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UN IPCC: Climate Change Analyst or Advocate?

The 2010 election brought another shift in the seesaw struggle to control U.S. climate policy. As one result, the new House Republican budget zeros out U.S. funding of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has launched a series of hearings on the IPCC process.

The IPCC does periodic assessment reports. These reports, within the realm of climate policy, largely define conventional wisdom. So the Republican challenge to the IPCC is nothing less than an attempt to storm the intellectual commanding heights of global discourse on the subject. The timing of this move is also portentous. The most recent of these reports, the fourth, AR4 in IPCC argot, was released in 2007, and the fifth is now in progress.

Much of the coming battle will rage around climate science; yet, the crux of the dispute actually lies elsewhere. It centers on the IPCCs relentless campaign to push greenhouse gas (GHG) control as the main response to climate change. The part of the IPCC that handles economics and politics, the so-called Working Group 3 (WG-3) spearheads this campaign. Surprisingly this part of the IPCC has so far largely escaped controversy.

WG-3 has insisted, with ever increasing dogmatism, that GHG controls, which must be global to be effective, will be both cheap and agreeable to all states. Thus, in its 2007 report, WG-3 writes warmly about the virtues of international agreements on climate. It goes on to catalogue many technologies that supposedly, were controls adopted by all states, might lower emissions at relatively modest cost. The problem is that the conditions needed for the world to adopt such measures, let alone for them to be cheap, simply do not exist.

In fact, WG-3s own earlier Third Assessment Report (TAR), albeit buried deep in the body of the report, raised grave doubts about the realism of this prospect. The TAR noted, for instance, that a durable global pact on GHG control appears to be highly improbable. It also pointed out that countries might need to use trade sanctions as a means to compel unwilling states to take part in such an agreement; this step might, of course, violate global trade rules. The costs of a global trade war might add quite a hefty sum to the price tag for building a GHG control regime? Indeed, the TAR also conceded that, for developed countries, like the U.S., the costs of inducing or compelling other states to take part in GHG controls might well exceed the environmental benefits of an agreement.

Clearly, these points from the third report clash with the blithe optimism of WG-3s fourth report. So, did something happen between the two reports to dispel the concerns raised? To the contrary, five more years of futile climate talks had added to the evidence that consensus on controls was absent.

The AR4, itself, hints at points that refute its own claims. It concedes, for instance, that weak legal and political institutions may preclude countries like China and India from using the more cost effective policy tools. But, if they must use high cost policy tools, then emission controls may not be cheap after all, and adopting them might yield net costs. This point, WG-3 studiously avoids making.

WG-3 now has new leadership. This change may nudge it toward more analysis and less advocacy. Many factors of the IPCC process, though, are likely to impede reform.

In any case, even a reformed WG-3 could provide only limited guidance to U.S. policy. America is a wealthy country with a temperate climate. As such, it has less to fear from climate change than do most other countries; at the same time, it has more to lose from stringent GHG controls. No UN body will ever produce analysis attuned to unique U.S. national interests. Congress, in assessing the IPCC, should, therefore, begin to focus on the actual core of the problem. That core is not climate science; it is WG-3s decision to become an advocate.

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