Poiesis & Praxis

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 197–209

Scientization: putting global climate change on the scientific agenda and the role of the IPCC


    • Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and EnergyResearch Group “Future Energy and Mobility Structures”

DOI: 10.1007/s10202-010-0083-5

Cite this article as:
Keller, S. Poiesis Prax (2010) 7: 197. doi:10.1007/s10202-010-0083-5


Since the 1970s, climate change has dominated the international scientific and political agenda. In particular, the foundation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the end of the 1980s played a major role for the further enhancement of efforts in the field of climate change sciences. However, to understand the interaction of the worldwide coordination of climate change sciences as well as the role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its consequences, it is worthwhile to take a look at the self-conception of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s tasks and work. This paper gives an idea of the history of international climate change science, its representation in public discourse and the role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by comprehensively illustrating its tasks, organization and self-image. Furthermore, the article tries to argue that the hitherto accepted concept of science followed within this body fails to integrate the idea of scientific ethics. It can be concluded that the conception of science represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has heavily influenced worldwide attention to climate change, its becoming part of the political agenda as well as the ethical consequences.

1 Introduction

In 2007, Bert Bolin, the former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published a book recollecting his impressions regarding his work for the IPCC. It also gives an idea of how an individual view of scientific work has influenced the international agenda-setting in the field of climate change. Therefore, this paper examines how this process of scientific action in the field of climate change has evolved and what the crucial points within this development are.

First, a short history of climate change in science gives an idea of the time when basic knowledge was available to effectuate further action. Since the 1970s, climate change has become an international issue, and some important events marked a new era. In the late 1980s, the IPCC’s foundation set a new landmark and both its mission and organization will be described here. In the following, the IPCC’s self-image and the concept of science which is crucial for the understanding of the process are analysed by focussing on the example of the interpretation of Article 2 of the United Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Concluding remarks comprise the result of this structural analysis.

2 The history of climate change in science before 1970

Some of the essential findings for the explanation of the physical basis of climate change have already been disclosed by scientists for a long time. In 1827, for the first time, Baron Jean-Baptiste Fourier mentioned that the climate of the earth’s surface can be modified by human activity (Fourier 1827).1 Obviously, at this time, such statements lacked hard evidence due to few experimental possibilities and therefore it was only treated as an invalidated assumption. About 1860, John Tyndall added data about the absorbative capacity of gases.2 This is very important to climate change science as small incremental changes of the earth’s atmosphere can lead to considerable changes of the whole system (Luhmann 2009a: 3).

Probably the most famous of the first scientists working in this field of climate change is Svante Arrhenius, who first mentioned the phenomenon that is today known as climate sensitivity and who compiled former research done on this issue. In 1896, he estimated that the global temperature would be expected to change due to man-made actions, in effect assuming an anthropogenic climate change due to the effect of greenhouse gases. Furthermore, he stated3 that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would change the earth’s surface temperature by +5°C (Arrhenius 1896). However, up to then, the growth of CO2 emissions had not been noted by scientists. Guy Stewart Callendar was the first to link a rise in the (anthropogenic) burning of fossil fuels to an increase in CO2 emissions accompanied by earth’s surface temperature in the 1930s (Callendar 1938). In the following, this has been called the “Callendar-Effect” which could be observed until the 1950s. However, a break in the increasing global temperature increase in the middle of the last century, as illustrated in Fig. 1, made Callendar’s correlation less convincing for a large group of scientists.
Fig. 1

Global annual surface temperatures (relative to 1951–1980 mean temperatures) (NASA 2009)

In the 1950s and 1960s, Roger Revelle4 played an important role for the science of climate change. Together with Hans Suess, he pointed out that the capability of oceans to absorb anthropogenic CO2 emissions5 was limited (Weart 2009). In 1965, Revelle mentioned the threat of anthropogenic climate change caused by burning fossil fuels in the chapter “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide” in the framework of an official report to the United States (US) Presidential Advisory Council about environmental issues (The White House 1965). However, most research programmes related to climate change had a military background until the 1970s as meteorological issues were of vital importance to modern military technology and strategy.

3 Climate change and international science 1970–1990

In the 1970s and later on, research with respect to climate change became more global. Due to the computerization of science, modelling and scenario development became part of the international research agenda and climate change research strongly benefited. Public perception increased and thus global climate change conferences gained consideration and importance.

The first widely recognized conference was the United Nations (UN) Conference on Human Development in Stockholm 1972. There, these computer-related issues mentioned previously became obvious as first-time scientists could present “results from a numerical climate model predicting climate development into the next century” (Alfsen and Skodvin 1998:7). In 1979, the first World Climate Conference launching the World Climate Programme (WCP) took place in Geneva.6 The WCP organized a series of scientific workshops held in Villach and Bellagio in the following years, where a consensus was achieved on the fact that global mean temperatures are rising: “Several scientific meetings followed in 1983, 1985 and 1987 in Villach (Austria) and Bellagio (Italy) […] and in 1985 participants from 29 countries warned for the first time of the danger of anthropogenic climate change.” (Brauch et al. 2009:82).

In 1987, the Brundtland Report determined the widely recognized definition of sustainable development and put climate change on the official UN agenda: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). In the latter 1980s, the official conference agenda of climate change was intensified and the link to global security was established on the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto 1988. Conference participants suggested a 20% reduction of CO2 emissions until 2005 compared to the basis of 1988 and a final reduction of 50% of CO2 emissions as stabilizing level (World Meteorological Organization (WMO) et al. 1989).7 Moreover, the foundation of the IPCC took place in 1988 as explained comprehensively later in the text. In 1990, the Second World Climate Conference8 in Geneva prepared the ground for the first Earth Summit in Rio by paying attention to the threat of climate change.

4 Climate change and science after 1988—the IPCC

Starting in 1988 with the foundation of the IPCC, the international science landscape mostly concentrated on this body thus credited the IPCC great importance for the further scientific research process.

In the course of the Villach conferences, it was agreed upon to initiate an intergovernmental mechanism coordinated by the WMO, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and also the International Council of Scientific Unions’ (ICSU) Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) to coordinate the science community and concentrate efforts in the field of climate change research. Therefore, all WMO member governments were invited for a first IPCC session supported by the General Assembly at the end of 1988: “The General Assembly […] endorses the action […] in […] establishing an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to provide internationally coordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, timing and potential environmental and socio-economic impact of climate change and realistic response strategies […]” (UN General Assembly 1988). In the following, the IPCC could start work at the bureau in Geneva.

4.1 Tasks of the IPCC

The founding governments passed the task of global climate change science coordination as well as the publication of compiled findings and consequences to the IPCC: “The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change is the leading body for the assessment of climate change […] to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.”9 (IPCC 2009) The IPCC collects recent publications about the issues of climate change for review,10 that is, the IPCC does not conduct research of its own but assesses the latest scientific information by regularly publishing assessment reports. Besides, several special reports, technical papers and papers on methodology are part of the work.

4.2 Organization of the IPCC

For the work of the IPCC, scientists of all UN and WMO member countries are basically allowed to participate in the review process and the plenary sessions on a voluntary basis. Figure 2 illustrates the organization of the IPCC as set out in the guidelines.
Fig. 2

Organization chart of the IPCC (2009)

Obviously, wide-ranging fields of science are involved in the work of the IPCC and in particular, the Working Groups (WG) II and III contain policy research as part of their working programme.11 The IPCC reports adhere strictly to consensus which is determinated by the structure of the accreditation process: every chapter has to be accepted by the whole working group, and all reports have to be accepted by the plenary session (IPCC 2009; see also Koska 2008; UCSUSA 2007).

However, one point strongly influences the following discussion about the IPCC’s self-conception. The IPCC panel consists of two groups: on the one hand, governmental representatives in effect political actors provide one part of the plenary. On the other hand, scientists who have been nominated by their respective government are part of the body.12 This is commented on in the critique of the IPCC’s self-conception later.

4.3 Work of the IPCC

Since the Assessment Reports, being published every 5 or 6 years, represent the most recognized output of the IPCC’s work, they have a singled out position. In 1990, the First Assessment Report (FAR) was published and played a major role for the following process of the negotiations regarding the UNFCCC by calling for a global climate change treaty (Brauch et al. 2009:83; Koska 2008).

At the First Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the UNFCCC was opened for signature, and by the end of 1992, it has been signed by almost 160 states. The Second Assessment Report (SAR) published in 1995 served as a basis for the Kyoto Protocol devised two years later. According to Graßl (2009a:255), there would not be a Kyoto Protocol without the following famous sentence in the SAR: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” (Houghton 1995:4). The protocol was adopted in 1997 during the third session of the Conference of Parties (COP) and provided, for the first time, mandatory emission reductions which had been quantified in the protocol (UNFCCC 1998; see also Brauch et al. 2009: 83). Eventually, it came into force in 2005 after Russia had signed it.

In 2001, the Third Assessment Report (TAR) gave a review of the development since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. The most recent Assessment Report, the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was written by several thousand scientists from all over the world13 and gained great recognition by stating that climate change and the global warming effect of the last century are “very likely” anthropogenic14 (Solomon 2007; see also Koska 2008). AR4 gives a span of surface temperature warming likely to develop until the end of the century which is numbered between 2.4 and 6.4°C (Solomon 2007).

In conclusion, there have been more than 30 sessions of IPCC from 1988 until 2009 and all 191 UN member states can contribute to its work. In 2007, IPCC even won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work.

5 The IPCC’s concept of science

Several aspects have to be regarded to explain the IPCC’s concept of science. Both its self-image and the perception of science especially represented by the former chairman Bolin can help understand these structural preconditions. This can be illustrated by taking the example of the interpretation of Article 2 UNFCCC.

5.1 The IPCC’s self-image

As written down in its constitution, the IPCC’s self-image can be understood as follows: it has to “provide the world with a clear scientific view” and “the work of the organization is […] policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive” (IPCC 2009). Obviously, these assertions disclose an ambivalence between scientific demands and political influence which is crucial to the further understanding of the problem. Besides, it can be added that this tension “shows as an example how the respective concept of science inevitably shapes the perception of the climate change problem”15 (Luhmann 2009a:7). Thus, after displaying the view of science represented by the IPCC, the concept of science as understood by the former IPCC chairman Bert Bolin is analysed in the following, since it strongly impacts the IPCC’s self-image.

5.2 “Science” in the conception of the IPCC

The definition of science used in the Encyclopaedia Britannica is widely accepted but obviously limited: “[…] science is knowledge of the world of nature.” (Hoiberg and Goetz 2007:32) and “[…] entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation.” (ibid.:552). Both intersubjective experience and systematically conducted experimental analyses are demanded to provide reconstructible evidence as a premise to scientific hypotheses (Brauch et al. 2009:1298; Luhmann 2008a:25).

Looking at the WG of the IPCC, this becomes obvious: Three WG have been formed to do the compilation of research in the fields of the physical basis of climate change (WG I), work on impact, adaptation and vulnerability (WG II) and the mitigation of climate change (WG III). Luhmann points out the “asymmetric phrasing of the headings”16 (Luhmann 2008a:25) which becomes clear when acknowledging the implicit conclusion that puts topics related to social and political science, like adaptation and mitigation, beyond the reconstructible concept of science as explained previously. Besides, these “soft” sciences are not regarded as “true sciences”.

There are more aspects revealing this conflict in the context of the IPCC’s work. Reconstructible experiments as required by this view of science are not possible in the field of climate change. Earth as a subject of interest is unique and there is no possibility to compare the events, development and findings with other objects analogously (Luhmann 2008a:25). Furthermore, contrary to the postulate of intersubjective evidence as a characteristic of science, the IPCC’s work is also based on scenarios and modelling (Brauch et al. 2009:1298). This has determined the work and output of the IPCC over the course of time under the leadership of Bert Bolin as explained in the following.

5.3 Bolin’s view of science as a founding principle for the IPCC

Due to the worldwide perception of the IPCC as a leading scientific authority for climate change, the IPCC’s scientific self-image is decisive for the perception of climate change in science and also in the public. As first chairman of the IPCC from 1988 to 1998, the Swedish meteorologist Bert Bolin has strongly influenced the IPCC’s work and shaped its international function and setting in the field of climate change sciences.

According to Bolin, the IPCC has to fulfil several main tasks both related to research and dissemination of results (with taking into account the relation between politics and science). Except for the international coordination of climate change science, both the credibility of climate change science and the continuing independence from political influence (Graßl 2009a:255; Luhmann 2008b) are important. However, here the conflict between the independence of science and action-oriented policy according to Luhmann evolves (2008b:163) and is pursued by means of the principal dialectic of the IPCC’s organizational structure since part of the plenary—the most important body of the IPCC—is staffed by governmental representatives instead of scientists. Simultaneously, Bolin seems to have acknowledged the scientific objections by recognizing this contradictory fact: “IPCC plenary meetings were often a nice demonstration of how a leading scientist like Bolin warded off attempts of a political take-over […]. To keep the IPCC independent from political influence was an important goal Bolin pursued.” (Graßl 2009a:255).

The second area which emerges as a crucial point is the definition of the IPCC’s function in the diffusion of scientific results and the consequences required due to its work.

First, Bolin was rather cautious with respect to action-related estimations in his work. Thus, he “considers the uncertainty level regarding the anthropogenic character of climate change as higher than many other climate scientists.” (ibid.)17

Second, Bolin draws the line at the consequences to be deduced from the IPCC reports as being at the responsibility of science: “It should be stressed, however, that I left politicians and others to judge how serious a change of climate might be […]. These are primarily political issues and scientists can only provide answers to the technical and economic issues that arise.” (Bolin 2007:59). Obviously, the concept of science followed by Bolin exhibits a dichotomy at this point. On the one hand, the “natural science” view is stressed by leaving social, societal and political consequences to others. On the other hand, the scientific “right” to define quantities or to set values is completely abandoned by this attitude.18

Already in the beginning of the 1990s, there were critiques of this conception. Raúl Estrada-Oyuela19 complained about this perceived refusal of responsibility at a speech to the Royal Geographic Society in 1994 referring to the convention of Rio (Bolin 2007:86). However, up to the present, an interpretation of the mandate which leaves the determination of consequences to others has been still followed: “With reference to the narrow mandate of the IPCC, Pachauri asserts that the question as to how ‘climate change will affect peace is for others to determine’ […].” (Brauch et al. 2009:1293). With reference to this conception and the requirements of the IPCC mandate, it is worthwhile to have a look at the question of interpreting Article 2 of UNFCCC as an example for the understanding of the whole concept of science in the IPCC’s work.

5.4 Article 2 UNFCCC

The second article of the UNFCCC states that “the ultimate objective of this Convention […] is to achieve […] stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” (UNFCCC 1992).

However, following the previously analysed concept of science, the IPCC for the AR4 refused to specify a temperature level as this was said to be a “value judgement” (Patwardhan and Schneider 2003:1). A quantitative statement has neither been designated nor is it to be expected in the framework of the IPCC’s role. Weart’s statement that the IPCC is “unable to make quantitative predictions of what might actually happen” (Weart 2009:6) is to be questioned in that case. But taking the original invitation by the UN for the foundation of the IPCC as cited previously, the intended provision of “magnitude, timing and potential […] impact of climate change and realistic response strategies” (United Nations General Assembly 1988) seems to be inconsistent concerning the real work assignment and the interpretation of the mandate’s limits, respectively.

Eventually, this task was performed by a legal body, the European Union (EU), by fixing the 2°C-target in 2005 (EC 2005) thus attracting criticism. According to Luhmann, a quantitative statement in former years probably would have accelerated the perception of and measures against climate change but this was not done due to the concept of science represented by the IPCC (Luhmann 2008b:164).

6 Discussion

The basis of the IPCC’s work—both in terms of modelling and the object of research – is obviously not compatible with the definition of scientific work as explained previously.20 The IPCC’s work process in turn adheres to strictly scientific requirements.21 Simultaneously, the postulate of (political) independence in terms of “good science” gets highest priority in the IPCC’s work.22 Certainly, these hybrid structures cannot be disputed due to the afore-mentioned ambivalence, but the setting is epistemologically precarious. However, these facts provide no sufficient cause to refuse an interpretation of Article 2 UNFCCC. Taking an analogy to historical sciences shows that the fact of history being not reproducible (as are “experiments” with earth) does not lead to fundamental doubts regarding the historical sciences and their research results (Prechtl 1999:665).

If the IPCC assumes the subservience regarding both scientific norms and an (ostensible) possibility to work free of value judgements as its highest priority, it has to allow to be measured by standards of scientific ethics or research ethics, respectively.

On the one hand, this means that in the framework of scientific ethics, legitimation is achieved by public discourse (Prechtl 1999:667), which could be represented by the number of conferences which are widely recognized by the public and the involvement of political decision-makers in the plenary sessions. Other conditions, such as the large involvement of international scientists in the report preparation processes, the comprehensive reviewing and the process of consensus building in the work of the IPCC, are not considered as public discourse but imply at least a large basis of discourse. Sloterdijk asks for the representation of a “volonté générale” (2009) which is probably represented by the structure of the IPCC most closely as illustrated by Dahan (2008).

On the other hand, the norms of scientific ethics require researchers to always appreciate the reach of research results and accept responsibility for that. Overall, the IPCC agrees that urgent action is needed with respect to climate change. The illustration of the interpretation of Article 2 then shows as repeatedly argued that setting a limit would have facilitated the ensuing political implementation in principle and would have probably lead to consistent and concerted action in the past.23 Evans et al. argue that “while the IPCC has helped anchor the scientific debate on the problem of climate change, there is no equivalent expert body to set out the implications of the solution.” (Evans and Steven 2009:15).

With respect to the fact that responsibility means freedom to choose rather than freedom from choice, not the result of choices but the lack of choices as exercised in the IPCC’s work is critical. In this context, talking about energy scenarios can also be translated to climate change action: “What energy future we ultimately experience is the result of choices” (Hamrin et al. 2007:30). Besides, it can be stressed that value-free research is a myth (Hennicke and Lovins 1999:49) and eventually “choices obviously have to be made in the face of uncertainty.” (Baumgartner 1987:6). Mimicking Sloterdijk, the premise should be “intellectual integrity” (Sloterdijk 2009) of research following fundamentals of scientific ethics. If the IPCC refuses to accept these facts by failing to specify a temperature, a constitutive ethical engagement could be demanded or even challenged.

This theoretical discussion about responsibility can be made more concrete by considering the argument put forth by a qualified body—in that case, the ICSU.24 It is stated that “the view of scientists and engineers solely as ‘independent’ knowledge generators has been irrevocably altered by changes in society. Scientists now acknowledge that they must take responsibility for the implication of their results, potential uses and abuses, and impacts on people and societies.” (ICSU 2002:16) This attitude is also adopted by other publicly announced documents, especially in the field of sustainability research. At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), it has been stressed that the task of science is the supply of information to facilitate better possibilities for the formulation of policy within decision processes (UNCED 1992). The call for responsibilities regarding the reach of research consequences can therefore be seen as legally mandated for the work of the IPCC.25 Thus, the IPCC’s decision to refuse a temperature specification could be reframed from a question of science to a question of scientific ethics and failure to act accordingly.

7 Conclusion

The history of climate change in science has for a long time called for action due to the anthropogenic character of the today’s climate change. However, due to the concept of science as represented in the self-image of the IPCC as the globally leading body, mandatory measures are omitted since inter alia no limitations and consequences have been named. However, scientization of climate change cannot absolve from the responsibility required by scientific ethics and hence neither from the implicit social, societal and political consequences.

In the light of the questions of scientific ethics and due to the limitations inherent in the IPCC’s conception of science, a scientifically justifiable setting of temperature specification should be debated. The hitherto existing self-conception of the IPCC which differentiates between policy recommendation on the one hand and dissemination of research results on the other hand and consequently the previous modus operandi of the IPCC has to fundamentally be questioned.


Obviously, there are some discussions about the date of the first mention as explained by Connolley (2010).


The finding that radiation reflected by the earth surface is partly absorbed depending on the trace quantities within the atmosphere. The original wording is: ‘‘The solar heat possesses the power of crossing an atmosphere but when the heat is absorbed by the planet, it is so changed in quality that the rays emanating from the planet cannot get with the same freedom back into space. Thus, the atmosphere admits the entrance of the solar heat but checks its exit, and the result is a tendency to accumulate heat at the surface of the planet.” (Tyndall cited after Graßl 2009b:5).


Strictly speaking, Arrhenius has worked inversely with the definition and he rather feared a further ice age.


Together with a group of scientists (for more information about this research process, see Weart 2009).


By dissolution in seawater after a chemical reaction.


Organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).


However, this estimation was obviously far too optimistic.


Which took place after the First Assessment Report of the IPCC, see below.


Emphasis made by the author.


All information collected has to be published and/or peer-reviewed in principle; however, also so-called grey literature is allowed as local knowledge consisting of non-published research from developing countries Dahan-Dalmedico (2008: 75). Due to the current debate on the mistakes within the IPCC reporting system, this aspect is reassessed (FAZ 2010).


This is quite interesting considering that the founding organizations UNEP and WMO are organizations working in the field of natural sciences.


A second aspect is the concept of science represented by the IPCC’s work, see below.


“AR4 is the most comprehensive synthesis of climate change science to date. Experts from more than 130 countries contributed to this assessment, which represents 6 years of work. More than 450 lead authors have received input from more than 800 contributing authors, and an additional 2,500 experts reviewed the draft documents.” (UCSUSA 2007).


That is with more than a 90% probability according to the AR4.


Author's translation.


Author's translation.


As Luhmann points out, there is even a chapter in Bolin's book headed ‘possible climate change’ although the IPCC's work had shown a probability of more than 90% regarding the anthropogenic character of climate change Luhmann (2009b:38–39).


See also Luhmann (2008b:167) for this argument.


An Argentinian diplomat who was the later chairman of the World Climate Summit during the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.


That is, experimental reproduction etc.


That is, using peer-reviewed publications etc.


As well as the lack of an explicit mandate is declared.


It may not be concealed that this view is not always followed and sometimes it is also mentioned that “dogmatic predictions regarding the Earth's future, are unreliable and can be politically counter-productive.” (Greeuw et al. 2000:7). However, most publications refer to the other view of scientific influence.


The organization acts as a kind of supervisor for the international scientific landscape. It was for example involved as adviser at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002.


And an additional body as asked for by Evans et.al. (2009) would not be necessary if the IPCC would accept its scientific responsibility.



This essay has been written as a result of a seminar chaired by PD Dr. Hans-Günther Brauch and held at the Free University of Berlin in November 2009 under the title “Climate Change Impacts: Securitization of Water, Food, Soil, Health, Energy and Migration”. Brauch and some seminar participants gave valuable comments on my work during the presentation of the results. Linus Mattauch and Stephan Richter-Bernburg helped me with language issues. Besides, my colleague Dr. Jochen Luhmann has provided an abundant pool of material and sacrificed much time to discuss this project.

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