Among the political scientists, O'Riordan (1995:5)
has argued that environmental science needs to see itself as
part of the structures of pressure, power, lobbying, prejudice
and dispute resolution, what has been termed "civic science".
The history of the Framework Convention on Global Climate Change,
however, showed environmental scientists firmly grasping this
concept to become manipulators as well as tools of state and
international institutions. One strategy was to separate "science"
from "policy" in time-honoured fashion, a division that remains
essentially contested (Buzan, 1984:7, citing W.B. Gallie) on
both general grounds and with regard to the climate convention's
decision-making process. Nevertheless, this proved sound strategically,
particularly because of the implications of the policy recommendations
for the economy and industry.
The process showed that only a paradigm which
acknowledges the predominant role of nation-states, the agenda-setting
capabilities of national and international actors such as industry
and the public, and the self-interested contribution of other
players can fully explain developments. The scientists, led
by 'reductionist' British research managers, promoted a narrow
view of science's contribution to the debate while at the same
time formulating their assessment in terms that strengthened
their claims to public science budgets. They were also able
to assert scientific hegemony over the issues, excluding much
from public debate. Perhaps it is therefore is not surprizing
that Professor Bolin, identified as close to the Swedish Government,
has asserted as chair of the IPPC: "In my view, it is impossible
to resolve key scientific issues in articles aimed at the general
public.[...] the scientific issues cannot so easily be explained"
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de Groot, W.T. (1993)
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People, States and Fear
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Appendix I: The IPCC consensus on climate change
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) said that many climatologists believe that global warming
as a result of the accumulation of trace gases in the atmosphere
could raise the world's average temperature by 2
within 50 years and mean sea-levels would rise by around 30-50cm
by 2030 (McNeely, 1995, p 27, citing Warrick, 1988).
McNeely (1995:27) summarizes the degrees of consensus
found by the panel as follows:
Fundamental physics of the greenhouse effect
Added greenhouse gases add heat
Greenhouse gases increasing because of human activity
Significant reduction of uncertainty will require
a decade or more
Full recovery will require many centuries
Projected effects by mid-21st Century
Large stratospheric cooling
Global mean surface-precipitation increase
Reduction of sea ice
Arctic winter surface warming
Rise in global sea-level
Local details of climate change
Tropical storm increases
Details of next 25 years
In this table,
means there is nearly
unanimous agreement among scientists and no credible alternative
there is roughly a 90% chance of occurrence
means there is approximately
a 2/3 chance of occurrence
means the evidence is lacking
for the hypothesized effect