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The Political Agenda of the IPCC
Scientific Assessment or Environmental Advocacy Group? Pick One
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established as a scientific assessment process more than 35 years ago. Scientific assessments are of critical importance in many areas to help policy makers and the public to identify what is known, what is uncertain, as well as where there is contestation, uncertainties and areas of fundamental ignorance. Such assessments can also help us to understand policy options and expectations for how different choices might lead to different outcomes.
Regular readers of The Honest Broker will know that I have taken issue with the recent IPCC Sixth Assessment (AR6) based on an unacceptable number of errors and omissions in my areas of expertise, as well as its over-reliance on the most extreme climate scenarios. Today I take a look at the IPCC’s self-described political agenda and argue that the institution finds itself at a fork in the road.
Before proceeding, I want to be clear about what I mean when I talk about “the IPCC.” In one sense there is really no such thing as “the IPCC.” The organization’s assessment process includes many hundreds of people who do their work across three Working Groups to produce many dozens of chapters covering a wide range of topics. The Working Groups are largely independent of each other and even chapters within the same Working Group can be written largely independently of other chapters.
In another sense there is indeed such a thing as the IPCC — Specifically, its leadership and most engaged participants. These core participants represent a kind of climate in-group with a shared sense of purpose and an overarching commitment to a shared political agenda. For some people, their entire career is centered on the IPCC. These core participants do have a shared political agenda which can be seen in varying degrees within the reports.
So what is the political agenda of the IPCC in-group? Transformational change
When the IPCC released its Synthesis Report in March, it announced:
Taking the right action now could result in the transformational change essential for a sustainable, equitable world
It would be easy to write this sentence off as containing consultant-like and empty buzzwords. But the notion of “transformational change” has been widely employed in the academic literature on climate and the IPCC clearly defines what it means by “transformational change.”
In its AR6 Working Group 3 report the IPCC explains that transformation involves more than simply transitioning from one type of technology to another (emphasis added):
While transitions involve ‘processes that shift development pathways and reorient energy, transport, urban and other subsystems’ (Loorbach et al. 2017) (Chapter 16), transformation is the resulting ‘fundamental reorganisation of large-scale socio-economic systems’ (Hölscher et al. 2018). Such a fundamental reorganisation often requires dynamic multi-stage transition processes that change everything from public policies and prevailing technologies to individual lifestyles, and social norms to governance arrangements and institutions of political economy
Transformational change means that everything changes.
What are examples of these sorts of changes? The IPCC identifies “the potential for virtuous cycles of individual level and wider social changes that ultimately benefit the climate.”
The IPCC continues (emphasis added):
The starting point for this virtuous circle are inner transitions. Inner transitions occur within individuals, organisations and even larger jurisdictions that alter beliefs and actions involving climate change (Woiwode et al. 2021). An inner transition within an individual (see e.g., Parodi and Tamm 2018) typically involves a person gaining a deepening sense of peace and a willingness to help others, as well as protecting the climate and the planet . . .”
What are examples of such “inner transitions”? The IPCC explains:
Examples have also been seen in relation to a similar set of inner transitions to individuals, organisations and societies, which involve embracing post-development, degrowth, or non-material values that challenge carbon-intensive lifestyles and development models . . .
The IPCC discusses the importance of “degrowth” to its vision of transformation in its AR6 Working Group 2 report:
Consumption reductions, both voluntary and policy-induced, can have positive and double-dividend effects on efficiency as well as reductions in energy and materials use . . . a low-carbon transition in conjunction with social sustainability is possible, even without economic growth (Kallis et al. 2012; Jackson and Victor 2016; Stuart et al. 2017; Chapman and Fraser 2019; D’Alessandro et al. 2019; Gabriel and Bond 2019; Huang et al. 2019; Victor 2019). Such degrowth pathways may be crucial in combining technical feasibility of mitigation with social development goals (Hickel et al. 2021; Keyßer and Lenzen 2021).
These views are no doubt legitimate and sincerely held. But I seriously doubt that a climate agenda focused on changing everything, grounded in inner transitions to support degrowth is going to get very far in Peoria, much less anywhere else. More broadly, why are they being used to frame a scientific assessment?
I’m far from the first to recognize that the IPCC has adopted a political agenda focused on transformational change. Writing in 2022, Lidskog and Sundqvist explain:
Transformation has become a buzzword within scientific and political discourses in which “transformative change” is stated to be the solution to many severe environmental challenges. Expert organizations such as the IPCC and IPBES have stressed that transformative change is necessary to meet environmental challenges (IPCC, 2018; IPBES, 2019). . . While transformative change is seen as the way forward and as an uncontroversial ambition—it is difficult to find anyone who is critical of it—its meaning is nevertheless unclear.
The adoption of transformational change as an overriding political objective in the IPCC AR6 (and in the IPCC 1.5 report before that) represents a departure from a more politically neutral use of the concept in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). In 2014, the AR5 described “transformation pathways” to refer to technological alternatives for mitigation, not to demand that everything must change across society:
Stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations at any level will require deep reductions in GHG emissions. Net global CO2 emissions, in particular, must eventually be brought to or below zero. Emissions reductions of this magnitude will require large-scale transformations in human societies, from the way that we produce and consume energy to how we use the land surface. The more ambitious the stabilization goal, the more rapid this transformation must occur. A natural question in this context is what will be the transformation pathway toward stabilization; that is, how do we get from here to there?
The IPCC AR5 acknowledged that there were many ways to address accumulating greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere:
[T]here is no single pathway to stabilization of GHG concentrations at any level. Instead, the literature elucidates a wide range of transformation pathways. Choices will govern which pathway is followed . . .
This expansive view of policy possibilities is far removed from “processes that change everything” and a “deepening sense of peace.” The IPCC AR5 and AR6 have been rightly criticized for not considering a larger set of possibilities for mitigation (notably, equity), which also reflects a political orientation.
The IPCC – or to be more precise, influential elements of the IPCC – appears to have been captured by an in-group with shared political views related to climate. These views embrace concepts like degrowth and planetary boundaries and turn climate policy on its head such that ends become means.
Transformational change views climate policy as a lever through which to “change everything.” The expressed need for such momentous changes across society are grounded in a frightening, even apocalyptic, perspective on the future. As the head of the IPCC exhorted in March, the IPCC “underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”
The political agenda of the IPCC reads as if it was developed by wealthy American and Europeans academics. The billions of people around the world who may lack energy services or enough food probably would welcome an agenda of change. Instead, the IPCC emphasizes transformational changes in the lifestyles of ordinary people in rich countries, for instance, the recent Synthesis Report explained: “Many mitigation actions would have benefits for health through lower air pollution, active mobility (e.g., walking, cycling), and shifts to sustainable healthy diets.”
I have little doubt that many who have worked on the IPCC AR6 might read this post and say, “Hmmm, I never saw any of that,” others might say, “Yup, that’s our agenda, so what?” and still others might say, “I have a different political or professional agenda that I inserted into the report.” Further, one can surely dive into the almost 10,000 pages of the AR6 reports and selectively construct a different political narrative. However, I argue that “transformational change” is what in the jargon of symbolic politics is called the “master symbol” — the dominant political framing of the AR6.
The IPCC has clearly departed from its role as a scientific assessment and is now much more deeply engaged in political advocacy. Trying to simultaneously engage in assessment and advocacy is never a good idea. I hypothesize that the IPCC’s political agenda of transformational change plays more than a small role in its stubborn reliance on implausibly extreme scenarios and its multiple errors and omissions related to the science of extreme weather and disasters — both of which help to underscore the demand for urgent and large-scale societal change.
The IPCC finds itself at a fork in the road and should be reformed. It needs to either operate as a trustworthy scientific assessment or alternatively, to fully embrace its current role as an environmental advocacy group pushing transformational change. There is no middle ground.
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