Vying for change

Thomas Stocker has been a Professor of Physics at the University of Bern, Switzerland, since 1993.He also acquired an Honors doctor ate from Causes of Université de Versailles and a Fellow of American Geophysical Union. He has also been serving at the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as co-Chair of its Working Group since 2008.

Thomas Stocker, who has authored or co-authored over 200 peer-reviewed papers, is regarded as one of the prominent scientists focusing on Earth System processes and climate change.

Since March this year, he has been campaigning for a chairmanship post at the IPCC where election is scheduled to take place in December in Paris during the UN framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCC) Summit. Stocker was on a two-week visit to Ethiopia where he met senior government officials. Yonas Abiye of The Reporter caught up with him to discuss a range of issues including Ethiopia’s Green Economic development strategy and broader issues of climate change. Exerpts:

The Reporter: As a scientist with much of your career in climate change and environmental physics, can you tell us briefly the major focuses that you have been emphasizing in your career?

Thomas Stocker: I am a climate change scientist and have been working on climate change, questioning it from the physical point of view for the last 30 years. I have focused on climate modeling – in other words quantifying the past and future climate change views and computer model – where I also worked intensively reconstructing past climate change based on archives of climatic. What we do, for example, at the University of Bern, was to reconstruct the greenhouse gas concentration from ice cores in Antarctic, of which I have extensive experience. For the past 17 years, I have been also engaged in contributing to the IPCC as a scientist. And since the last seven years, I have been with this organization as co-chair of Working Group in IPCC which engages scientists from around the world. The primary customer for IPCC’s information is the UNFCCC whose role is for the government. For example, we are preparing for the UN climate change conferences in Paris which will take place in December this year. This would  bring a result for legally binding agreement to confront climate change.

On that note, what is your take for repeated failure of this legally binding agreement despite high expectations in the past four or five climate change conferences, particularly, in Bali, Bone and most importantly the Copenhagen conferences?


That is right. There were high expectations before all of them were turned to failure later, particularly during CoP16. Copenhagen was one of the milestones that we witnessed six years ago. At that time, many of the countries hoped to reach an agreement. However, it wasn’t possible at the time. I think, six years later, the year 2015 will bring better results.

What makes you so optimistic in the face of these past failures?

I have three reasons why I believe today we are in a completely different situation. First, the policymakers and governments have better knowledge about the scientific basis of anthropogenic human-made climate change. Second, many businesses around the world are declining. Climate change is becoming a threat to them and their businesses and firms as well. We have, on one side, a 2 degree Celsius target – on which countries had agreed to limit climate changes insuring the warming does not exceed 2 Degree Celsius. But at the same time we have a new instrument called Intended Nationally Deployment Contribution (INDC) which gives the responsibility back to all the companies to declare what their possible contribution of emission reduction, mitigation and adaptation will be and why this is ambitious in their own framework.

So, we have different dynamics that already have caused the biggest emitters, the USA and China, to make historical declaration of reducing gases by 2030.  It has led to a historical declaration of the G7 countries which have said that they would like to decarbonize their industries. At Paris summit, I hope, a legally binding agreement will be achieved. That’s definitely to the benefit of all countries, but in particular for the benefit of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change such as Ethiopia.

Scientists have played a key role in identifying the causes and impact of climate change as well as putting forth recommendations. Particularly since 2007, their reports through IPCC have been gaining the acceptances of most UN member countries. However, there are also issues of credibility with some of the scientific findings where the interest of powerful nations and corporations may be at play. How much of that influence the disparity of the views on climate change?

IPCC had delivered reports five times, which include scientific information to policymakers where they have been arguing about it this time around. We have delivered the information in a way that the policymakers come to an understanding because our communication is much better. This is one thing that I contributed as a leader of Working Group I.I helped the IPCC to that process. We communicate the so-called Headline Statement. These are very simple affirmations which summarize the entire large report of 15,000 played into just two pages printed back and front. This meant that policymakers have very clear statement which still summarizes the science and are approved in consensus by all the governments. So, a sentence, for example, like ‘Human influences on the climate system is clear’. This statement is one of the simple affirmations that all the governments have approved on consensus. I believe that, although there is separation between the scientific assessment and policy making, these separations are healthy. There is a good communication between the two groups – the scientists who carry out these assessments and the policymakers or decision- makers of all countries who basically negotiate politically in the interest of their own countries.

Would you still think that such differences, among scientists and politicians, will be reflected widely at the upcoming COP (Conference of Parties) meeting in Paris too?

I think we do see differences absolutely. These differences certainly come with different levels of development among countries such as Ethiopia who has its own clear goal to development, eradicate poverty and ensure food security. I have talked to the Minister of Environment and Forest this morning [23rd August 2015] on how this can be achieved in a way that’s forward-looking green economy. I am very impressed with the various projects, plans and the overall long-term strategy. In fact, this country has been determined to accelerate development, and, at the same time, being very conscious not to repeat the same mistake that had been made.

Now you are here in Addis Ababa visiting this country at a time when you are in campaigning officially to run for IPCC chair. Tell me about your candidacy and what inspired you to aim for the chairmanship and what you would offer the organization?

First of all, I should say that I started my campaign on March this year, relatively very late, until I can visit personally a few countries. But Ethiopia was on my list for the reason I just mentioned. Its clear strategy, priority to develop, to lift its people’s income, the level of the wellbeing in this country and, at the same time, with green economy strategy. That is indeed a very important lesson that many countries can learn from. With regard to my campaign, I started it very late and after my responsibilities of delivering a product in the IPCC work accomplished. Only then I felt ready to offer myself as a candidate for the next five to seven years. Should I be elected, I would emphasize three priorities. The first priority is communication. I think IPCC should make communication a continuous effort. Communication to the policy- makers as the first customers of our scientific information, but also to the public to raise the awareness on the challenges of climate change, with the result that we have, with the language that is understandable and accessible to those who are not specialists in a scientific view and to engage all scientists from the most vulnerable and exposed countries in becoming ambassadors of communicating climate change science along with the solutions available to us to confront climate change. The second priority is to keep assessments scientifically robust and rigorous. This is because we are living at a time when climate change discussion has become very political. It’s also obvious why this has become political because the countries are looking for a solution. And the solution is implemented in every country. Therefore, I prioritize a political discussion. This political discussion needs to be informed by scientific findings. These findings as well need to be robust, transparently obtained and rigorous. In other words, the approach that IPCC has taken work in a new plan should become understandable for all. In this regard, I believe that we are on a very good track. But it’s very important that we are aware of the fact that there are also intensive political discussions that the IPCC must focus in the scientific discussion. The third point, which I believe is also the most important, is making information and the science that IPCC delivers to the policymakers more relevant. What does it mean? The most relevant information that you can provide is the real information that exists in your region. It’s about your specific climate change challenges. For example, the challenge of precipitation, the challenge of drought, the challenge of changing monsoon system which are very important in this country. The challenge of changes in sea level, not important in this country maybe immediately, but perhaps in neighboring countries. I would like to make this a priority. More regional information that is available directly for impact studies, vulnerability and risks in this country. This could be done only with the involvements of scientists of all countries. This may not only be from government’s research institutions, metrological agency environmental agencies but it could also be from any academic institutions.

You spoke of making scientific assessments more robust and rigorous. For quite sometimes, critics question if IPCC is free from those economically powerful countries who also happen to be the largest emitters. IPCC is clouded with issues of transparency and compromised scientific findings.

I can only tell you my own experience as co-chair of Working Group I. I have not lost a single paragraph or a single figure or a single headline statement in the summary of policymaking statement. It’s negotiated between scientists and the countries for Working Group I. We have, in Working Group, certainly striven for extremely robust summary that is defensible. Because it rests on multiple lines of independent evidences. That’s the real issue and point. We need to base our assessments and conclusions, on the lines of evidences that are diverse and independent. Multiple lines of independent evidence are key for scientific robustness.

Regarding transparency, I would disagree with the question because I know of no author whose report that has been exposed to a worldwide review twice. Just to give you a number in our Working Group I, we have collected 54,677 reviewed comments which we all have responded to one by one and have acted upon as it is a reasonable criticism. This is the document that has been extremely transparent and open. I don’t know if there is any document that has been hacked and experienced such a wide review. And at the same time, all governments had twice the possibilities to send their comments for clarifications, changes, questions etc. It does not mean that all requests could be accommodated. If there is no science to support those specific requests, it cannot be accommodated in a scientific assessment. That is why I put my emphasis on scientific assessments.

Now, who will you be holding a discussion with in your stay in Ethiopia?

I have Ato Tefera Belete, the Minister of Environment and Forest, and I will discuss with Alemayehu Tegenu, who is the Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, tomorrow. I will meet officials of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development too. It is also important for me to talk to those Ethiopian leaders who have climate change in their portfolio. They are well aware of our contribution of assessments, to inform them and their decision-makers.

What is the purpose of your visit? Does your discussion with Ethiopian officials focus on soliciting support for your campaign?

Not for that actually. I would be in fact extremely pleased to be elected based on my professional qualification, based on my experiences in IPCC and based on my personality and communication in leading a large group to success. Of courses, I would be pleased if I would be able to solicit their support. But my priority was to visit this country which is already vulnerable to climate change. I also came here to learn the actual situation. Today, I have also learnt a lot about the green economy strategy and the long-term vision of this country. And certainly, there are still many challenges that are yet to be resolved.

Ethiopia along with other fellow African countries has been active on voicing its concern on climate change issues for some time now. As an individual scientist and a leader of thousands of scientists and experts under the umbrella of IPCC, how do you weigh up the legitimacy of the concerns of African countries?

It is clear that climate change affects this country. We also know where the majority of emissions have happened. Obviously those industrialized countries emitted the vast majority of greenhouse gases that have carried forward their development. It’s clear from that that many of the negotiation processes are found to be critical. Priority of enabling development of those countries that still require to lift themselves up from genuine problem such as poverty, food insecurity and many other critical problems is clear. This is the heart of the climate change negotiations and it has to reach scientists such as me and the entire IPCC. We would like to contribute, constructively, information that makes the decisions smart, the discussion objective in the sense that the discussions are helped by putting numbers, by putting perspectives for the future, by offering options for different partners. That’s what the science has to do. In this regard I believe that science has also done a lot. Now, at this time we have much higher quality of discussion than we had some six years ago. In fact, I am not part of this negotiation. I keep my distance. I informed the process and procedure of IPCC. I do not participate in this negotiation, not even as a member of the Swiss delegation.

If you succeed in your campaign and eventually get elected to run the IPCC, would you have any special plan to offer better opportunity or any other mechanism to encourage African scientists or professionals?

That is, indeed, a very important issue that I would like to emphasis in my candidacy for the chair. Wherever I was and now in my visit I have asked the government representatives to please help identify the scientists who are able to contribute, and also to help them to be able to contribute. So, IPCC certainly can help in capacity building. We also need the government here to identify those people to ask and then to support them when they are given this responsibility. That’s of course one step. The other step is the communication issue that I mentioned earlier. Engaging in dialogue with scientists is also important in this regard. And we will see that who is really enthusiastic, who has energy and who has the expertise to offer for the next cycle. For example, in the last cycle we have one Ethiopian colleague. I do hope that we will have a large number of Ethiopian colleagues in the next circle. I just noted that one Ethiopian colleague has been proposed by the Ethiopian government to serve as vice chair. We hope this person would also be elected  -  a person who  can also basically find solutions to the region as well.