Political implications of data presentation

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Science  04 Jul 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6192, pp. 36-37
DOI: 10.1126/science.1255734

What is the appropriate balance between scientific analysis and governmental input in the IPCC? Claiming government overreach and calling for greater insulation of the process come from a misleadingly simple interpretation. Such insulation would likely diminish the policy relevance of the SPM. The SPM is “approved” by governments, not merely “accepted” as is the main report, which invests it with an important measure of governmental ownership. An approval process is worth preserving, as it is precisely what makes the IPCC distinct from any number of technical reports. We explore an alternative vision for articulating science and politics at the IPCC.

Anthropogenic GHG emissions, by country income group: Over recent decades, emissions from different groups have displayed markedly different patterns.

Groups based on World Bank 2013 country income classification. (A) Annual total emissions. [Reproduced from figures TS.4 and 1.4 (1)] (B) Distribution of annual per capita emissions. [Reproduced from figures TS.4, 1.8c, and 5.19 (1)]. (C) Annual median per capita emissions. [Modified from figures TS.4 and 1.4 (1)] (D) Annual median emissions per unit of gross domestic product. GDP expressed in 2005 international dollars. [Computed from economic data in figure 5.15 using country income groupings and emissions reported in chart 2 (1)]

As the parties work toward a next phase in the global climate treaty to be agreed on in late 2015, perhaps the single most contentious issue is that of country groupings, as they are directly linked to national commitments under the UNFCCC. IPCC findings perceived to influence revision of groupings were thus liable to trigger a confrontation in Berlin.

As income growth has been identified as a key driver of emissions growth, income groups appear a natural analytical tool, although the full WGIII report most frequently uses traditional regional groups, as well as sectoral disaggregation. At least two challenges confront any grouping approach in the context of an SPM.

First, in the negotiation context, analytical groupings are inevitably interpreted as to implications for political groupings. Imposing political perceptions in the context of a scientific assessment might be seen as intrusive. However, in producing an SPM with explicit government buy-in, engagement on such issues is inevitable. The question is how to make it productive.

Second, grouping heterogeneous and rapidly changing countries into a few categories necessarily elides relevant information. Country groups contain large variances (chart 2B), aggregate statistics can be dominated by a few countries, and many alternative groupings are possible. Small changes in number of groups, thresholds between groups, types of characteristics, and reference period can lead to large changes in findings with substantial political implications.

For example, chart 2 categorizes countries according to their current (2013) income, showing that UMCs accounted for three-quarters of global emissions rise from 2000 to 2010. A political interpretation of this may be that the UNFCCC must update its country groupings to reflect the role of UMCs and to impose commensurate emission limits. However, the same representation based on countries' income in a year during the 2000–2010 decade (e.g., 2005) would show that three-quarters of the 2000–2010 global emissions rise arose in lower-middle-income countries, rather than UMCs, and a further 20% in low-income countries. A corresponding political interpretation might stress the need for financial and technological support to enable countries to develop along a lower-carbon pathway through low- and lower-middle income stages. The two representations would be equally faithful to underlying data, but also equally synthetic and incomplete, and differ markedly in the political extrapolations to which they ostensibly lend credence.

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Land use, like deforestation in Indonesia, drives emissions in lower-income countries.


What happened with two other sections of the SPM suggests that the outcome of political debate on scientific findings is contingent. The framing section of the SPM deals with very contentious issues about the need for cooperation in mitigation and technology, as well as the centrality of equity in burden-sharing and in the evaluation of costs and benefits, among others. Yet, agreement was reached on this section—indeed, it was expanded rather than truncated. This was due, in part, to serendipity; the framing section was taken up for discussion early in the approval process, which allowed 4 days for discussion and iterations of text, and that enabled convergence on what authors sought to convey and the political-legal sensibilities brought by country delegates.

In contrast, discussion of another section, on international cooperation, produced much shorter text and simplified content, stripped of controversial elements. This was due both to the short time available for this discussion and to a general spirit of contention after the removal of several figures.

What does this suggest about the IPCC process? The main IPCC report should be focused on establishing and presenting scientific facts. But seemingly technical choices can crystallize into value-laden political conclusions, particularly given tight word and time limits. It is more productive for authors to be aware of alternative political interpretations of their concepts and findings and to factor these into representations of data, than to strive, unrealistically, to ignore political concerns. This requires rethinking the SPM as a coproduction process in which salient political discussions are connected to relevant scientific material. Changes in the SPM writing process can help: creating more channels and space for dialogue before the pressure cooker of a time-limited approval session, ensuring strict continuity and transparency between drafts, and treating author diversity of perspectives as an asset.

The process of coproducing a portion of the IPCC with governments is what lends the IPCC its credibility as a voice that is of scientists, but with more weight for policy. Calls for insulation from politics risk undermining the relevance of the SPM.

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