IPCC AR6: continue assessing the science of climate change in line with policymakers’ priorities

This week, I came across this tweet from the IPCC:

Apparently, there is (in the meantime “was”) a meeting in Montreal to agree the outlines of AR6. Interesting. However, it was the quote of Youba Sokona that caught my attention (my emphasis):

“This meeting will pave the way for IPCC scientists to continue assessing the science of climate change in line with policymakers’ priorities“.

That sounded rather odd to me. My initial thought was something like: they couldn’t make it much clearer that this is politicized science in action. Okay, I understand that he probably didn’t mean it that way. He probably meant science relevant to policy or something similar.

Then I remembered that there was a description of the writing and review process on the IPCC website. Maybe I could figure out from this process how much the science is in line with policymakers’ priorities or vice versa?

I quickly found the page that described the IPCC process: principles and procedures. This is the summary of this process:

It is a bit different than the chart that was reported until last year. I find the previous version much clearer, it uses flowcharts symbols and colors which give extra information about the different steps in the process.

This how the current process goes (with the text from the chart):

  1. Scoping
    The outline is drafted and developed by experts nominated by governments and observer organization
  2. Approval of Outline
    The panel then approves the outline
  3. Nomination of authors
    Governments and observer organizations nominate experts as authors
  4. Selection of authors
    Bureaux select authors
  5. Expert review – 1st Order Draft
    Authors prepare a 1st draft which is reviewed by experts
  6. Government and Expert Review – 2nd Order Draft
    The 2nd draft and the 1st draft of the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) is reviewed by governments and experts
  7. Final Draft Report and SPM
    Authors prepare final drafts of the report and SPM which are sent to governments
  8. Government review of final draft SPM
    Goverments review the final draft SPM in preparation for its approval
  9. Approval & Acceptance of Report
    Working Group/Panel approves SPMs and accepts reports
  10. Publication of Report

At first sight, the first step seems to be scientific. In the old version of this summary chart, this step was colored in blue, which meant scientific (versus green for political). The scoping is indeed done by scientists, but since they are “nominated” by “government and observer organization”, it is rather unlikely that those scientists will come up with something different than those who nominated them will expect. This is science in function of politics.

Step 2 is political in nature. The panel approves the outline of the report. In the previous version of that chart this is shown much clearer. There this step is visualized by a rhombus (meaning decision/condition). Step two is indeed a decision. A decision of policymakers to continue (or not) within this framework.

Step 3 and 4 are also political in nature. Policymakers nominate and select authors who will get the job done. What raises my eyebrows is this sentence about the composition of the the (coordinating) lead authors:

The composition of the group of Coordinating Lead Authors and Lead Authors for a chapter, report or summary reflects the range of scientific, technical and socio-economic expertise; geographical representation, ensuring appropriate representation of experts from developing and developed countries and countries with economies in transition; a mixture of experts with and without previous experience in the IPCC; and gender balance.

That looks a bit weird to me. The need for the composition of the lead authors to reflect things like country, previous experience (or not) of the IPCC, gender,… is without any doubt a political criterion. If this would be a scientific step, the choice would be on those with expertise, no matter where they come from, their previous experience in the IPCC or their gender.

Step 5 is scientific: the selected scientists prepare a first draft within the approved outline.

Step 6 seems to be a mix between politics and science: government and expert review of the 2nd order draft of the report and 1st order draft of the summary for policymakers.

Step 7 seems to be scientific: final preparation of the final draft of the report and the summary for policymakers.

Step 8 and 9 seem to be political: review and approval by government. The Summary for Policymakers is subjected to a line by line discussion and agreement (to me that sounds more like a “Summary of Policymakers for Policymakers” than just a “Summary for Policymakers”).

There are some differences with the previous chart (which according to the Wayback machine was online until the end of 2016). Here is it to compare with the new version:

As I said before, the symbols and color code makes the chart much more clear than the current one. It is possible to distinguish things like decisions (rhombus), preparations (hexagon), steps (rectangle) or documents. Also whether it is a policymakers’ step or a scientific step or a mixed one.

They now represented the process less clear that it was before.

When looking at the contents of the charts: the first five steps are the same in both charts: scoping → approve outline → nominate experts → select authors → prepare 1st order draft.

In the old version the next step is “Expert review” and it is colored blue (a scientific step in the process). Followed by 2nd order draft preparation and Government & expert review. In the 2017 version this becomes “Government and expert review – 2nd order draft”, basically replacing two scientific steps plus one mixed step by one mixed step. The blue blob at the bottom of the old version is now replaced by one mixed political/scientific step.

The following steps are the same for both charts: final draft preparation → governmental review → approval report and SPM → publication.

The political steps clearly dominating the scientific steps (even more now if we compare the current chart with the previous one). It shouts politics all over and science is there in function of the politics. Although the media, politicians and activists make it look like the (political) solutions of climate change flow naturally from what the scientists are telling us, it is politics, not science, that drives the process at the IPCC. This should not be a surprise. There is no “S” of “Scientific” in IPCC, only an “I” of “Intergovernmental”. With such a process in place, the outcome is expected to be in line with what policymakers want.

It may not be his original intention, but I think that the quote of Youba Sokona that the “IPCC scientists continue assessing the science of climate change in line with policymakers’ priorities” may be rather accurate after all.

3 thoughts on “IPCC AR6: continue assessing the science of climate change in line with policymakers’ priorities

  1. Paul Matthews

    Well spotted Michel.

    More evidence of the increasing politicisation of the IPCC comes from the list of Chapter headings for AR6 WG1 that have recently been announced:

    1 Framing, context, methods
    2 Changing state of the climate system
    3 Human influence on the climate system
    4 Future global climate

    Now compare with the first 4 chapter headings from AR5 WG1

    1 Introduction – 4.5MB
    2 Observations: Atmosphere and Surface – 38.3MB
    3 Observations: Ocean – 48.3MB
    4 Observations: Cryosphere –

    I get the impression that the conclusions have already been made.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I just stumbled upon it. I found that chart a couple years ago and back then wanted to make a post on it, also to show the politicized part of the process. It never came to that post, but when I saw that quote of Youba Sokona last week, I remembered that chart and searched for that webpage … to find out that they changed the chart … into something less clear. Comparing both charts side by side showed that they replaced two scientific steps (and a mixed step) by one mixed step. Yet the detailed description of the process on that webpage was unchanged since July 2013. So it is unclear whether they changed their process in 2017 or whether they just wanted to simplify that chart, but for some reason they presented their process showing politics having more influence in that new chart.


  2. manicbeancounter

    Hi Michel,
    I agree with Paul. You have a good find here.
    A possible reason that the chart no longer shows a distinction between science and politics, is that the “sciencey” bit is highly politicized. In a comment on my blog, Hiliary Ostrov pointed me to a slide show about the production of AR6. In particular to slide 6 of 19:-

    Human influence on the climate system is clear

    The more we disrupt our climate, the more we risk severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts

    We have the means to limit climate change, and build a more prosperous sustainable future

    The final bit about “a more prosperous sustainable future” is pure ideology.



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