Defining dangerous interference

Joyeeta Gupta and David Weber discuss the need to define anthropogenic interference with the climate system through a science-based policy dialogue.

Joyeeta Gupta is Professor at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft and Head of the Programme on International Environmental Governance at the Institute for Environmental Studies at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. David Weber holds an MA in International Affairs from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and is currently a guest researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

We are now eleven years into the climate negotiations and not much closer to specifically defining the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The ultimate objective of the treaty was first articulated in 1992 in Article 2 of the Convention as being “the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

While this definition does give a sense as to where the climate change regime is heading, it remains vague and unconvincing. The actual level at which greenhouse gas concentrations will be stabilized was never agreed upon and still has not been set. While in 1992, one may have thought that it was possible to stabilize emission concentrations at 450 ppm, today, with the Kyoto Protocol having fairly weak targets and having not yet entered into force, one wonders whether this number is still feasible.

The overall greenhouse gas emission reduction targets established under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (5.2 per cent of emissions of Annex I countries by the year 2008-2012) are considered a very small step towards achieving the overall UNFCCC goal and little progress has been made in establishing exactly what benchmarks we are aiming for.

The problem

Any effort to define the target further will have to begin with the business of defining “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” This is a very tricky problem because it is not something that can be ascertained by a mere gathering of facts, it is a question of peoples perceptions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is currently engaged in an exercise to elaborate on the possible impacts of climate change, but scientists within the process are uncomfortable elaborating on the issue of what “dangerous interference” is. This is because any definition is essentially based on human judgment and values, which science alone is incapable of clarifying. Thus, it is countries and their people that must decide what they consider dangerous and at what point they consider the costs of mitigation to outweigh the costs of adaptation. Each one will have a different view of what the acceptable trade-offs are.

Also, while science cannot answer these questions, the formal negotiation process simply does not discuss these broad value issues. The pressure and structure of the formal negotiation setting tends to focus negotiators on problems that are readily solvable or easy to debate. Such negotiations are usually tense and confrontational as each country pushes its own narrowly defined national interests forward.

The fact that the global community must face and fight the problem of climate change together is lost in a negotiating context where countries mostly try to minimize national policy commitments. The result is that only short-term issues and details are discussed while the wider context and consequences of climate change are forgotten.

This situation, in which negotiators concentrate on the nitty gritty of negotiating and push the larger picture into the background, makes a calm and measured elaboration of Article 2 very important. It is of vital importance to understand where and how fast we are going and ensure that the climate change regime is on track.

Countries must decide what they consider “dangerous interference with the climate system” and set an emissions stabilization level in accordance with that vision.

Defining “dangerous interference”

In order to address the problem of refining Article 2, a programme has been developed to promote a global science-policy dialogue on the overall vision of the climate change regime. The idea of the programme is to clarify the value issues involved in climate change and to identify the areas where science can help in this clarification. Its long-term goal is to develop a scientifically sound technique for the resolution of science-value issues at the global level.

The HOT project (Helping Operationalize Article Two) brings together policy makers, stakeholders and scientists from various regions of the world for regional and global dialogue on issues such as:

  • acceptable and unacceptable climate change impacts;
  • feasible and effective strategies for limiting global greenhouse gas emissions; and,
  • equitable distribution of emission control and adaptation costs.

The HOT project will also help in linking the participants long-term perspectives on effective and equitable policy options to medium-term climate policy development and will strive to increase mutual understanding of and respect for differences in positions, while aiming to find common ground for policy action.

Global dialogues may not sound novel to those who have been part of the recent fashion of policy dialogues which came out of the World Water Forum in The Hague, The Netherlands, in March 2000 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002. However, rather than being driven by the policy community, our science-policy dialogues are driven by the scientific community. Participants are given access to a scientific body set up to answer specific questions that they might have on any aspect of the science of climate change, whether it be the possible impacts on a specific region or the indirect effects that a particular industry has on greenhouse gas concentrations and climate.

The dialogues do not necessarily try to establish consensus, but aim instead at increasing mutual understanding and meeting the informational needs of stakeholders and decision makers. By providing an open and non-pressured environment in which participants can voice their concerns and ask questions, it is hoped that the dialogue will lead to increased informational access, increased social learning and the identification of common ground on which fruitful negotiation can eventually be based.

Thus, the dialogues hope to add structure to the problem of operationalizing Article 2 by addressing informational needs, systematically dealing with uncertainty and identifying actors values, all with an eye to creating a foundation and space for agreement and understanding.

Methodology and set-up

The overall methodology of the programme is best depicted as an interacting set of national, regional and global science-policy dialogues.

The success of the dialogues hinges on the participants being candid and uninhibited. This means that the participants need to understand the expectations and risks of the dialogues and also that the rules and procedures are respected. By removing any hard negotiation or binding policy element from the dialogues, it is hoped that participants will feel free to discuss the broader issues relating to climate change and Article 2, and not feel that their regions or country's interests are at stake.

The content of the dialogues can then be analysed towards several purposes. The primary goal is to ascertain what information the participants need in order to make future dialogues richer. Beyond this, it is then necessary to discover the factual and value statements either explicitly stated or implied by the various arguments. If participants feel that their arguments are fairly represented, they can begin to see whether they consider different claims reasonable or unreasonable. They are then able to introduce space into the process whereby they can change their assessments based on new insights and understandings. In this way the participants might find new grounds for agreement where before they saw none.

The first phase of the programme has already taken place and was comprised of the first set of national and regional dialogues. Phase 1 was financed by the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. This phase was a collaborative effort of the Institute for Environmental Studies in Amsterdam, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in The Netherlands, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, COPPE/Centro Clima in Brazil, the Energy and Resources Institute in India, and ENDA Tiers Monde in Senegal.

On the basis of the programmes research protocol and information paper, questionnaires were sent out in different regions of the world to a range of stakeholders in order to get their perspectives on long-term climate change issues. Following this, four workshops were held in India, Brazil, The Netherlands and Senegal in the summer of 2003.

Phase 1 can be characterized as an exploratory or inventory step in the envisioned dialogue process. Since the entire programme is expected to be an iterative process of regional/global dialogues, the first set of regional dialogues gave an initial sense of the informational needs of the participants and how the dialogues would proceed. In the end, the participants were stimulated by the difficult science and value dimensions of Article 2 and the possibility of creating a new line of global communication on these issues.

The results of Phase 1

The participants were convinced that Article 2 needed to be discussed because it is critical to the success of the climate change regime and because there are no alternative forums in which to discuss it.

However, the first round of dialogues showed very clearly that most participants did not have access to the kind of information that would allow them to make personal judgements on what they might consider acceptable risks and dangerous climate change. Critical informational needs were implicitly and explicitly identified which would make participation in the dialogues more effective. To a large degree these included specific inquiries about the regional impacts of climate change and how climate change is going to affect the local conditions and economy in individual developing countries.

There were also broader questions such as what the relationship is between development, water supply, food production and ecosystems. Having this sort of information would help stakeholders to decide what their priorities are, whereas in the absence of such information, stakeholders are prioritizing on the basis of gut feeling.

The information needs identified by the participants can be classified into the following four categories.

  • Information needs on impacts, such as the effect of a changing climate on El Niño, its impact on regional and local health, its impacts on regional ecosystems and ecosystem vulnerability and adaptive capacity.
  • Information needs on new technologies, such as can genetic engineering provide a solution to food shortage and how will this affect developing countries?
  • The articulation of certain terms such as sustainable development.
  • Information needs on development of models, such as how to develop indicators and threshold levels, how to communicate information to non-scientists and how to deal with scientific uncertainty and the precautionary principle.

Participants also agreed that a further elaboration of Article 2 would be possible if people could decide:

  • what would be an unacceptable outcome in relation to Article 2;
  • when Article 2 conditions are no longer met;
  • common starting points for discussion and elaboration of the key terms in the Article;
  • the appropriate scale for these terms; and,
  • what informational needs would help the articulation process.

Some of the unacceptable outcomes that were listed by the participants included:

  • adverse environmental outcomes such as an increase in famines and natural disasters;
  • adverse policy outputs for developing countries such as binding commitments that compromise the right to development; and,
  • adverse policy outcomes for all countries which would allow unsustainable energy use and fuel-wood consumption, unplanned industrialization, excessively high per capita emissions, and high carbon intensity of Gross Domestic Product.

The workshops concluded that one fruitful way of defining “dangerous interference” would be to identify key indicators and unacceptable threshold levels for each country. It was felt that if a country could identify an unacceptable outcome in terms of a particular indicator, then the scientific team could work out what this meant in terms of maximum emission concentration levels.

Such an approach, that focuses on domestic impacts, could perhaps show that there are emission levels unacceptable for all countries even if for different reasons. Some participants also suggested discovering what the impacts of very high greenhouse gas concentration levels, such as 1000 ppm, would be in order to see whether this would be unacceptable to all countries.

The workshop evaluations indicated that participants felt that there had been opportunities to learn and discuss and to communicate informational gaps. However, they also felt that the stakeholders who had attended these workshops were already convinced of the seriousness of climate change and the need for such workshops. Bringing non-believers and outsiders into the debate was, therefore, emphasized and some participants suggested that this could be done by holding workshops back-to-back with workshops of industrialists, insurance companies or economics ministries.

Expectations for the future

Overall, the Helping Operationalize Article Two programme team decided that it is worthwhile to continue with the iterative dialogue process. This is because participants did feel that they were given a chance to focus on their understanding of the issues, identify the gaps in their knowledge, and articulate their underlying values in relation to Article 2. The dialogues showed promise as an important means to communicate and learn from people and so create a basis for dealing with complex environmental problems such as climate change.

They also showed that a primary reason for the lack of engagement with Article 2 was the lack of appropriate information which could be used to come to a personal evaluation of what a dangerous level of climate change is. Once this information is available, the discussion of values will become more important.

Given that values and norms take a long time to crystallize and that Phase 1 is but a first step in the dialogue process, it is too soon to make any conclusions about the broader significance of the dialogues and what their effect on the norms surrounding Article 2 might be. It is clear however, that since norms and values are the basis of international environmental problem solving, more research needs to be conducted into their role in the context of international environmental problems.

Further information
Joyeeta Gupta, Institute for Environmental Studies, Vrije Universiteit, De Boelelaan 1087, Amsterdam 1081 HV, The Netherlands. Email:
David Weber, Institute for Environmental Studies, Vrije Universiteit, De Boelelaan 1087, Amsterdam 1081 HV, The Netherlands. Email:

On the Web
Brian ONeill and Michael Oppenheimer discuss “dangerous interference” in a recent article in Science (14th June 2002). They conclude that a long-term target of 1°C above 1990 global temperatures would prevent severe damage to some coral reef systems, with limits of 2°C and 3°C needed to protect the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the thermohaline circulation, respectively. The text is available on-line.