Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2022. Robert Lyman’s bio can be read here.
In September 2022, Jason Johnston, a prominent lawyer and economist who teaches at the University of Virginia Law School, published an essay by behalf of the Fraser Institute entitled, “The Hand of Government in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”. In this article, I will summarize Professor Johnston’s main findings and briefly comment on them.
Professor Johnston’s essay can be found here:
The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988. It has since been presented to the public, and celebrated by the media, as the most authoritative and objective source of analysis concerning the science and policy issues concerning the global climate. The IPCC has since 1988 produced six detailed assessments of the state of climate science and associated subjects.
Professor Johnston describes the origins, structure, process and outputs of the IPCC. He finds that the reliance of the public and governments on the IPCC as an objective source of information and analysis is badly misplaced.
“The IPCC is not and never has been an objective science assessment organization. It was created by and has always been controlled by the governments of countries that perceive political benefits from international regulatory action to deduce greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC is a scientific advocacy organization. It presents science that supports costly regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while suppressing or ignoring entirely scientific work that shows that the cost of such action is likely far higher and the benefits far lower than advertised.”
What is the IPCC?
The average person, reading press reports and hearing the claims of climate activists, might think that the IPCC is primarily a scientific organization. It is not. It is mainly an administrative body consisting of delegates from governments of the 195 member countries of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCC). The panel holds plenary meetings to oversee the work of the IPCC bureau, a 30-member agency, or secretariat, headquartered in Geneva. The IPCC bureau directs three working groups (on the physical science; on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and on mitigation of climate change) and a task force on national greenhouse gas inventories. The working groups, in turn, manage the process of producing assessment reports following the procedures developed by the IPCC.
While the procedures and processes used are important, they are driven by the fundamental nature of the political process and objectives that define the IPCC. As Professor Johnston explains in detail, as early as 1975, the United Nations was developing plans for an international organization that would study climate change and its implications. At the First World Climate Conference in 1979, Mustafa Tolba, the UNEP leader (and a close ally of Maurice Strong) called for an international effort “using the climate change threat… to advance its own policy-oriented research agenda and to draw attention to global mutuality and therefore questions of development”. During the 1980’s, the UNEP and WMO sponsored several studies and reports, including the so-called Scope 29 report, and urged study participants to encourage “a wider debate on such issues as the costs and benefits of a radical shift away from fossil fuel consumption”.  At a seminal meeting in Toronto in 1988 attended by 341 delegates, the focus of the discussion turned decidedly political. Of the 341 delegates, only 73 were physical scientists, versus 20 politicians and diplomats, 118 legal advisors and senior government officials, and 50 environmental activists. The conference’s report recommendations were “drafted by a committee composed mostly of environmentalists and discussed in less than a day”. The conference recommended “immediate action… to counter the ongoing degradation of the atmosphere”, including a framework convention. In other words, the attention had shifted from scientific research to marshalling evidence that would support international policy action.
Citing the research of policy historian Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, Professor Johnston explains the economic incentive partially behind the IPCC’s initial formation.
“Most European countries and Japan have highly developed, fossil-fuel-dependent economies but have much more limited national fossil fuel resources. From the point of view of such fossil fuel poor countries, moving away from fossil fuels has been viewed as a necessity. But it is a costly one, with potentially devastating consequences for international economic competitiveness and national economic growth. Since the 1970s, fossil fuel importing countries have had a national policy imperative to ensure that all major developed countries bear the costs of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. An international agreement to move away from fossil fuels has long been the end goal.”
The IPCC Process
The most important documents produced by the IPCC are the assessment reports, issued roughly once every five years. The government appointees who comprise the IPCC panel have ultimate control over every aspect of the process by which IPCC assessment reports are created. The panel sets guidelines for assessment reports production and chooses the members of the bureau, a group that directly supervises the assessment report production process. The bureau is composed of the IPCC chair, several IPCC vice-chairs, and other IPCC leaders. The bureau selects the lead authors who are in charge of producing the working group reports. It does not make public the criteria by which these choices are made.
The contents of these reports often contain valuable scientific information, but they are so long and complex that few in the media or general public read them. Cognizant of this, the IPCC has a separate process for the preparation of a Summary for Policy Makers for each working group report. The scientists who have written the full working group report write the first draft of the Summary for Policy Makers. Government officials then comment on and revise that draft. Then, over several days, the entire IPCC panel of government representatives goes through the summary line by line, and can insist that portions of the summary be re-written or deleted. The top-down control operates to produce less science assessment than science advocacy. Up until the (latest) 2021 Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), the Summaries for Policy Makers were published many months before the reports they summarized, making it impossible near the time of release to compare the documents.
Professor Johnston is especially critical of the IPCC’s failure to conduct a peer review process comparable to that employed by peer-reviewed scientific journals. Examples of IPCC shortcomings include the fact that authors are free to ignore what peer reviewer say; in some cases, the majority of reviewers are the authors themselves; and no outside scientists can deem a report so flawed as to be unpublishable.
The IPCC’s Reports
Given the problems of political control and flawed process, it would be surprising if IPCC reports offered a balanced assessment of what is in the latest scientific literature or a detached and objective view of the policy considerations that derive from the science. Instead, as Professor Johnston writes:
“IPCC reports are only fulsome in regards to the evidence supporting the position that recently observed climate change is unprecedented, attributable to human GHG emissions, and will cause harm unless immediate steps are taken to reduce such emissions. While mention of contrasting evidence can sometimes be found in the reports, it is typically handled in a brief, argumentative, and dismissive manner. IPCC working group reports support the IPCC’s preferred policy outcome: immediate and costly steps to reduce GHG emissions.”
Professor Johnston’s essay strays so far from the “consensus views” on climate and the authoritativeness of the IPCC that one can be virtually certain he will be attacked, not for the validity of his assessment, but for his credentials and integrity. In fact, Professor Johnston received both his JD (Juris Doctor) and PhD in economics from the University of Michigan. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and at the University of Virginia Law School. He has served on the Board of the American Law and Economics Association, the Searle Civil Justice Institute and on the National Science Foundation Law and Social Science Grant Review Panel. He is the author of 43 peer-reviewed academic articles and several book chapters. He has recently authored the book Climate Rationality: From Bias to Balance. To answer the inevitable implied slight from climate campaigners, he has never worked in the oil and gas industry.
As valuable as I think Professor Johnston’s essay is, I wonder whether it has come too late in the day to have the impact it, and works like it, should have on the policy debate about climate in Canada and other countries. The scientific underpinnings of climate catastrophism sadly are by now broadly accepted by the vast majority of citizens, so much so that the banal insult that one is a “climate denier” is usually enough to disqualify a commentator from serious consideration. All major political parties in Canada and the United States accept the catastrophe claims, regardless of the fundamental flaws in the underlying science, policy and economic justifications. The media barely pays attention to the latest IPCC Assessment Reports; the catastrophe thesis is accepted, public policy insists upon unthinking acceptance of the urgency of radical mitigation, and dissenters are quickly silenced.
One can only hope that the accumulated effects of bad public policies – massive overspending, overreach of government mandates and control of people’s lives, the destruction of strategic resource industries, high inflation, increased energy security problems, etc. – will produce a counter-reaction on the part of the voting public strong enough to produce a change in attitudes and ultimately in governments. Until then, the voices that call for scientific rigor and balance in climate policy will be welcome but not enough.
- Bodansky, Daniel (1994). Prologue to the Climate Change Convention. In Irving M. Mintzer (ed). Negotiating Climate Change: The Inside Story of the Rio Convention (Cambridge University Press): 45-74
- Boehmer-Christiansen, Sonja (1994). Global Climate Protection Policy: The Limits of Scientific Advice: Part I. Global Environmental Change 4, 2:140-159
- McKitrick, Ross. (2013). Chapter 3: Adversarial versus Consensus Processes for Assessing Scientific Evidence: Should the IPCC Operate More Like a Courtroom? In Jason Scott JohnJohston (ed.) Institutions and Incentives in Regulatory Science (Lexington Book): 55-74