IPCC CHAIRMAN BERT BOLIN
BUILDS CONSENSUS

By Nick Sundt

In 1988, when Swedish meteorologist Bert Bolin won the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Harvard University ecologist William C. Clark said that Bolin was the "individual who has done the most to promote international understanding and action" on the disruption of major biogeochemical cycles by human activities. By 1988, the modest, unassuming and soft-spoken sixty-nine year old Bolin had worked on weather and climate issues for nearly a half-century.

Since winning the prize, Bolin has helped maintain his international reputation by chairing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Perhaps his most significant contribution to the IPCC has been to encourage inclusiveness in the panel's activities. He has labored diligently to draw in the full range of divergent views expressed in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and to encourage debate on controversial questions. His skill at finding consensus has strengthened the IPCC and enhanced its credibility.

Despite success in building a strong consensus within the international atmospheric science community, some critics have long questioned whether the consensus is complete. Fred Singer, formerly a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, said that the IPCC's first assessment in 1990 encouraged a "myth of scientific consensus" on the climate issue. In a 1991 opinion piece which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Singer suggested that there was not only a lack of consensus, but "a raging debate" within the scientific community.

Bolin claims there is no evidence of such pervasive and profound disagreements among professionals in the climate sciences. He replies that suggestions of deep divisions and of a scientific "backlash" against the IPCC are incorrect. Bolin says that much -- though not all -- criticism of the IPCC's scientific findings is "in the tabloid press and popular press or in lectures and statements and so on." He said "you don't find many of those critics in scientific publications."

Bolin, who is a member of the Swedish, Norwegian and Russian Academies of Sciences, says this raises a "fundamental difficulty" for the IPCC since "we don't base things on hearsay, but on published work, and reports and scientific articles." He pointedly adds that the IPCC "cannot start to review what is said in the Sunday Express. It is impossible." Rather than joining in ad hominem attacks or further politicizing the process, Bolin resolutely chooses to make his case strictly on the science, pressing the IPCC to respond to all scientifically credible results that appear in the peer-reviewed literature.

In a commentary in Nature magazine (10 March 1994) Bolin acknowledged that the IPCC has been criticized "mainly for lack of openness about uncertainties and for brushing aside controversies." Bolin, who now is overseeing the IPCC's Second Assessment Report (SAR), counters that the IPCC has repeatedly emphasized the scientific uncertainties. But he says "we will make further efforts in our next assessment [the SAR ] to present the full picture as carefully as possible." He added that the IPCC would remain "as open as we can be by widely circulating early drafts of our report."

In a Washington, DC, briefing earlier this year, Bolin said that the IPCC had fifty writing teams, "hopefully reasonably well balanced," and all with representation from developing countries. The IPCC currently has several hundred people directly assessing the scientific literature. Drafts from the writing teams are sent out for review by a total of more than a thousand reviewers. Another round of reviews occurs when draft copies are sent out to participating governments. The government review process draws hundreds if not thousands of additional people into the process (in the US, for example, the drafts were available for public comment for more than a month).

While many people are included in the process, Bolin emphasizes that the conclusions of the SAR are the responsibility of the scientific authors. He explained that all authors have an obligation to encourage debate and to recognize legitimate criticism. When diligently implemented, Bolin notes this policy ensures that the IPCC neither conceals nor overblows controversy.<\P>

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Published in Global Change (Electronic Edition), July 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Center for Global Change. Global Change encourages readers to reproduce and disseminate this article. We ask only that Global Change be cited as the source and that the author(s) of the articles be properly credited. For more information, contact Global Change . Send e-mail (Internet) to editor@globalchange.org

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