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Why procedural fairness matters in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Monday, April 30, 2018

BLOG: Professor Chukwumerije Okereke, Department of Geography and Environmental Science

As a body whose primary role is to assess the latest scientific evidence on climate change, many well-meaning people suppose that questions of justice and fairness are not applicable to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Why talk about procedural justice,” some had queried, “when the mandate and emphasis are on gathering and reviewing the best scientific evidence, and when the IPCC only publishes reports and does no governing by itself”? Surely the emphasis should not be on justice with its high and rigid moral connotation but on doing robust and comprehensive science by the best scholars in the world whoever such scholars may be and wherever they may be based.

However, in this recent paper published in the Journal of Climatic Change, I argue that such views are highly misplaced and that questions of justice and fairness are not only relevant but indeed crucial to the work of the IPCC. With a focus on justice between developed and developing countries, I demonstrate, in the article, how, to what end, and with what effects questions of justice and procedural fairness matter in the work of this highly influential world scientific assessment body. Further, I also develop a simple six-component framework for evaluating procedural fairness in the IPCC.
Formed in 1988, the IPCC is by far the world’s most authoritative voice on climate change. This preeminent world scientific review body is in many ways a towering example of successful global scientific assessment work. Currently comprising 195 member countries, the IPCC deploys thousands of leading scientists around to world to periodically review and assess the most recent scientific and socio-economic information relevant to the understanding of climate change. It has so far published five assessment report and is currently recruiting authors to work in the sixth assessment report, which is due to be released in 2021.

There are several reasons why questions of procedural fairness matter in the work of the IPCC. First, while it is indeed true that the IPCC does not make or implement any climate policy decisions, like, say, the UNFCC, the IPCC’s report nevertheless has enormous implications for climate justice since the IPCC’s reports provide the world’s most authoritative view on physical climate science and help to shape the tenor and urgency of government’s negotiation. The IPCC has won a noble prize for its role in facilitating understating, and action on global climate change and world’s governments have frequently relied on the figures published by the IPCC to appeal for urgent climate action on climate change.

The IPCC has been accused of focusing too much on mitigation and not giving enough attention to adaptation and impact of climate change on indigenous communities, some of whom are most vulnerable to climate change. At the same time, as the “Climategate” furore shows, the IPCC has been a favourite punching bag for climate sceptics who argue that their report is alarmist and skewed in ways that facilitate unwarranted attention/action on climate change. Given, therefore, its preeminent role in producing the science that informs climate action, it is vital to ensure that the views and lived experiences of the world’s nations are fairly and effectively represented in the knowledge production process.

Second, while in keeping with its mandate, the IPCC goes to a considerable distance to ensure that its report does not contain specific policy prescriptions for governments, the report can still project a dominant frame which can, in turn, shape the type and priority of actions adopted by governments and businesses. For example, concerns have been expressed in the past about IPCC’s report promoting risk and insurance-based approaches to climate action rather than, for example, one that is based on distributive justice, historical responsibility, reduction of consumption and the protection of the world's most vulnerable communities.

It is true that the IPPC labours hard to recruit the best scientists from around the world. However, the majority of the IPCC authors continue to be from the developed countries, and while there is no evidence that developed country authors are biased, it is natural that they may not have the same sympathetic consideration of developing country problems as they are not living in those conditions day to day.

Third, like the point above implies, the IPCC’s review process cannot be seen as an entirely value-free process or a ‘hard’ science that is immune to political interests and social biases. Instead, it is more or less a deliberative and sociological process which embodies all the bargaining, power play and messiness of any normal social process. This is important from a justice perspective, mainly because in addition to enjoying a substantial numerical advantage, it is often developed countries' authors that are in the position of greater social power through their well-established informal networks, superior resources, and communication skills.

Hence, in facilitating a process where a diverse range of knowledge claims and views are represented efficiently and considered, explicit attention to procedural fairness could mitigate or counter-balance the inevitable influences of political interests and epistemologies. In doing so, procedural fairness can help to bring about the outcome of good science, understood in terms of credible, relevant, comprehensive, and balanced assessment – all of which are objectives explicitly embraced by the IPCC.

It is well known that the IPCC is, quite rightly, not only interested in publishing climate reviews but wants people to read and act on the report. To this end, the IPCC regularly runs campaigns to publicise its report and translate its findings into formats, and that can enable various especially in developing countries to understand and take action. Hence a fourth and essential reason why procedural fairness matters to the IPCC is that a perception of fairness in procedure can, in fact, increase the legitimacy of the IPCC and increase the likelihood that its report will be accepted and acted on by communities around the work. The link between perception of procedural fairness and legitimacy has been amply demonstrated in scholarly literature with reference to promotion, pay, police work and apartheid.

Countries around the world would be far more likely to accept the findings of the IPCC if they perceive that the process is fair and scientists from their own country have played a part in the review process. In fact, developing countries have long voiced concern about their lack of representation in the IPCC process. Enhancing procedural fairness is therefore essential to boost the legitimacy of the IPCC and ensure that a crucial constituency, which the IPCC reports are supposed to serve, does not continue to feel disenfranchised and marginalised in the process.

Fourth, and lastly, an argument for procedural fairness can be made on a non-instrumental basis. Even if a report or deliberative process is inconsequential regarding its governance outcome or impact on people, an argument for procedural fairness could still be made on an intuitive basis. In fact, a significant amount of procedural justice literature from psychology and conflict management distinguishes between the quest for procedural justice in an allocation or decision-making context from concerns for inter-personal aspects of procedural justice, ‘which arise because procedures are settings within which people [and nations] are involved in social interaction with one another.’ This accords with a vast literature in ethics and psychology which asserts that procedural fairness has independent, intrinsic value that is not linked to any influence over decisions made. Social phycologists have shown that people still care about effective representation even when they are satisfied that the outcome would be the same regardless of their participation.

The IPCC has long recognised and sought to address issues of unfairness in their process. The IPCC has, for example, made notable effort to increase the representation from developing countries and widen it’s the scope to bring in issues of development and adaptation. However, the IPCC very much prefers to cast these actions in the language of legitimacy and transparency rather than procedural justice.

Moreover, rules of procedure remain overwhelmingly focused on technical matters such as how to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and less on how to tackle the structural issues that hinder effective participation from developing countries. It is hoped that the explicit focus on, and the language of, procedural fairness will help to open the debate and ensure greater justice in the IPCC’s work.

 Professor Chukwumerijes Okereke will be a coordinating lead author for Working Group III of a new international report on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the 6th Assessment Report. You can read more about his appointment here or view the original press release about the announcement here.