This is a guest post by Bernie Lewin.
Mostly on the blogs we give our attention to the corruption of climate science by the politics of climate change. However, beyond the physics of climate and its physical impact, recently there has been a small revival of interest in the economic damages climate change is expected to cause, and how the costings of these damages is weighed against the costings of various mitigation efforts.
Such cost/benefit analysis should be the ultimate instruction to policy action, yet it introduces whole new layers of uncertainty that render such assessments even less tolerable to sceptics. This analysis is no more tolerable, or tolerated, even where the results present sober and moderate, even when they all but call off the alarm. This hit home hard with the recent treatment of work by a reader and commenter on this site: Richard Tol might be one of the most vocal and scathing expert critics of the Stern Review, but he still had to weather the onslaught against his own sobering damage assessment when it was posted on WUWT.
Tol’s willingness to engage across the borders of this fractious debate is admirable, and some BH readers may know of his previous work with Bjørn Lomborg on the Copenhagen Consensus. But many readers may not know that Tol’s very academic career was baptised in an earlier fiery controversy. While still a PhD candidate in his early 20s, Tol was swept up in the first public controversy ever to hit the IPCC.
The tale of this ‘price of life controversy’, like the tale of Tol’s career, is not easily reduced to a simple yarn of black and white, sceptic/alarmist, good and evil. Its significance presents in more subtle ways, and sometime in direct contradiction to the motives of the various actors. Thus, this story takes a bit of work to get into. However, it may reward those readers curious about the early history of the IPCC during the time when it was still engaging with the gathering political forces but not yet overwhelmed by them. The following is a short summary, while more detail can be found here.
Back in the early 1990s our Richard Tol was promoted to a ‘lead author’ of the Working Group III ‘damages’ chapter (Chapter 6) of the 2nd Assessment, mostly in acknowledgement of all his work in preparing it. But this was also, and in turn, because the doctorial dissertation he was simultaneously drafting was one of two draft theses (the other by Fankhauser, also duly promoted) that became the twin capitals supporting the IPCCs first full assessment of global damage costing estimates.
The controversy over Chapter 6 first hit the press as the first Conference of Parties to the climate treaty opened in Berlin (March–April 1995). Just prior to the conference India had called on other poor-country delegations to reject the damages assessment in the recently circulated final draft of Chapter 6. These estimates were ‘absurd and discriminatory’ due to the fact that they valued the death of the world’s poor much less than the death of the rich. And, as the IPCC assessment is supposed to provide ‘the basis for the policy discussion’, the Indians called on other delegations to support them in their efforts to have the ‘misdirection’ of this ‘faulty economics’ ‘purged from the process’.
India continued to make this appeal though COP1 and beyond, with a number of key players, including China, receptive and willing to support their protests. This ruckus in Berlin over the price of life set the scene for a robust confrontation when the intergovernmental plenary convened to finalise the Working Group III Summary for Policymakers three months later in Geneva.
At the Geneva Plenary, left alone to defend the chapter from an orchestrated diplomatic onslaught were our two grad-student lead authors. The more senior chapter authors had stayed away, including their PhD supervisors Vellinga and Pearce, and one Indian author, R. K. Pachauri, who kept his head down during the whole controversy. And so it fell to Tol and Fankhauser to refuse the repeated demands by a bloc of developing-country delegations who insisted they change their assessment. With both sides holding firm, the plenary collapsed in a stalemate. When it was reconvened in Montreal, Tol was left alone to mount the defence. The controversy eventually subsided but it was never fully resolved. Indeed, a truce was brokered in Montreal, but this was apparently against the IPCC rules, for the expert authors explicitly and repeatedly rejected as a distortion of their assessment the published version of the damages section in the policymakers’ summary.
This forgotten controversy in many ways stands distinct from the other big controversies that were to follow. By way of contrast, consider the Chapter 8 controversy that blew up the following year when the 2nd Assessment was published and the published version of Chapter 8 was found to have been ‘doctored’ so that a weak attribution claim could to be inserted into the spin machine motoring relentlessly towards Kyoto. In that dispute, as in many that followed, the alarm was raised by sceptics concerned about overstating the case. In contrast, the ‘price of life’ controversy was initiated in the UK by a small radical group of green activists concerned that the case for action was not strong enough. (The campaign was most active and effective in the UK, where it included such direct action as the picketing of Pearce’s research centre, but it was explicitly opposed by the mainstream green NGOs.)
Consider also that while Ben Santer quietly consented to changing the final draft of Chapter 8, the authors of the Chapter 6 publically and angrily resisted increasing pressure to do so. (And they resisted even to the point where both sides were out in the science press embarrassing the IPCC with calls to have the chapter removed entirely from the assessment.) And finally, consider that the version of the Summary for Policymakers agreed to at the Madrid Working Group I inter-governmental plenary ended up by strengthening the Chapter 8 attribution findings. In contrast, in the Working Group III Plenary there was a successful push from among the political delegations to stress the uncertainties and dilute the damages results given in the Chapter.
These differences go some of the way towards explains why this controversy is forgotten, but they do not diminish its significance. Key issues emerge as unheeded omens of the Hockey Stick controversy and the other scandals arising after Climategate. These relate to the treatment of uncertainty, the use of unpublished sources, the abuse of peer-review processes and other signs of virtuous corruption. Moreover, behind the very push to re-constitute Working Group III for the 2nd Assessment – so as to cover the economic and social dimensions of the problem – was an attempt to incorporate the broader sustainable development goals of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit into the IPCC assessment processes. The tensions that developed in this Working Group, and which erupted in this controversy, can only be understood by recognising that this was always more than about the climate. Just as with the Toronto climate conference of 1988, here we find another bold attempt to channel the aspirations of the sustainable development movement towards realisation in policies driven by climate fear.
And this is why, for some activists, the bottom-line result of the Chapter 6 damage assessment was so disappointing when it came out at 1.5–2% of GDP for a doubling of CO2. With only a one or two percent impact on GDP after perhaps one hundred years of business-as-usual emissions, there was no suggestion that we should be racing to the panic button. The mainstream green lobby involved in the treaty talks and in IPCC plenaries seemed less concerned with this mediocre result than they were about losing the cooperation of some very powerful developing nations. But this controversy now drove the (leaked) draft of the chapter into the daylight, where this bottom-line result was found to be unqualified by any confidence interval, and it was soon lampooned in the science press as ‘ridiculously definite’. The social costings, including the costing of human life, were described as ‘the economics of the madhouse’ and ‘a lunatic way to count the cost’.
Such criticism appeared in the news and letters pages of New Scientist and Nature, where it was sometimes even attributed to economic experts in the field. So, while this barrage against the chapter served the interests of those driving the campaign for a more radical and socially equitable result, it also served to bring the IPCC assessment and its process generally into disrepute. Towards the end of the controversy (but long before the Chapter 8 controversy broke) an editorial in Nature, scathing of the IPCC, concluded with the recommendation that Working Group II and III should be suspended while Working Group I got its act together.
Forgotten this controversy may be, nonetheless it seems to link various themes in the whole drama. And also various players. While Bert Bolin was, behind the scenes, setting the stage for this re-constituted Working Group III, the current chairman of the IPCC had his first modest walk-on non-speaking role (a role that the audience is left wondering might have been much larger, what with the treaty talks being threatened by his own countrymen over his own chapter). There were also cameo appearances from some other giants of the larger controversy. These include two distinguished British citizens who added their authority to the protest against Chapter 6. The first was the former advisor to Prime Minister Thatcher and founding father of British climate alarmism, Crispin Tickell. The second was Martin Rees, the astronomer who turned eschatologist before his elevation to the British peerage and the presidency of the Royal Society. But the most fascinating figure in the whole controversy is undoubtedly its very instigator, Aubrey Meyer. A violinist and composer, Meyer’s activist career was launched after he experienced a remarkable life-changing epiphany upon hearing of the death of an Amazonian rubber tapper called Chico Mendes.