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The Climate Solutions Consensus: What We Know and What To Do About It

The Climate Solutions Consensus: What We Know and What To Do About It

by National Council for Science and the Environment, David Blockstein (Editor), Leo Wiegman (Editor)

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In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (with former Vice President Al Gore) for its reporting on the human causes of climate change. In 2008, the National Council for Science and the Environment reported that the acceleration of climate change is already faster than the IPCC projected only a year earlier. How we


In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (with former Vice President Al Gore) for its reporting on the human causes of climate change. In 2008, the National Council for Science and the Environment reported that the acceleration of climate change is already faster than the IPCC projected only a year earlier. How we deal with the rapid environmental changes, and the human forces that are driving these changes, will be among the defining issues of our generation.
Climate Solutions Consensus presents an agenda for America. It is the first major consensus statement by the nation’s leading scientists, and it provides specific recommendations for federal policies, for state and local governments, for businesses, and for colleges and universities that are preparing future generations who will be dealing with a radically changed climate. The book draws upon the recommendations developed by more than 1200 scientists, educators and decision makers who participated in the National Council for Science and the Environment’s 8th National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment.
After presenting a lucid narrative of the science behind climate change and its solutions, Climate Solutions Consensus presents 35 practical, results-oriented approaches for minimizing climate change and its impacts. It clearly spells out options for technological, societal, and policy actions. And it deals head-on with controversial topics, including nuclear energy, ocean fertilization and atmospheric geo-engineering.
One of the book’s key conclusions is that climate solutions are about much more than energy sources. They involve re-examining everything people do with an eye toward minimizing climate impacts. This includes our eating habits, consumption patterns, transportation, building and housing, forestry, land use, education, and more. According to these scientists, the time to act is now. With clarity and urgency, they tell us exactly what needs to be done to start reversing the driving factors behind climate change, minimizing their consequences, and adapting to what is beyond our power to stop.

Editorial Reviews

Author of Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse

"Explains the urgency of climate change and what must be done to avert the worst better than anytrhing else I''ve read... essential reading not just by public officials, but by the widest public possible"

— David Orr

President, Second Nature - Anthony E. Cortese
"Climate change is a serious symptom of a de facto systems design failure that we must address in a systememic, collaborative fashion. In The Climate Solutions Consensus, David Blockstein and Leo Wiegman succinctly outline the scientific consensus on gloabal climate disruption, why it matters to all societal stakeholders, and immediate actions we can take to address this defining issue of our time."
President of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors - Stephanie Pfirman
"The Climate Solutions Consensus will be of value to all—for the public it offers a pathway towards improved quality of life; for policy makers it provides technically feasible and economically beneficial solutions; for educators it synthesizes both the information and motivation needed for social change; and for researchers it frames disciplinary knowledge in the interdisciplinary context of long-term prosperity and security."
author of Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse - David Orr
"Explains the urgency of climate change and what must be done to avert the worst better than anytrhing else I've read... essential reading not just by public officials, but by the widest public possible"

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Island Press
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The Climate Solutions Consensus

By David E. Blockstein, Leo A.W. Wiegman


Copyright © 2010 National Council for Science and the Environment
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-674-1


The Dance of the Mice and Elephants

We must not waste time and energy disputing the IPCC's report or debating the right machinery for making progress. The International Panel's work should be taken as our signpost, and the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization as the principal vehicles for reaching our destination.

MARGARET THATCHER, Prime Minster, United Kingdom, Second World Climate Conference, 1990

By the late 1970s, both the scientific and diplomatic communities had become alarmed at patterns emerging in the natural world that seemed hazardous to humans and unexplained by natural causes alone. From the spread of diseases to out-of-control forest fires, the changes in climate patterns had no central clearinghouse for information on what was happening. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) held the first ever World Climate Conference in 1979 to explore concerns that human activities were interfering with regional and global climate patterns. In 1985, the United Nations (UN) established the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases. By the time NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the US Senate's Energy Committee in June 1988 that global warming was occurring unequivocally, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and WMO needed better data on climate in order to advise citizens and governments on what to expect. The two organizations were sufficiently concerned to form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in November 1988. In the UN's words,

UNEP and WMO established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to provide independent scientific advice on the complex and important issue of climate change. The Panel was asked to prepare, based on available scientific information, a report on all aspects relevant to climate change and its impacts and to formulate realistic response strategies.

Who could have guessed then that less than 20 years later these scientists and diplomats would share the Nobel Peace Prize simply for providing "an objective source of information about the causes of climate change, its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences and the adaptation and mitigation options to respond to it"? So who are these 4,000 Nobel laureates, and how do they work?

How an Obscure Panel Organized Itself for Action

Just 2 years after its founding, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (alternately called the IPCC or the Panel) issued its First Assessment Report on the last day of August 1990 in Sundsvall, Sweden. Though the IPCC is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, it convened meetings all over the world. Given the enormity of assessing climate on a global scale within a short 2-year time frame, the Panel divided the chores among three working groups, each of which would employ a broad international base of scientists with specialized knowledge in its delegated arena. Working Group I would assess a broad range of scientific topics including "greenhouse gases and aerosols, radiative forcing, processes and modeling, observed climate variations and change, and detection of the greenhouse effect in the observations." Working Group II would summarize "the scientific understanding of climate change impacts on agriculture and forestry, natural terrestrial ecosystems, hydrology and water resources, human settlements, oceans and coastal zones and seasonal snow cover, ice and permafrost." Working Group III would study possible response strategies and establish subgroups to "define mitigative and adaptive response options in the areas of energy and industry; agriculture, forestry and other human activities; and coastal zone management."

The Panel's scientific staff can be pictured as an international jury of top scientists, borrowed from leading universities and research institutions from all over the world. They weigh the best available information from all the ongoing scientific research streams and collectively assess which evidence is the most reliable and most relevant—and how that evidence fits in with other evidence on related topics. This is why the Panel's major reports—four in 17 years (1990, 1995, 2001, 2007)—are called Assessment Reports

The Panel itself does not conduct any original research. Individual members are researchers at their home institutions, but when they are on loan to the Panel and huddled in the conference rooms, they participate as peer reviewers of research results. There is plenty of excellent research already being generated by researchers all over the globe every day. The service that the Panel and its members provide is the critical collection and synthesis of information.

The Panel is constantly asking, "What does all this information mean? ". No single scientist, university, or national science academy could possibly read and evaluate the technical merits and likely relevance of the thousands of research reports, refereed journal articles, data collections, and theory-building proposals that pour forth each month that deal with some aspect of climate change. Only a vast international coordinated effort could do that. In the Panel's words,

The role of the IPCC is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. Review by experts and governments is an essential part of the IPCC process. The Panel does not conduct new research, monitor climate-related data or recommend policies. It is open to all member countries of WMO and UNEP.

A key aspect of the scientific community greases the skids of this international effort: the need for collaboration. Modern science often involves highly specialized knowledge, expensive methods, and difficult-to-access data that require parties to pool resources. A composer may sit at a piano and create a masterpiece. While she will need others to accept and play it, composition is largely a solo act. A scientist who wants to study the atmosphere may need to acquire access to high-altitude research balloons, radio equipment to communicate with the balloons, and atmosphere-measuring instruments that hang from the balloons, and all that costs much more than a Steinway piano and requires more than just a good piano tuner to maintain.

Mice and Elephants

In addition to scientists, the Panel includes diplomats representing all the member nations. Every IPCC report calls for a strict and multipart protocol involving both these contingents. Three rules govern the creation of the reports: Only the best possible scientific, technical advice should be included; the circulation of draft chapters must include experts not involved in the preparation of that chapter from both developed countries and those in development transition; and the whole process must be open and transparent. This last goal explains why so much of the Panel content is available for all to read online.

Reports go through three formal drafts and reviews: first an expert review, second a government /expert review, and finally a government review of the plain-English Summary for Policymakers. In the early stages of designing and collecting data for a working group's Assessment Report, the scientists are the proverbial elephants, as the major force doing the heavy lifting while sifting through mountains of research to prepare a first-order draft report. Experts-from national science academies, industry, and government research—review the draft to comment on whether it accurately and adequately represents the state-of-the-art knowledge on the subtopic. Again the Panel scientists revise the draft report, based on all the peer reviews, and issue a second-order draft. This second draft is then reviewed both by experts and by the participating governments, whose diplomats we can consider the proverbial mice, scurrying along the edges of the report, observant but staying out of the way.

Once the experts of the Panel's three working groups prepare a final draft of the complete Assessment Report, the diplomats meet to extract the Summary for Policymakers from these findings. At this point, the mice and elephants switch roles, according to Stanford scientist and 2007 IPCC lead author Stephen Schneider. Now the diplomats take the lead on writing the summary about the implications for government policy, and the originating scientists act as observers. The Summary for Policymakers is inevitably watered down as diplomats from over 150 nations reach compromise wording.

When the Panel announces the final Summary to the press, the roles reverse once more. When Schneider described this process to the Eighth National Conference on Science, Policy, and the Environment in 2008, he noted that journalists are not interested in listening to government functionaries, and they "want to know if the report is fair. And we had to remind certain governments that we scientists would be reporting their behavior." Schneider's chief point, echoed by many scientists, is that the transparency of the entire Panel's process allows the strongest scientific data to become broadly known and forces a consensus among nations that might have stonewalled if their objections had remained secret. After the scientists and diplomats complete the work, both the Assessment Report and the Summary are distributed to all the governments for review.

The Scale of the Science: 4,000 Scientists Summarizing

The scale of the science that the Panel uses is stunning in its breadth, depth, and collaborative nature. The IPCC reports must reflect a consensus among all the Panel's scientific and diplomatic participants. Therefore, the Panel's methods tend to be very rigorous, and its findings tend to be quite conservative. For example, for Climate Change 2007, Working Group I examined the research results of about 80,000 different sets of data compiled in 577 different studies that show significant change in many physical and biological systems. Of the more than 29,000 observational data series that passed the stringent quality controls that Working Group I used, more than 89% were consistent with the direction of change expected as a response to warming.

From the IPCC to International Law

When, in 1990, an obscure, newly formed panel of international experts with a long, cumbersome name, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued its first Assessment Report on climate change, the Panel's statements shook up the policymakers at UNEP who had commissioned the work. The Panel's first assessment on climate change was so persuasive that it served as the basis for a completely new international treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Member states and UN diplomats negotiated this agreement, often called the Framework treaty, the first ever on global change due to climate, between 1990 and 1994.

As a ratified international treaty, the UNFCCC entered into force on March 21, 1994. It was eventually signed by 192 nations. Therefore, it is the law of the land, to which all the 192 nations that signed it are bound, including the United States. That does not mean all 192 nations follow the letter or even the spirit of the law they have signed. Specifically, UNFCCC requires all signing nations to achieve "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." (UNFCCC, Article 2)

How well nations have been doing in working toward this goal is a different story. The 1994 Framework treaty was intended as a beginning step "to consider what can be done to reduce global warming and to cope with whatever temperature increases are inevitable." Any principle to change behavior needs specific, quantifiable targets and commitments to reach those targets.

A second important step occurred in 1997, with the adoption in Kyoto, Japan, of the text of the Protocol to the Framework. This addition to the original treaty—known as the Kyoto Protocol—contains more powerful and legally binding measures. Whereas the 1994 Framework treaty encouraged industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol required them to do so, with specific emission targets and compliance dates. By 1999, only 84 nations had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005 for those early adopters. Nonetheless, the UN left the acceptance book open at its New York headquarters. By mid-2008, a total of 181 nations and one regional economic regime, the European Economic Community (EEC), had ratified or accepted the lowered-emission targets of the Kyoto Protocol.

Only one significant emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States, refused for years to ratify, accept, adopt, or even acknowledge the Kyoto Protocol. This lack of action by the United States has been particularly glaring. Many of the mechanisms by which nations could meet their Kyoto targets specifically included market-based approaches that the United States favored during the drafting of the protocol. For example, under the Kyoto Protocol treaty, each country must meet its targets primarily through national measures, which reduce emissions within that nation. Nations are also allowed to meet their targets by way of three market-based mechanisms: (1) emissions trading that allows any country to establish a carbon market for emitters within the country, (2) the Clean Development Mechanism that allows any country to get credit for implementing reductions in a developing nation, and (3) joint implementation that allows any country to get credit for a joint project in a different nation.

Nonetheless, large international efforts did get underway after UNFCCC went into effect. In 2005, the largest emission-trading market in the world, the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS), opened for business. After some early bumps, EU ETS developed into an effective tool to track and reduce all greenhouse gas emissions. The EU ETS is mandatory for 10,000 European installations that spew greenhouse gas emissions, from factories to power plants. The EU ETS benefitted by learning from experiences of the earlier voluntary United Kingdom ETS that operated from 2002 to 2006.

Even though the US federal government has avoided ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, there is strong movement within the United States that may provide models for a national effort. For example, in the fall of 2008 the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) of the northeastern states kicked off a carbon emission-trading market based in New York City. RGGI is a cooperative effort to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, a gas that will be discussed further in Chapter 3. This interstate effort may in turn serve as a model for a larger American federal greenhouse gas market, much as the initial UK emission market served as a precursor to the larger EU scheme.

A Growing Consensus

As the United States considers action on global climate change, we should be guided by the sobering realization that international consensus on this topic has been steadily mounting. After its First Assessment Report in 1990, the IPCC issued a Second Assessment Report in 1995, which strongly confirmed the initial report. The Panel issued a Third Assessment Report in 2001, which stated there is newer and stronger evidence that most of the warming of the past 50 years is attributable to human activities. The Panel's Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, Climate Change 2007, found unequivocal evidence for human causes in climate disruption. In table 1.2 we can see the steady strengthening of conviction in the scientific community about the causes of warming activity.

Public opinion has also shifted. The release of the Fourth Assessment Report happened to coincide with the release of a documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, narrated by former US vice president Al Gore. Mr. Gore's film used much of the same science that the Panel's report did to explain the global climate disruption that humans are causing. In an unprecedented decision by year's end, the Nobel Peace Prize committee in Oslo, Norway, awarded the 2007 Peace Prize to the entire IPCC organization and Al Gore jointly.

It is the first time that 4,000 scientists and one politician have shared the prize, and it will probably be the only time. For science to be awarded a humanitarian prize normally bestowed on diplomats and peacemakers truly indicates the profound link that the Nobel committee saw between avoiding future climate disruptions and ensuring human well-being and security.

The bad news is that some of the indicators cited in Climate Change 2007 have worsened even in the short time since that Assessment Report. Specifically, shrinking sea ice and expanding coral damage are two indicators that are already beyond what the Panel had projected. We are running out of time to make a meaningful difference in curbing future climate disruption.


Excerpted from The Climate Solutions Consensus by David E. Blockstein, Leo A.W. Wiegman. Copyright © 2010 National Council for Science and the Environment. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) is a nonpartisan organization working to improve the scientific basis of environmental decisionmaking.


David E. Blockstein is senior scientist with NCSE, and served as its first executive director.


Leo Wiegman is founder of E to the fourth, an environmental communications firm.

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