“The IPCC chair should first of all be a scientist with a broad perspective”

8 September 2015

On 5 October delegates from 195 countries will elect the new chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Dubrovnik, Croatia. One of the five candidates for this most important job in climate science is Thomas Stocker. He is a professor for Climate and Environmental Physics at the University of Bern and a member of the Oeschger Centre. In an interview he talks about his election campaign and his plans for the future of IPCC.

Thomas Stocker, you are in the middle of a campaign, do you feel like a politician running for presidency?

Not at all, this is not a classical campaign but a tour of a large number of countries to present myself as a person and as a scientist who aspires the position of chair of IPCC. The purpose is to present the priorities I see for the future of IPCC in person, to meet officials from ministries and engage in a discussion. I listen to the needs and views of these different countries and I am learning what priorities they see vis-à-vis climate change.

But ultimately you would like the countries you visit to vote for you?

Absolutely. I want to convince them that, based on my professional expertise and my many years of experience within IPCC – as co-chair of Working Group I  successfully completed my responsibility to deliver a product– as well as my personality, I would be a candidate who can be entrusted the leadership of this organisation through the next seven years.

Who do you actually meet?

That depends on the country. In the vast majority there are two ministries involved in the topic of climate change. These are for technical reasons the environment ministry and the foreign ministry because IPCC is an organism at the level of United Nations. So typically I have meetings with high-ranking officials and in few cases with the ministers themselves.

Is it difficult to get this kind of appointments?

Without the Swiss embassies in the countries I visit this would be impossible. They get into contact with the relevant officials and organise the meetings. As you can imagine, if in 10 days you plan to visit 6 countries you are giving only a narrow choice to people you would like to meet. I am very grateful that by far the majority of these meetings could take place at the scheduled time and location.

To how many countries have you been up to now?

The tour I start tonight* is the last one of a series, after that I will have visited 30 countries. With 10 other countries I have been in contact by phone.

Do you enjoy this phase of your life? Or are there moments when you think you should never have started this whole thing!

No, there are no moments when I make that fundamental statement. There are certainly times when I say I would rather like to be at home, in the institute or with my family. But you have to consider that this is a limited amount of time, 4 or 5 months in which I live through this very special period, but I can tell you it is extremely instructive. I learn a lot by visiting countries and talking to people who are at the level of decision-making and to be exposed a brief moment to the specific needs of these individual countries.

Has this changed your view on the effects of climate change?

I hasn’t changed my view, I think I was very well informed before, but it has widened it significantly. I now have a much deeper and more direct appreciation of for example climate change impacts in different countries, challenges regarding the combination of development and climate adaptation and mitigation. Those are topics we often discuss during these meetings.

What are the fundamental differences of the five candidates when it comes to shaping the future of IPCC?

I am not following their programme in detail but focus on where I would put the emphasis. That is what I have communicated to all countries with in fact excellent feedback from the decision makers because I have apparently hit points that are of primary concern to them.

Which are these points?

The first regards communication. We need to embark on a continuous activity of communication in IPCC. To be effective , communication must be concise and understandable. I think the headline statements we have pioneered in Working Group I, and which were accepted by all countries, should become a standard of all IPCC products in order to facilitate the communication. Statements such as “Human influence on the climate system is clear.”, for example, succinctly and faithfully summarize complex scientific assessment results.

My second priority is maintaining and enhancing the scientific rigour, robustness and objectivity in all areas of the assessment.

IPCC needs to provide more regional climate information.  This is my third priority, in order to ensure IPCC's relevance when solutions to climate change will need to be developed. Climate models deliver ever better regional information, but this information has to be absorbed by impact studies and risk analyses. That’s why I would like to see a much closer interaction between the Working Groups in order to provide that regional information in the most useful way. And an essential element of this third priority: we will not be able to deliver this information successfully without the involvement of the scientists who live and work in these regions. This means that by necessity scientists from all regions, particularly from those that are most exposed to climate change, should be authors and lead authors in the next assessment.

You have been voicing the concern that the leading scientist could possibly no longer participate in the IPCC because of the huge burden of work.

This risk indeed exists. But I hope that with an effective and inspiring leadership of IPCC it can be mitigated. I consider IPCC a fantastic endeavour of bringing the best scientists together and have them debate on critical issues where there is not yet a consensus. The process in itself is deeply inspiring for the scientists, and my personal experience in Working Group I in the past 17 years is that many joint research projects, papers, publications have been conceived during lead author meetings where there was an intensive scientific debate among colleagues, often scientific competitors who were brought together to work on the same common product.

Should Swiss scientists engage more in the IPCC?

I think in Working Group I the Swiss engagement has been great. The University of Bern for example has been in leading positions throughout the five assessment cycles since the foundation of IPCC. In Working Group II it’s a bit slimmer. Where the participation has been very weak, almost absent, is in Working Group III. I think this is a missed opportunity. I wish these scientific areas for example in economy and in social science would come forward and engage much more proactively than they have in the past. To have such know-how, that has been exposed to the international discourse and consensus finding process of IPCC, available here in Switzerland would be a precious asset.

Do you view the role of an IPCC chair as a scientific one only or as a political one as well?

It’s not a political one in the sense that he would participate or influence political decisions. Irrespective of who will be elected as a chair I wish for this organisation that it will be able to keep its position as the prime body supplying scientific information with the credibility of the scientific method and stay far and long form the political process itself.

But the election of an IPCC chair is highly political…

…it has an element of political consideration. But I think the scientific aspect of the leader is of crucial importance to ensure the credibility of the organisation overall. The chair of IPCC is acting on behalf of the scientific community delivering information to the policy makers. If that authority, that derives from the collective expertise of thousands of scientists, who contribute on a voluntary basis to these assessments, is not reflected at the top then I am afraid this will threaten the credibility and purpose of the IPCC.

Should the countries look for the best scientist to become the next IPCC chair?

I am not giving any advice to the countries. I am simply expressing my personal opinion on what profile a person should have who is entrusted with the leadership of such an organisation. I think the profile should foremost be that of a scientist with a broad perspective, with excellent skills to communicate, the ability to listen to the needs of many and then lead this organisation through motivation, through example and through efficient and pragmatic management.

How big do you consider your own chances to be elected?

I am a realist, we are a small country we are not members of a block. Switzerland has always been a neutral country, but a county that contributes at the highest level in particular to international organisations with a very long tradition. I also think that it is a trait of Swiss people that they strive for consensus situations where you have opposing views. This is the Swiss way of finding solutions and moving forward. So I consider my chances intact.

Personal Webpage of Thomas Stocker

* The interview was conducted in Bern on 31 August.