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Nobels, no whistles

SPEA and the Nobel Peace Prize.

nobel medallionIn December of 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and to former Vice President Al Gore “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” While Gore’s environmental work had recently gained exposure due to the Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, the IPCC had been synthesizing information from the world’s top environmental scientists for nearly 20 years. Among those experts were SPEA’s own J.C. Randolph, professor of environmental science, and Kenneth Richards, associate professor of policy and law.

“It’s kind of amusing to think about Al Gore and, oh, maybe 3,000 scientists scattered around the world winning the Nobel Peace Prize,” Randolph says. He explains that hundreds of authors and thousands of reviewers have been involved in preparing the panel’s reports, reflecting an unparalleled level of international collaboration. But then, never before have scientists tackled a problem so inherently multi-national.

“Climate change is potentially the most significant global issue out there, short of some kind of pan-flu or famine,” Randolph says. “And actually, famine almost always is climate-related and epidemics are usually connected to pollutants.”

The IPCC was created in 1988, when the notion of climate change was still new. At the request of the United Nations General Assembly, the two U.N. bodies responsible for environmental affairs – the World Meteorological Association and the United Nations Environmental Program – were tasked with creating a panel that could provide objective, scientific reports on evidence of human-induced climate change.

Since then, the panel has released four broad assessment reports, the most recent of which concluded that global warming is a reality, and is almost certainly caused by human activity. It also stated that droughts, floods, and shortages of drinking water will affect billions of people by 2020, with the poorest being the hardest hit.

The story of how climate change began as a radical theory and developed into a top priority for global action can be told through the experiences of Randolph and Richards with this Nobel Prize-winning effort on behalf of global health and security.

The accidental panelist

ken richardsAs a graduate student working at the Council of Economic Advisors, Ken Richards (at left) represented the agency at the first meeting of the IPCC’s U.S.-chaired Response Strategies Working Group, but he was cautioned to remain seen and not heard.

He listened as the attendees determined that each of the participating nations would prepare a series of papers on the environmental impact of different sectors of the economy. He watched as topics like agriculture, education, and finance were added to the list. But as the night wore on, he grew restless with the realization that no one was discussing ways to influence the activities of these sectors. Despite his superiors’ injunctions, he felt he had to speak.

“I turned to a fairly highly ranked EPA official and said, ‘You don’t have economic measures in here. There’s nothing about tools that the government can bring to bear to change people’s behavior,’” he recalls.

To his amazement, “she just wrote it down, she added it to the list,” he says. “All night I had been watching people argue about the most minor points, but because I brought this up so late when people were so tired, she just went ahead and wrote it down.”

Because the concept of incentives was so new, when the U.S. delegation met to assign the papers, there was no one qualified to write the report … except the young Richards.

“Up until then, I had said virtually nothing in any of the discussions, but now they were in an area that I knew. So it became my job to write the U.S. position paper on policy instruments and tools like command and control, taxes, marketable allowances, and subsidies. And what was remarkable was that even though there were huge debates about the other papers, people knew so little about this topic that it really went in without a lot of criticism.”

Excerpts from the paper were included in the first IPCC report, which, although it was “not terribly influential,” Richards says, did have “the distinction of being very early” and thereby helping to initiate the discussion about ways to persuade people to change their behavior.

Around the same time that he was working on the first IPCC report, Richards also began a project on carbon sequestration – also, at that time, a very new field.

“It was really just a bean-counting exercise, but it was way more than anyone else had done at that point,” he says. Based on the report, Richards was selected to write a section on carbon sequestration for the second IPCC statement. Once again, the pioneering nature of his topic allowed him a great deal of freedom.

“I had the luxury of irrelevance,” he says. “I was the only forestry guy in a group of energy modelers, and they had no interest in what I was doing. As a result, I think I contributed more pages to that review than anyone else, simply because no one cared what I did.”

Richards’s work with the IPCC largely ended with the second report, as he went on to collaborations with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and other agencies. Meanwhile, Randolph was poised to take over the position as SPEA delegate to the panel.

“A spectrum of thought”

J.C. RandolphDuring the time that Richards was helping with the first phases of the IPCC, J.C. Randolph (at right) was at IU heading the Midwest Regional Center of the National Institute for Global Environmental Change, one of the earliest U.S. congressional efforts in the area. By the time the third IPCC report was being prepared, his work there, as well as his research on climate change impacts on forests (funded through a grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), earned him the opportunity to contribute as an author.

Between that report, which came out in 2000, and the most recent report, to which Randolph contributed as a reviewer, he says the project has grown far more sophisticated and comprehensive.

“The quality of the materials that I reviewed this last time really surpassed my expectations. I didn’t need to make any substantive changes as a reviewer. I think the fact that this process has only gotten better is truly important. It’s not just one or two people out there espousing a particular point,” he said.

Randolph stresses the “significance of peer review” to the success of the project. The review process enables the reports to “represent a spectrum of thought,” he says.

“I’ve got some colleagues who are completely convinced that we’re on the verge of a huge demise, and there are others who think the whole concept of climate change is overblown,” he says. “In the review process, there’s always the ability to express a cautionary note, the ability to disagree, but the process is a consensus process, so that with the different comments you start emerging with conclusions.”

Within SPEA classrooms, Randolph says, discussions about climate change have paralleled the evolving focus of the IPCC, culminating in a present willingness to center on solutions.

“It’s been interesting to watch this over the years, how when I first got interested in climate change or climate change impacts, any time you would mention them you would spend the first several minutes talking about whether the climate really is changing. Then you’d move on to part B: If it is, do humans have any impact? And then part C: What evidence do you have that it’s really affecting anything? At that time it never came to part D, which was, What should we do about it?”, he says.

“Now, when I bring up climate change in class, the students want to go immediately to solutions. They don’t need to be persuaded that there is a problem. I suspect skeptics are still skeptical, but when you find organizations such as the one that awards the Nobel prize – the very best scientists – lending their credibility to this endeavor, it has the opportunity to be a lot more well-received.”

An authoritative statement?

Despite their positive impact, Richards worries that the reports have now been mythologized as “consensus” statements, a term he finds misleading. “IPCC is essentially a political process,” he says. “These documents are written largely on compromise, which is not the same as consensus. Because of the political nature of the debate, there’s a sense in which we have to put up a united front, but that can work against our goals for research. It’s not that the IPCC isn’t doing good and important work, but these issues are extremely complex, and no simple summary can capture the richness of the discussion or the degree of uncertainty in the reports. And I don’t want to suggest just because there’s uncertainty that we shouldn’t be concerned – just that we need to continue investigation, with an open mind.”

“Still,” he adds, “it’s the best we’ve got and it’s the best we can do.”

– Elisabeth Andrews



J.C. Randolph is Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs and Professor (part-time) of Biology. His specialities are forest ecology; ecological aspects of global environmental change; applications of geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing in environmental and natural resources management. His PhD is from Carlton University (Ottawa).

Ken Richards is Associate Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs, specializing in climate change policy, carbon sequestration economics, environmental policy implementation and instrument choice. He has a J.D. and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.