How to kneecap the IPCC with bad workflow

Politics, science, climate change, and the worst possible approval process

The article is behind The Economist’s paywall (and in its May 10, 2014 edition), under the playful heading Inside the sausage factory. It’s about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the process its members follow when pulling a short (30-ish page) summary out of a big report longer than anyone will ever read. The heading is unfair: A sausage factory would, by way of comparison, be a wholesome joyride.

The authors write a draft summary. Each sentence of the draft is projected onto a big screen in a giant hall. Officials then propose changes to the text; authors decide whether the changes are justified according to the full thousand-page report. Eventually a consensus is supposed to be reached, the sentence is approved or rejected, the chairman bangs a gavel and moves on to the next sentence.

Is this not the maddest possible system for creating coherent content about anything, let alone something as globally important as climate change? Is it any wonder that facts and opinions are treated interchangeably in so many debates about it? In letting the jobs of author and editor be so thoroughly perverted by a giant committee of conflicted interests, the IPCC has managed to ruin the whole idea of writing stuff down. It’s mindblowing and breathtaking and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

Professor Robert Stavins, of Harvard University, was a lead author on the report chapter about international co-operation. Delegates from countries all around the world hacked at his work until “three-quarters of his original draft was rejected and what remains is a list of disconnected facts, not a guide to the state of knowledge”. Oh, and the distillation of the report that these people are supposedly working on? It’s called the Summary for Policymakers. It still has that name, even though it’s been decapitated by representatives of the governments that we expect to make policy.

Perhaps this is the ultimate example of taking user testing too far.

As well as scientists and political delegates, the IPCC also has moral philosophers. One of them is Professor John Broome, from Oxford University. You can imagine his experience of a few hundred veto-weilding political appointees attacking his work “as though it were a legal document rather than a scientific report”. In fact, you needn’t imagine, because he’s written about the “extraordinary” way things worked. In so describing it, he displays the same remarkable restraint that lies behind the article’s title, At the IPCC. The details aren’t so innocuous.

During a brief break, the delegates formed a huddle in the corner, trying to agree text between themselves. We, who would be named as authors of the final product, were left as spectators. Eventually we were presented with a few sentences that, we were told, the developed countries would reject, and an alternative few sentences that, we were told, the developing countries would reject.

As he left the room, one delegate privately advised us not to depart far from his version of the text, because his delegation was very close to deleting the whole section anyway. This was the moment when I began to enjoy the whole event. The threat was not frightening. We privately pointed out in return that, if our section was deleted, we would no longer be authors of the SPM (Summary for Policymakers). We would be free to go to the press and publish what we liked. Moreover, all the ethics would have been deleted from the SPM. That would be embarrassing to whoever had deleted it, since the IPCC had been making a big show of incorporating ethics into its report.

In the world of IPCC content creation, this is what counts as a happy ending:

Some brief paragraphs on ethics survived all the way to the approved final version. They have been mauled, and their content diminished, but they are not entirely empty. We were lucky.

All of this makes it a lot harder to get angry at the sort of workflow that we put with in our day jobs. Four approvers, maybe five? It could literally be fifty times worse.

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