The London Accord and Centre of International Cooperation,
Climate change: the state of the debate
The summer of ‘88 and the birth of the IPCC
While awareness seems to have risen steadily, levels of public concern have ebbed and flowed, with a range of flash points driving surges of interest. As the shocks of the 1970s receded, media coverage of climate change tended to fall. Extreme weather impacts on the scale of the 1972 spike had not been repeated, and fears of a potentially imminent catastrophe eased. Other environmental issues did, though, make an impression – notably rain forests, acid rain and (later) the ‘ozone hole’ over Antarctica, which led quickly to the agreement of the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances.
And then, in the summer of 1988, public concern over climate change reignited dramatically. Heat waves and droughts were already flaring up when NASA scientist James Hansen made his famous appearance before a Congressional committee chaired by Senator Tim Wirth as, outside the building, temperatures reached an all-time high. Hansen said to journalists afterwards that it was time to “stop waffling, and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here".xxiii As the summer wore on – with Hurricane Gilbert, the worst forest fires in a century and the Mississippi River falling so low that barge traffic was halted – the media leapt on climate change as never before. The number of American newspaper articles about global warming rose tenfold between 1987 and 1988; and by September 1988, polling found that 58 per cent of Americans had heard or read about the greenhouse effect.xxiv Once again, though, coverage fell back, particularly as much of the world entered a recession around the turn of the decade.
But, as in the aftermath of the 1972 spike, the scientific community had emerged more energised than before. This time, there was a tangible outcome, which would in retrospect prove a decisive moment in establishing climate change as a global challenge of the first rank. For in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up – not least in order to come up with a clearer and more definitive statement of what scientists did (and did not) think about climate change.
According to Shardul Agrawala’s fascinating account of the origins of the IPCC, its roots can be found in a workshop held in 1985 in Villach, organized by two United Nations agencies and the non-governmental International Council for Science (ICSU).xxv At the Villach workshop, a group of scientists, acting in a personal capacity, announced a consensus that “in the first half of the next century a rise of global mean temperature would occur which is greater than any in man’s history." The need to deepen, extend and institutionalise this consensus was pushed in particular by the United States government – in part because it wanted to ‘buy time’ and delay a potentially costly policy response. The US wanted an inter-governmental mechanism and that’s what it got. According to Agrawala, this formal insertion of scientific expertise was of great importance. The result was to pump sufficient shared awareness of the climate problem into the international arena, providing a platform for governments to enter into a serious negotiation.
After the birth of IPCC its dominant position in the debate also became self-reinforcing. “The more credible experts there were already in the IPCC, the more attractive it was for other established experts to join, [and] the more internal strength the institutions had to defend its scientific integrity against political pressures."xxvi An anchor for global understanding of the issue, and perceptions of its seriousness, had been provided.
xxiii Philip Shabecoff, “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate,” New York Times, June 24, 1988, p. 1
xxiv 1988: Kane, Parson poll for Parents Magazine, USKANE.88PM7.RO98 and R11, data furnished by Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Storrs, CT. By 1989, another poll found that 79% of the public had heard of the greenhouse effect: survey of public by Research Strategy/Management Inc., ‘Global Warming and Energy Priorities,’ Union of Concerned Scientists, 11/89, as reported in W. Kempton, “Global Environmental Change,” 6/91
xxv Agrawala in Climate Change 39, 1998