Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The IPCC under the magnifying glass 

Kari De Pryck, Mike Hulme

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is known for its comprehensive Assessment Reports about the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, and about its impacts, future risks and the options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place. It is a knowledge institution with the responsibility – mandated by the world’s governments – to assess and synthesise scientific and social scientific knowledge about the phenomenon of climate change. Since its establishment in 1988, the IPCC has played a key role in the construction of global climate knowledge and influenced the politics of climate change in many ways. Its perceived success in informing decisionmakers of the risks of climate change is such that calls are regularly made to establish IPCC-like institutions for other environmental problems.

This book is being published at a crucial moment for the IPCC, which is about to enter its seventh assessment cycle (AR7). As the organization starts reflecting and deliberating on its future work, we hope that this book can make a modest contribution to this process.

Yet until now, there has been no comprehensive book that critically assesses the variety of practices and discourses – epistemic, diplomatic, procedural, communicative – that constitute the institution of the IPCC.

The objective of our new book — A Critical Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — is therefore twofold. First, it offers a systematic introduction to a field of social enquiry that – after more than 30 years of multidisciplinary research into the institution – can now be called ‘IPCC studies’.  Second, and based on this field of study, it offers a critical assessment of the epistemic, cultural, social, ethical and political norms and practices guiding the IPCC and its transnational processes of climate knowledge production. We introduce readers to the governance, products, participants, knowledge-making practices and influence of the institution.  We demonstrate the importance of social science research for illuminating the social and political processes that enable the IPCC to make authoritative intergovernmental knowledge about climate change. How this happens, and how these changes over time, needs careful investigation and evaluation.

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The IPCC is an important institution to study for several reasons. To start with, amongst the family of global environmental assessments the IPCC has generated by far the largest research literature within the social science and humanities disciplines. In a review article published in 2010, Mike Hulme and Martin Mahony evaluated over 100 research articles that had by then been published studying the institution of the IPCC (Hulme & Mahony, 2010)[1]. During the subsequent decade we estimate this number has increased by a factor of about four.  This wide body of knowledge about the IPCC needs marshalling and synthesizing in an accessible manner.

Second, there is no doubt that the IPCC has had significant influence on climate change knowledge, on public discourse about climate change, and on climate policy development. The IPCC has also gained increasing visibility in public forums as the authoritative voice of climate change knowledge – ‘the privileged speaker and discursive leader’ – a visibility enhanced in 2007 through it being awarded, jointly, the Nobel Peace Prize. The ‘boundary work’ between science and policy that the IPCC performs has also legitimised the scientific vocabulary that governments, campaigners, businesses and NGOs have been able to deploy in public speech. The IPCC’s procedures and modus operandi have implications not only for the framing of climate change in its reports, but also for the construction of its authority in various national and international contexts. There is a need to use the insights of the social sciences – especially science and technology studies — to understand how the IPCC constructs such authoritative knowledge.

A third reason for a book that critically assesses the operation of the IPCC is that this institution has been seen by many actors as a role model for organising policy-relevant knowledge for other global problems. IPBES, established in 2012, is often called ‘the IPCC for biodiversity’ and calls are regularly made to establish IPCC-like institutions for fields such as antimicrobial resistance, migration and asylum, desertification, food systems, and chemical pollution and waste. For example, an editorial in Nature in July 2021 focused on recent calls to develop a new science-to-policy process for food systems. The editorial pointed out the importance of learning from the IPCC with respect to structure and governance and ‘how to navigate topics that, like food systems, are both deeply political, and must take into account the voices of industry, non-governmental organisations, farmers, Indigenous people and others’ (Anon, 2021: 332)[2].

Fourth, our book reflects on the achievements, limitations and future challenges of the IPCC. As many scholars have argued, the challenge of communicating the science of climate change is not only about getting the facts right – in other words, ‘the message’ – and presenting them to a wide range of audiences.  It is also increasingly about understanding how this message was constructed, who the ‘messenger’ is and how it can be trusted. The IPCC has operated under the rubric of being ‘policy relevant but not policy prescriptive’.  But the IPCC is facing new challenges to its value-free and policy-neutral stance, since it is increasingly called upon to offer ‘solutions’ to climate change in the post-Paris context.  This changing expectation of the role of the IPCC is something that the AR6 cycle from 2015 to 2022 began to navigate, but there remain many challenges for the organisation, some of which we highlight in the book.

A Critical Assessment of the IPCC is structured as a coherent series of critical mini-assessments of different aspects of the knowledge-making practices of the IPCC. The various chapters draw upon published literature about the IPCC. In this sense we mimic the IPCC itself: just as the IPCC assesses published knowledge about climate change, so we synthesise and critically evaluate published knowledge about the IPCC. On the other hand, many of our contributors have also been active within the IPCC or have been closely researching the IPCC themselves over many years. Their critical assessments and observations therefore reflect their own judgements about the achievements of the institution and the challenges ahead.

Taken individually, each chapter offers an analysis of key questions relating to, among other things, the governance of the IPCC, the participants involved, the types of knowledge assessed, the processes guiding its work, and its influence in society. Taken as a whole, the book offers the first comprehensive and detailed overview of the procedures, principles, practices and products that, together, comprise the IPCC and which underpin its authority and project its influence.

This book is being published at a crucial moment for the IPCC, which is about to enter its seventh assessment cycle (AR7). As the organization starts reflecting and deliberating on its future work, we hope that this book can make a modest contribution to this process.

A Critical Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is available open access here.

A Critical Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by

[1] Hulme, M. and Mahony, M. (2010). Climate change: what do we know about the IPCC? Progress in Physical Geography, 34(5): 705– 718.

[2] Anon. (2021). Food science faces its ‘IPCC’ moment. Nature, 595: 332.

About The Authors

Kari De Pryck

Kari De Pryck is a lecturer at the Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland. Before joining the UNIGE, she worked at the University of Cambri...

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Mike Hulme

Mike Hulme is the author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (2009). Hulme is Professor of Climate Change in the School of ...

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