Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind

Non-governmental organizations – such as the Global Climate Coalition – were also active participants in the Madrid meeting. NGOs had no say in the formal process of approving the Summary for Policymakers. They were, however, allowed to make comments on the SPM and the underlying 11 science chapters during the first day of the Plenary Meeting (November 27, 1996). The Global Climate Coalition dominated the initial plenary discussions.

Most of the plenary discussions at Madrid focused on the portrayal of Chapter 8’s findings in the Summary for Policymakers. Discussions were often difficult and contentious. We wrestled with the exact wording of the “balance of evidence” statement mentioned above. The delegations from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait argued for a very weak statement, or for no statement at all. Delegates from many other countries countered that there was strong scientific evidence of pronounced a human effect on climate, and that the bottom-line statement from Chapter 8 should reflect this.

Given the intense interest in Chapter 8, Sir John Houghton (one of the two Co-Chairs of IPCC Working Group I) established an ad hoc group on November 27, 1996. I was a member of this group. Our charge was to review those parts of the draft Summary for Policymakers that dealt with climate change detection and attribution issues. The group was placed under the Chairmanship of Dr. Martin Manning of New Zealand, and included delegates from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Kenya, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. Sir John Houghton also invited delegates from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to participate in this ad hoc group. Unfortunately, they did not accept this invitation.

The ad hoc group considered more than just the portions of the Summary for Policymakers that were relevant to Chapter 8. The Dutch delegation asked for a detailed discussion of Chapter 8 itself, and of the full scientific evidence contained in it. This discussion took place on November 28, 1996.

On November 29, 1996, I reported back to the Plenary on the deliberations of the ad hoc group. The Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti delegations – who had not attended any of the discussions of the ad hoc group, and had no first-hand knowledge of what had been discussed by the group – continued to express serious reservations about the scientific basis for the detection and attribution statements in the Summary for Policymakers.

On the final evening of the Madrid Plenary Meeting, debate focused on finding the right word to describe the human effect on global climate. There was broad agreement among the government delegates that – based on the scientific evidence presented in Chapter 8 – some form of qualifying word was necessary. Was the human influence “measurable”? Could it be best described as “appreciable”, “detectable”, or “substantial”? Each of these suggested words had proponents and opponents. How would each word translate into different languages? Would the meaning be the same as in English?

After hours of often rancorous debate, Bert Bolin (who was then the Chairman of the IPCC) finally found the elusive solution. Professor Bolin suggested that the human effect on climate should be described as “discernible”.

Mr. Pearce – who was not present at the Madrid Plenary Meeting – argues that the discussion of human effects on climate in the IPCC Summary for Policymakers “went beyond what was said in the chapter from which the summary was supposedly drawn”. In other words, he suggests that the tail wagged the dog. This is not true. The “pre-Madrid” bottom-line statement from Chapter 8 was “Taken together, these results point towards a human influence on climate”. As I’ve noted above, the final statement agreed upon in Madrid was “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”.

Is “suggests” stronger than “points towards”? I doubt it. Is “The balance of evidence” a more confident phrase than “Taken together”? I don’t think so.

The primary difference between the pre- and post-Madrid statements is that the latter includes the word “discernible”. In my American Heritage College Dictionary, “discernible” is defined as “perceptible, as by vision or the intellect”. In Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, one of the three meanings of the verb “discern” is “to recognize or identify as separate and distinct”. Was the use of “discernible” justified?

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