Friday 13 September, 2019, by Zinta Zommers (Ontario & Wolfson 2003)
Early in August 2019, leading climate scientists and government officials from around the world gathered in Geneva to negotiate the “Summary for Policy Makers” of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Land. The stakes were high – scientists sought to defend the academic integrity of the report; governments grappled with the implications of the findings for food production, energy systems and land-use. Observers, including Greta Thunberg and young activists from Lebanon, Mexico, Germany, called for more action. As a Lead Author for the report, I had the privilege of participating in these debates.
The final approval process of an IPCC report is like a week long PhD defence with governments as examiners and marathon thirty hour nonstop overnight sessions. Some governments are clearly working to make the final product better, suggesting clarifications to statements. Other governments try to slow down the negotiations, hoping that time will run out and sections of the report be eliminated. Yet others try to remove scientific statements that have inconvenient political implications. We began to refer to one negotiator as the “dentist” because “he kept drilling and drilling and wouldn’t stop when it hurt.”
Intergovernmental politics can play out in unexpected ways. Late on the last evening, the US objected to a sentence about risks at different levels of temperature increase. Delegates had already debated and approved this text in a breakout group, but it now seemed that further negotiations were needed. Suddenly France raised a point of order, reminding governments that they had agreed to abide by breakout group decisions. This wasn’t done to block the US but was intended for Saudi Arabia, which had arrived twenty minutes late to the breakout group and was threatening to veto text approved in its absence. Nevertheless, by reminding governments of pre-agreed rules, France saved us from having to water-down key statements on risk and secured extra hours of sleep for everyone.