Prized Fighter

One member of the IPCC explains what it’s like to be part of the award-winning panel.

By Susan Cosier

Working on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can be a thankless job—until the Nobel Prize committee takes notice, that is. On October 12, the committee awarded the peace prize to former vice president Al Gore and the IPCC, a group of nearly 2,000 scientists that study the impacts of global warming. The group has authored four reports in the past 17 years which have been integral in highlighting how man’s activities are causing climate change. Many members of the panel, including Wesleyan University economics professor Gary Yohe, are ecstatic about the honor. A lead author of various chapters of the IPCC reports on subjects such as sustainability and adaptation, Yohe has been involved with the panel since the ‘90s. Plenty caught up with the economist to discuss the process of compiling the reports, the impact they have, and what a Nobel means for the IPCC.

Were you surprised to win the Nobel Prize?
We sort of knew early last week that we were on a short list, but it was surprising on Friday morning. It’s very exciting that we’re recognized for elevating the conversation about science.

What’s it like putting the IPCC reports together?
The body that convenes the plenary of the IPCC consists of representatives of all the signatory countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The summary for policy makers is in fact their document, not ours. We create a draft, but they go over it word by and word, and each word has to be unanimously accepted by over 100 countries. They schedule these things for four days and it’s always the case that it backs up, so tons and tons of stuff has to be done on the last day. It was my responsibility to get everything done, answer all the expert review comments, go to the plenary, and stay up all night trying to get the report done. And it really was all night. One session started at 8 am, we broke for 45 minutes for lunch, an hour and a half for dinner, and we were still working at 10 am the next morning. This time was pretty extraordinary. Rarely do we ever work all night, but it’s not unusual for sessions to still be going on until 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning.

Why was this year extraordinary in comparison to past years?
When the Working Group I report was approved it got huge attention worldwide. It was making very strong statements about human beings being the source of the warming, so therefore mitigation and trying to reduce emissions would in fact do something. Up until then, [global warming] couldn’t, with very high confidence, be attributed to human beings. Certain countries and skeptics would say, “Yeah it’s warming, but we have to adapt. You can’t prove that if we reduce emissions it’s going to do any good.” That news [that global warming is occurring and that it is very likely man-made] got out and it hit home in a lot of countries.

Does having all of the comments approved dilute the report, or is it necessary?
It dilutes the summary for policy makers a bit. The good side of it, though, is that because it is unanimously accepted, the countries themselves buy into it. When they sign on, they are saying, “We’re convinced.” So they’re very careful. It’s a very conservative document. A lot of people beat up the IPCC because they think it’s hysterical and it speaks to the extremes and it’s doom and gloom. People criticize the IPCC for being religious fanatics or zealots who are trying to convince them that the sky is falling—that’s just not true.

What needs to happen now to tackle global warming?
If the US started to take a leadership role, the world would follow. I think that the fact that the US has not been doing anything has been a great excuse for Australia not to do anything. It’s been a great excuse for China and India to say, “Why should we worry about it?” And I think we have to turn on its head the idea that China and India have to go first and then we will do it.