The recent news that the UN was creating an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) created a bit of a stir. It was obviously (and openly) modeled on the IPCC, an organization which has its share of problems. This new ‘IPCC for biodiversity’ panel has already been viewed with serious skepticism, especially among those who challenge the validity of the IPCC’s unique brand of ‘science’. However, new ideas aren’t invalid simply because they resemble old ones, so I decided to look a little further into the subject. I found that the new IPBES is not an attempt to further the science of biodiversity, it exists to help create a new and ‘more effective’ version of International Environmental Governance (IEG). I will explain IEG later, but first I want to show you how I reached this conclusion. I started out with this question:
Why is the IPBES necessary?
Scientific knowledge on the links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being has increased significantly since the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MAs) was completed. There is however a need for a stronger international science-policy platform to enable emerging scientific knowledge to be translated into specific policy action at the appropriate levels.
I could probably finish this post here, because this quote reveals that the IPBES is not about advancing the science. It exists to “enable emerging scientific knowledge to be translated into specific policy action”. ‘Specific policy action’ isn’t something which scientists or citizens create (directly), policy is created by governments. The IPBES’ admitted purpose is to use science to create policy. They don’t perform any science (they only review) and they can’t make policy, so what are they really? They are the basis, the starting point, the foundation, of future policy action. Just like those in Copenhagen would create new treaties based on the IPCC’s ‘findings’, the IPBES is being used to form a basis for such future action.
So far this isn’t very controversial. The IPBES more or less openly admits this on their site. However, it isn’t only the IPBES that sees this new panel as a way to force ‘specific policy action’. I’ve looked through the documents of other organizations to see their view on the issue, and I’ve found some revealing items.
This document is from Ramsar, a global convention on wetlands, titled “Progress and advice on IPBES”, and written in late April or early May this year. This contains a chronological account of how the IPBES was formed, and is an informative read. Page 5 states the following:
Awareness-raising campaigns for the general public are also needed
22. Access to and use of knowledge, which should be policy-relevant and not policy
prescriptive, was seen as critically important. It is also important, upon request, to develop
tools and methodologies to assist policy formulation, e.g., sub-global assessments with the
involvement of end users; multi-criteria decision analysis tools; cost benefit analyses; and
valuation methodologies for ecosystem services. It was considered vital for the knowledge
base to be interpreted for users.
Interesting turn of phrase. Still, there are more blatant admissions elsewhere. In this IUCN information paper they talk about the “IUCN’s vision for an Intergovernmental and Multistakeholder Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)”. Here is their vision (excerpts from various places, emphasis mine):
Based on the five identified needs above, and a review of existing processes meeting some of these needs, the overarching role of IPBES should be to provide relevant decision making processes with independent, authoritative, internationally peer-reviewed scientific information on changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services, the implications of these changes for human well-being, and possible response measures at multiple scales. IPBES should be established with the view to it becoming the standard international source of policy-relevant scientific information on knowledge relating to biodiversity and ecosystems services, and therefore meet the needs of decision-makers in the environmental sectors, and at the environment development nexus.
1. Facilitating and catalyzing knowledge generation:
IPBES should not itself conduct research, but rather should identify gaps in policy-relevant science that could be filled by further research, play a role in catalyzing such research, and also form a channel for the existing scientific information to contribute to policy making. IPBES would provide a synthesis mechanism to respond to the needs of MEAs and others stakeholders for scientific information on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and in doing so would provide a robust international peer review process for scientific contributions to policy making.
In addition, in facilitating knowledge generation, IPBES should ensure that guidance is provided to the scientific community on the identified policy priorities. This could involve, for example:
1. Disseminating direct requests from subsidiary bodies of MEAs and other relevant processes to scientific networks, and convening representatives of the scientific community to plan a response to those needs.
2. Compiling science-policy digests for the scientific community to raise awareness of key policy needs and gaps in knowledge to support policy development.
3. Liaising with international research networks and organizations (such as ICSU, DIVERSITAS, and IHDP) and national research funding councils to support prioritizing investment in and implementation of policy relevant science.
In addition to supporting and undertaking assessments, IPBES should also have a function of horizon scanning and early warning on policy-relevant biodiversity and ecosystem services science. Whilst this would build on the assessments implemented, it would also provide opportunity for rapid assessment of key emerging issues to be brought to the attention of the IPBES bureau and/or plenary.
In order to be most effective, IPBES would benefit considerably from building capacity to undertake policy relevant science, to assess that science through scientific assessment, and to use information from such an assessment in the decision-making process. IPBES could carry out capacity building activities such as the production and promotion of training material on biodiversity and ecosystem service assessment, and providing opportunities for scientists and decision-makers from developing and developed countries to engage in science-policy processes. There will also be indirect capacity building opportunities provided by IPBES, through raising international awareness of policy-relevant science and options to deliver this into decision-making processes at national and international scales.
I’m sure you can see the dangers of this vision. An institution which is the “standard international source of policy-relevant scientific information”, which will “identify gaps in policy-relevant science that could be filled by further research”, by helping “play a role in catalyzing such research, and also form a channel for the existing scientific information to contribute to policy making” wields tremendous influence. The “IPBES should ensure that guidance is provided to the scientific community on the identified policy priorities”. In this vision, the same massive inter-governmental organization will decide which science needs attention and which doesn’t, and then determine how the science applies to policy. This will blur the line between science and policy so far that the scientists could really be considered policymakers. After all, they are being told which ‘gaps’ need to be filled, then their findings are being used to further ‘specific policy action’. Scientists studying biodiversity will be directed by the IPBES towards certain areas (climate change anyone?) instead of others, and this alone poses a risk to the scientific community. Do we really trust the UN and world governments to direct the scientific inquires of an entire field, especially when the admitted purpose behind such research is ‘specific policy action’?
Another international organization has made their views of the IPBES known. Here is the Commonwealth Secretariat’s view on IPBES specifically (excerpts, emphasis added):
4.4 Permanent Base Science-Policy Interface
44. Rationale: Need for sound science for policy making, need for integration and holistic approach to scientific advice including development and environment interlinkages, need policy and MEA implementation review, need to address proliferation of multiple science assessments, identify emerging issues and threats…
47. Level of Political Difficulty: Medium-low difficulty–there has already been a lot of lessons learned from scientific mechanism such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and integrated assessments such as the Millennium (Ecosystem) Assessment (MA) that main challenge is to set up the authorizing environment for multiple MEAs and ensure the independence of science while keeping it salient to policy. Processes such as Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES formerly the International Mechanism of Scientific Expertise on Biodiversity or IMOSEB) have already created fertile ground for furthering this reform. The key now is to link it with the current IEG reform agenda.
What is this IEG (International Environmental Governance) reform agenda? Here is another quote from the same paper:
Global governance is the only means by which we can respond to the scale and
complexity of environmental challenges and the evolving context within which they have to be
addressed. Though some issues can be solved at the national level, many environmental problems,
like pollution and overexploitation of shared resources, have international implications and
require collective action. No state is immune to the effects of global environmental change and all
states require effective governance to mitigate and adapt to such change.
No commentary needed. Let’s finish with the recent TEEB for Business report, issued on the 13’th of July. On page 13, in the section about politics, they make the following statement:
According to WBCSD, the key challenge in the transition to sustainability is improving the quality of governance. As described in Vision 2050, governance systems should respect the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. decentralizing and making decisions at the most appropriate local level) but they must also “pool sovereignty” where necessary to address international challenges such as trade, infectious disease, climate change, water resource management, high seas fisheries and other trans-boundary issues (WBCSD 2010: 6). According to WBCSD, future governance systems also need to be better at guiding markets to internalize environmental externalities, ensure transparency and inclusiveness, create a “level playing field” and enable business to develop and deploy sustainable solutions. An outstanding question is whether the expected shift in economic and political power towards the larger emerging economies (i.e. the so-called BRICS) will result in new attitudes and approaches to environmental management and ultimately help or hinder efforts to reach international cooperative agreements on managing the global commons.
The key challenge is improving governance. This is the heart of the issue. The IPBES was created in order to improve governance, by pushing scientific inquiry into certain areas then recommending policy based on that coerced science. These new policies would improve the quality of governance, at least according to those quoted above.
The science which will be directed by the IPBES is a tool, it will exist primarily as a justification for government action.