Scientists recall experiences with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

"Don't live on the coasts, don't live on the mountains, and don't live on the plains," quipped Stanford climate expert Chris Field, alluding to the worrisome consequences of global warming. "And don't be an animal or a plant," added Terry Root, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

The two biologists made their remarks April 11 at the Energy Seminar, a weekly series of talks organized by the Woods Institute. They joined Stephen Schneider, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies and co-director of the Center for Environmental Science and Policy; John Weyant, a professor (research) of management science and engineering; and Michael Mastrandrea, a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, in describing their experiences of working on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Barton H. "Buzz" Thompson Jr., director of the Woods Institute, moderated the event.

The 1,000-page assessment report is meant to serve as a tool to aid government policymakers in reducing climate change and mitigating its effects. The scientists speaking at last week's seminar offered a glimpse of the complicated, frustrating and entertaining inner workings of the panel as it struggled to hash out controversial reports that must be deemed acceptable by more than 100 countries.

The IPCC is organized into three working groups. The first group focuses on the scientific aspects of climate change; the second assesses the vulnerability of socioeconomic and natural systems to climate change and options for adapting to it; and the third considers options for mitigating climate change. Root, Field, Mastrandrea and Schneider worked on the second group's contribution to the report, which was finalized on April 5; Weyant will serve as a review editor for the third group's contribution, which is scheduled for approval on May 4 in Bangkok.

Each speaker began with a five- to 10-minute presentation about his or her role in the IPCC proceedings. Root said that she was asked to be a lead author for the fourth report after she criticized the first and second reports for ignoring the impact of climate change on wildlife. "There are more species on this planet than just us," she said.

Root worked on the first chapter, titled "Assessment of Observed Changes and Responses in Natural and Managed Systems," and said that she considered the evidence supporting climate change's effects on wildlife, such as increasing extinction rates and shifting migration patterns, to be indisputable; nonetheless, she was "grilled on a podium for seven hours" by policymakers who wanted her to change the wording of the chapter.

"A lot of countries did not want to sign something saying that climate change is already having an effect," she said. "It is a very political fight that goes on."

Mastrandrea worked on chapter 19, "Addressing Key Vulnerabilities and the Risk from Climate Change." He laid out a timeline to describe the cumbersome process of writing and editing that must be undertaken. The first draft was created in September 2004 at the first lead author meeting in Vienna. After this, the group read through 100 pages of expert and government reviews and suggested edits. A few months later, they met to draft a second version. This revision process continued for more than three years. "The language is actually negotiated line by line," Mastrandrea explained.

The other presenters also recalled spending countless hours debating, defending and altering minor details that countries considered threatening to their economic or political interests. "There's been a huge amount of discussion as to whether the process really maintains the integrity of the science," said Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. He added, "Unless things are absolutely, fundamentally, incontrovertibly nailed down, they get wrested away from you."

Field served as coordinating lead author for chapter 14 of the report, which focused on the implications of global warming for North America, including dramatic decreases in the water stored in mountain snow packs, changes in sea level and the timing of seasonal events, and increasing incidences of natural disasters, such as wildfires and hurricanes.

Field said that after Hurricane Katrina his group "felt extremely well validated that we had highlighted hurricane sensitivity along the Gulf Coast as a key vulnerability."

Field warned that the poor will be the ones to suffer from the effects of greenhouse gases emitted by the rich. Even within North America, where "the society as a whole is relatively rich, there are still very vulnerable regions and very vulnerable populations," he said.

"There will be some testy interactions among developed and developing countries," he added.

Schneider, who also is a senior fellow at the Woods Institute, served as a coordinating lead author for chapter 19 and recently attended the April 2-5 IPCC plenary session in Brussels, during which scientists and policymakers hammered out the final version of the report. Schneider showed pictures of high-level scientists and government officials dozing during the plenary proceedings, which typically lasted until past midnight and, on one occasion, continued until 10 a.m. the next morning.

The scientists, who believe that "the truth shall set you free," were like "babes in the wood" when faced with the political savvy of lifelong diplomats, Schneider said.

"There were some big issues that we simply had to accept, otherwise we wouldn't have had a report," Schneider said. "In the end it's worth it, but it's a frustrating process."

A current adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, Weyant laughingly described the contentious atmosphere of the panel. He recalled being told at a prior plenary, "Would you like to step into my office? I will either convince you that I'm right or break your arm."

Weyant specializes in economic modeling related to climate change. He attempts to assign a value to the future cost of climate change by predicting the economic, social, political and technological conditions during the next 100 years.

Weyant criticized the "all-or-nothing" attitude that many countries have adopted regarding climate change mitigation procedures. He urged governments to be proactive instead of waiting for climate change to become an even more serious issue. He advised, "Let's do the things that we know are low cost."

He spoke optimistically about the role of future technologies, particularly biofuels and solar cells. "We'll see breakthroughs we can't even imagine today," he said.

Chelsea Anne Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.