UN climate panel secretary: every year in fighting climate change matters

IPCC secretary Abdalah Mokssit presenting a report on climate change and land in Rome, Italy, in October 2019. (Credit: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano)

From its offices in Geneva, the secretariat of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is in charge of making sure that the annual plenary – the first one to take place online in the UN body’s 33-year history – runs smoothly.

But between an ongoing pandemic, a summer filled with record-breaking heat waves across North America and deadly floods in central Europe and China, and less than 100 days away from climate talks, the pressure is high.

The plenary, which kicked off this week and runs until 6 August, will bring together over 200 government officials, scientists and other experts to approve a highly anticipated report about the status of climate change.

A few days ahead of the closed meeting, Secretary Abdalah Mokssit spoke to Geneva Solutions about the unprecedented conditions in which the climate body has had to operate and how it plans to remain relevant in an ever-evolving context.

Great expectations

Created in 1988, the IPCC is the United Nations’ highest authority for validating climate science. It assesses the impact of climate change on humans and offers policymakers ways to bring down the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Its flagship reports, released every six to seven years, have been key in establishing scientific facts such as evidence that climate change is happening without a doubt and that humans are the main culprits.

Its latest publication, currently being discussed and due to be released 9 August, is the first of a four part report due to be published between 2021 and 2022. Because of the circumstances surrounding preparations, including deadly heat waves and floods, Covid-19 restrictions as well as high expectations from campaigners, Mokssit says that this cycle is the most intense one to date.

“Expectations for this cycle are connected to the Paris agreement, to the severe impacts of climate change we are living now and the increase in awareness by young people. This cycle also has coincided with the pandemic. For these reasons, it is the most intense one, the most special one, the most expected one, but also the one under maximum constraints,” he says.

All 195 state members of the IPCC will be combing through the document line by line, a task that will take no less than two weeks this time, while past meetings, including plenary sessions, usually have taken around four days.

This is because for the first time, approval will have to be done virtually. Security but also connectivity issues had to be foreseen as not every country has access to good internet connection. “We made simulations so that, what we were able to do in person, we could replicate it in virtual mode,” he says. “And it was huge work,” he adds, confident that everything will go well.

The tricky equation

One of the tricky things about the IPCC is that it is not a purely scientific body. Governments get to comment on the report drafts and have to approve the final summaries by consensus. “We always have profound discussions between scientists and governments,” Mokssit says.

“To ensure that everything is scientifically sound, the last word is, of course, the scientists’ but everything is adopted with the consensus from governments. This is the difficult equation we have to manage.”

But before having to deal with the diplomatic intricacies of approving a common global policy paper, the IPCC has to manage an even larger pool of experts. The hundreds of authors selected to prepare the different chapters of the report are peer reviewed by thousands of their colleagues, who send tens of thousands of comments and the authors have to reply to every single one of them.

“We have no right to hide anything. Any sound science should be reported in our assessment,” he says.

No stranger to criticism

As the IPCC has gained prominence, it has also been the subject of criticism and one of the recurring themes is its lengthy process. With climate change accelerating at such a fast rate, science data can quickly become perishable. Last week’s floods in central Europe and China as well as the fires in the United States were a stark reminder that many of the consequences of climate change that the IPCC had warned about are already here. Waiting six to seven years for a report to inform leaders on how to save the planet could seem out of tune with reality.

Mokssit says that the 2022 report will arrive “just in time to be useful”. He adds: “We don’t want to provide information after the cooker is already burning.”

Still, it is precisely its thorough review process that will ensure that the IPCC continues to be “the gold standard of climate science”, he argues.

“The work of the IPCC is synchronised with responsibility, because if we don't know, we have a pretext to not act. As soon as we know, we become responsible. And if we know, and do not take action, it is like [we say] in French, non assistance d'une planète en danger [failure to assist a planet in danger].

He points to the many previous contributions of the panel: “The first assessment of the IPCC in 1990 was critical for establishing UNFCCC. In 1995, the second assessment report was critical for the Kyoto Protocol. The third assessment report in 2001 was critical for introducing the concern about developing countries, which is adaptation. The fourth one in 2007, which gained the Nobel Prize, was critical to introduce the number of anomaly temperatures of 2ºC. The fifth was critical for the Paris agreement and now the sixth in 2022 will be critical for the first global stocktake of the Paris agreement.”

Fighting the deniers

Facing the consequences of a changing climate and trying to reduce emissions to prevent any further global heating is not the only uphill battle that has to be fought. While the consensus has grown and most countries and large companies have come out endorsing the need to reduce emissions, conspiracy theories and climate change denialism is still rampant, mainly thanks to social media and the rapid spread of fake news.

For Mokssit the best weapon to counter denialism is transparency. “It’s like working in a glasshouse,” he says. “Everyone can see what we are doing. Everyone can also check the peer review process.”

Today’s level of transparency has not always been the case as the IPCC has had its fair share of gaffes. Even though it happened more than 10 year ago, errors such as the one that appeared in a 2007 report that incorrectly stated that the Himalaya glaciers could disappear by 2035, left a mark. Deniers used it as proof of the flaws of mainstream climate science. In 2010, accusations of conflicts of interest against the chief of the IPCC bureau also brought the panel’s integrity to question.

Mokssit agrees that past errors were not well-handled but says that it provided an opportunity for improvements. “What is really problematic is if we don't learn from past mistakes,” he says.

Today, the IPCC has a conflict of interest policy. “We have a conflict of interest committee to check everything and this committee has the task of rejecting anyone with even a small epsilon of conflict of interest,” he says.

Additionally, it has created a protocol to flag errors so that anyone who spots a mistake in one of the reports can let the panel know. “Science is a process of continuous improvement,” he says.

The panel has also gradually opened up to become more inclusive. “We are increasing our efforts to invoke scientists from developing countries, both young scientists and women and I think we have made great progress,” he says. “In 2020, the IPCC adopted a gender policy to enhance gender equality in IPCC processes and promote a gender-inclusive environment.”

As climate change has been propelled to the top of our worries, the IPCC has also become of interest to a wider audience. “The past years we saw that many actors, including the youth, the private sector – and this is new – civil society, reach out to the IPCC for information,” he says.

“This makes effective communication all the more important. Why? Because now we are sure that the outcome from our assessments are not only useful for policymakers. They are also useful for any individual, any stakeholder, any private sector, any women in a rural region, any indigenous population or any minority.”

A timely leak

Despite all the criticism, not all the gaffes are viewed so negatively. Last month, one of the reports scheduled for next year was leaked to the press. The document sounded the alarm on a number of tipping points for climate that are closer than previously thought.

“It is not rare that we have leaks but we are managing this like a risk,” Mokssit says.

“We don't keep the drafts confidential because we want to be secretive but because we know that text will change and we want to give the authors the time and space to work on the draft,” Mokssit says, pointing out that that drafts and comments are always published after the final report is approved.

He warns that drafts go through changes before reaching the final stage and thus can be misleading for those who base their assumptions on it.

Despite these warnings, some experts saw a silver lining in the leaking of the report, with hopes that it might at least serve to light a fire under the leaders that will be meeting in November in Glasgow.

When asked if this year’s Climate Cop26 will be the last chance to set the world on a 1.5-degree path, Mokssit pauses for a moment. As a neutral policy body – a point  he insists on several times throughout the conversation – the IPCC cannot comment on negotiations. Choosing his words carefully, he says: “Every bit of warming matters, every year matters, every action matters, and every Cop, including Cop26, matters.”