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A lifetime in climate research

Professor Bert Bolin has been Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1988 when the IPCC was established. He relinquishes the position at the end of the Thirteenth Session of the IPCC held from the 22nd to the 28th September 1997 in the Maldives. Dr Robert T Watson, as the newly elected Chair, will then assume office.

Tiempo thought it an appropriate time to speak with Professor Bolin about his many and varied experiences as an active and influential participant in the international arena concerning climate change issues. Bert Bolin spoke with Mick Kelly, co-editor of the bulletin, at the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, in July 1997 at the time he was awarded an honorary degree by that university.

Mick Kelly: You've been involved in the study of climate change and a major player in the political debate for many years now. How did you first become involved in this subject?

Bert Bolin: When I got my doctorate which was on weather forecasting by numerical methods, my professor told me, "You'd better change your gear now, get into studying the lifetime of pollutants in the atmosphere." The first one I took on, and I've never left that, was carbon dioxide and this was in 1956. From then onwards, this issue has been in the back of my mind all the time — while organizing the World Climate Research Programme and when I was involved, very much so, in the initiation of the IGBP, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, in the mid-1980s.

Then I was requested by the earlier Director of UNEP, Mostafa Tolba, to take on the chairmanship of the IPCC in 1988. By then I'd been engaged in assessing climate issues for about a decade since the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, on the request of President Carter, took on the task of assessing what to do about climate change in 1979.

Mick Kelly: You've seen major changes then, not only in our scientific understanding of the climate problem but also in its relevance to society at large and the attitude of politicians to this issue. What would you say are the major developments that have taken place since the 1950s, during your time in the field? Both in terms of the science and political attitudes.

Professor Bert Bolin

Bert Bolin: The use of carbon-14 for actually pinpointing the key characteristics of the global carbon cycle in the late 1950s and the 1960s was very important. Then the first attempts to compute changes in climate because of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the 1960s. Manabe's contribution to the World Climate Conference, held in Stockholm in 1974, was very, very important. This was the first global general circulation model used for climate prediction.

And the next step was the realization of the importance of other greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. I had indicated that this was the case in the middle of the 1970s but it never took on until the paper by Cicero and others in the mid-1980s. That's the time that I was really convinced that this is going to be a political issue because suddenly the time a significant climate change might happen had moved very much closer to the present.

Mick Kelly: What do you think was the trigger that got the politicians involved?

Bert Bolin: I think the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development — sustainable development — in the 1980s was very significant. And, actually, the assessment that I was doing on behalf of UNEP at that time played into their report that was brought to the United Nations General Assembly in 1987.

The plea from Botswana and from the Maldive Islands regarding the threat of climate change at the General Assembly in 1987 was very convincing to many developing countries. It meant that the Commission's report was accepted unanimously in New York. And that was very important. It formed the basis for the two organizations, UNEP and WMO, to create this body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to provide authoritative advice to the political community.

There was a formal request from the General Assembly of the United Nations to actually produce a report by 1990. And that was very important — to get a target, a customer that asked for our services. It was instrumental in getting nations and scientists engaged at an early stage.

Mick Kelly: It's clear that the scientific community has played a major part in setting the agenda as far as the political community is concerned. And I think you, as an individual, have been one of the scientists who has been most active on that interface between science and policy. Is that a fair assessment? Do you feel that you have a definite responsibility to communicate with politicians and others?

Bert Bolin: I really do feel this. It has been a driving force for my way of acting. It goes back to the fact that I've always been interested in politics and I was actually scientific adviser to the Swedish Prime Minister in the mid-1980s. And that meant also that I could take on this task, chairing the IPCC, with full support, financially and otherwise, from the Swedish government at that time. So I could act as an independent individual on the international scene. I've never received a single dollar, pound or whatever from any organization for doing this work. It's important to feel that you have independent status doing work of this kind.

Mick Kelly: Do you find any conflict between the interests of science and of politics?

Bert Bolin: I remember very well the very first meeting of IPCC Working Group II on climate impacts which was held in Washington, January 1989. Bush had taken on the Presidency. There was a new Secretary of State, Baker, and his first public talk was opening the IPCC meeting. And I remember my own statement on that occasion was not on whether or not there would be climate change but on what would the impacts be. This should be the really key issue. In the development of this issue, of course, we have anyhow to go back to the basic science. But impacts were not dealt with adequately in the First IPCC Assessment. That I sensed was the real central issue, and it remains so, and this is the most difficult thing in actually pursuing a more vigorous protection of the global climate Because people will always ask, "but what will happen?" And what can one say honestly as a scientist? It's a big question.

Mick Kelly: It's one of the most difficult areas to study because in a sense here you see most clearly the cascade of uncertainty. You're having to project climate change into the future and there the uncertainties are great. Then you have to look at impacts on particular sectors of human activity or on ecosystems. Then you have to integrate in order to get the cumulative picture and that's extremely difficult to do. I wonder whether we can ever do more than produce order of magnitude estimates. But perhaps that's all that's needed, to demonstrate that the problem is serious.

Bert Bolin: Yes, we must put the impact in terms of a definite risk for future societies, for countries, although we may not know which countries will be hit most seriously and which might even be blessed — and there may be some. But the "risk concept" has not been developed very far as yet but such an approach is necessary.

It comes into focus so very beautifully now with the insurance industry getting up in panic because of losses, probably not, as I judge it, because of human-induced climate change but primarily for other reasons. Nevertheless, what we are experiencing is exactly what might well be a much more serious issue within a decade or two.

Mick Kelly: Do you think then that as scientists we have a two-fold responsibility? One part of that responsibility is to communicate the basic scientific understanding of these issues and that, I reckon, the climatological community has done very effectively over the past ten or twenty years. But perhaps there is another responsibility as well — to educate, to inform, to engender debate on more abstract issues, the nature of risk, what is science and particularly the question of scientific certainty and uncertainty?

Bert Bolin: Politicians don't like too much philosophy — and rightly so in my view — but the long-term perspective needs to be brought home as well as is possible. And in that context the focus now must be on the development of global society and on the way climate change might harm, might disturb, might make it impossible in some regions. And in that sense we have to bring in economic and social, ethical, questions. I think that we can leave it to the natural scientists to pursue their work and certainly we should be focusing on how to present the results as well as is possible, in the light of what is needed by society and societies of the world.

Finance, the question of money, plays a role. Let me just make a picture — we assess that the cost for mitigation is of the order of some percentage of gross national product. We should estimate what that means. It is several hundred billion dollars per year for the world as a whole. Which sounds awfully much. But we expect also that the societies of the world will increase their capabilities of doing things — productivity in the broad sense of the word. And actually one calculates in economical circles this at two per cent increase per year.

It would be very sad if we could not set aside a rather small fraction of this total increased capability of global society to protect ourselves from climate change. It is in that context not an expensive thing.

I spoke with an economist who had explored the willingness of people to do things in this field and, of course, if they had the freedom to choose what they think is important for the future then environmental issues and climate issues come high on their agenda. But as individuals they feel completely unable to influence anything because the societal system is so geared towards economic development in the very specific way of increasing "peoples living standards" in the traditional sense. To get away from that and have a much more philosophical view of what the future requires of us now is very central.

Mick Kelly: And really it's fundamental if we're going to take the kind of long-term perspective on development which sustainable development requires. What I'd like to do now is to consider what is being done at present as far as the climate problem is concerned and what will probably prove to be the critical meeting of the decade, the Third Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention in Kyoto later this year. What do you think we'll see as a result of the Kyoto meeting? Do you think that the industrialized nations will agree to an explicit schedule for post-2000?

Bert Bolin: Well, it's difficult to tell. But I think that we do find now an agreement amongst, essentially, all countries that climate change is a serious issue for the future. Which has not been that generally accepted at any one of the previous meetings, not explicitly anyway. There's a lot of lip service, even in the Convention itself!  

I judge this fresh degree of agreement from several things that have happened. The United States administration's attitude is basically positive, but they don't know how to go about it, getting it approved by the American people. And the oil-producing countries are switching from, really, questioning whether climate change will occur or not, to the position of how they can be supported for the necessary decreases of their incomes from oil revenues. And this is an orientation to a more realistic attitude for future actions.

But politicians do not know how to go about achieving significant emissions reductions. And that's really the stumbling block at this stage. My personal view is that economics must be built in here, in a way that satisfies two demands.

First, efficiency in the use of funding in the developed countries to see how much they can contribute. And they can do a lot. There are very much more opportunities than people think about, that cost rather a little, and if you then think of "win-win" situations where you achieve things in other fields at the same time several tens of per cent of reductions of present emissions are possible at modest costs.

The other aspect is the cost for the developing countries. For them, in building up their infrastructure for the future, they need to have available new technologies that actually lead in a sustainable direction. And I see no other way other than having tradeable permits, or kinds of economic systems that provide funds that also can be used to assist developing countries in using and adopting a much more viable pathway towards sustainable development than is, at present, occurring.

It's very tough but if one could take steps in that direction it would be most valuable even if there would not be a precise commitment to targets at a particular date, a particular amount — something of that sort is also necessary but I wonder how much one will actually be able to achieve at this stage because of the very different views of how to achieve emissions reductions. And one may question how important it is to actually adopt a target if you don't know how to achieve it. And that's, of course, the American view.

Mick Kelly: The long-term perspective is important here, isn't it? I keep having to remind myself that, in fact, one major battle has already been won as far as the climate issue is concerned because the energy analysts are now prepared to talk about a future where unlimited energy growth doesn't continue for ever and a day. And that is a tremendous battle won given the power and influence that this particular community has with regard to its close link with the development process.

What you're saying is that, with this change in attitude in the international community, even if we don't have ambitious new targets agreed at Kyoto, if we have an international community that is actually united, with perhaps different interests being met in different ways, then that sets the scene for the next stage whatever that might be.

Bert Bolin: And also it may be rather good that at present we don't know more about the way impacts will be visited on the globe. Because if we had a clear set of winners and losers we would have a completely different kind of discussion. Not completely, but different in many regards and the problem might not, generally, be viewed as the responsibility of the world as a whole. We'd so easily get lost.

Mick Kelly: In the long term, if not in the short term, we're talking here about a regime, of tradeable permits for example, that involves the developing nations, and not just the rapidly industrializing developing nations but all of them. How do we get from here to there? At the moment it seems very unlikely that the developing nations as a whole, and I know its dangerous to generalize, but I think its very unlikely that the developing nations as a bloc would accept any mention of emission targets, emission controls. So how do we get to the point where we can have a truly global regime?

Bert Bolin: I think the developed countries, the industrialized countries, must take the lead, as the Convention prescribes. And it's essential that Europe and the United States and then also the rest of the OECD, which means Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, really can start to see how they might take on a policy which would lead to decreasing emissions now and into the next century.

And it seems to me that what the Europeans did in actually allocating different kinds of targets for different countries could also be achieved by the kind of methodologies that the Americans are thinking of. And if one could get some internal agreements on this, not necessarily in Kyoto because, after all, Kyoto is about the global issue, But some internal agreement then that would be tremendously important.

I'm not so hopeful that one will be able to reach that goal within the next few months, but maybe some steps in that direction. Then, the next period of five years must be devoted towards explicitly analyzing how one jointly — developing and developed countries — deals with this matter, recognizing fully the different status of the different countries as is so explicitly formulated in the Convention.

Mick Kelly: So, perhaps there's time to experiment with different approaches. To find innovative, to find creative approaches to this problem rather than assuming that a relatively small group of our representatives can identify the right top-down solution to the problem.

Bert Bolin: Yes, it's impossible to deal with it top-down. Top-down can only provide, possibly, some overall boundaries. But when it comes to implementation you must start from a boundary but with that overall view clear, in the back of your mind.

And what is interesting here is if one would try something with these tradeable permits, one might well experience something that the Americans did in fact experience when they introduced this in the case of sulphur emissions and acidification, that industry can do very much more and more cheaply if they have, as an alternative, to buy such permits. And they actually take this on as a part of their rational way of dealing with this issue which is so important for the future.

Mick Kelly: I have just one more question. Let's imagine we're sitting here in the year 2020 — as I hope we both will be able to. What do you think the situation will be at that point in time? How far do you think we will have gotten in dealing with the climate problem? We are still, I feel, at the precautionary stage of our response. In the year 2020, will we still be at that precautionary phase, looking for win-win solutions?

Bert Bolin: We should always look for win-win situations surely, but we must go beyond that also. The question is if we indeed will be able to develop methods to deal with this problem rationally over the next twenty years, which is to ask a lot, but there will certainly be the promise. My guess is, my projection is, that we will be very clear in twenty years time that there are substantial climate changes that have happened and that will happen even more so in the future. And then the question is how does one go about dealing with this problem in the optimum way? And the question of optimizing resource use, in the very broad sense of the word, is fundamental. And that is fundamental to sustainable development.

Maybe the warnings that such a climate change would bring to the global society could be very useful in terms of actually coming to grips with much wider issues.

Further information

Bert Bolin, University of Stockholm, Arrhenius Laboratory, S-10691 Stockholm, Sweden. Fax: 46-8-157185. Email:

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