The origins of the IPCC: How the world woke up to climate change

On the occasion of the IPCC’s 30th anniversary, we shine the light on the series of pivotal events in 1980-85 that alerted scientists to the urgency of addressing climate change, kicking politicians into action, and ultimately leading to the birth of the world’s climate science assessment body.

First session of the IPCC in 1988. Photo: IPCC
Johannes Mengel

This is the first part of a three-part blog series marking the 30th anniversary of the IPCC.

“All of a sudden we were seeing a problem that people had thought was going to be a hundred years away coming within the next generation.”

In 1985, Jill Jäger, an environmental scientist, attended a meeting in a small town in the Austrian Alps. The meeting, chaired by a meteorologist named Bert Bolin, was a small gathering of climate scientists intending to discuss the results of one of the first international assessments of the potential for human-induced climate change. Speaking to the BBC in 2014, Jäger remembers how she left the event with a feeling that “something big is happening […] the big adventure here was bringing all the pieces together and get this complete picture and we can see that the changes are coming much faster.”

The 1985 Villach meeting was the culmination of a process in which three international organizations – ICSU, UNEP and WMO – joined forces to bring an issue onto the international policy agenda that to that day had been confined to the pages of scientific journals and within the walls of conference rooms: the threat of anthropogenic climate change. The meeting turned out to be the spark that lit the fire that awakened the world’s governments, ultimately leading to the creation of the IPCC in 1988.

This is the little-known story of scientists coming together to pool their knowledge on an issue that most had been studying as a phenomenon within their own discipline. When they did, they realized that what was on the horizon was so big, it needed the urgent attention of policymakers – and a collaboration between the policy and science communities that had never been attempted.

Origins: Discovering the first clues to climate change

The first hints at the possible effects of man-made CO₂ emissions by scientists – including that it could lead to a greenhouse effect – go back to the 19th century. But it was only in the second half of the 20th century that the scientific community really got interested. A key moment in building scientific knowledge was the International Geophysical Year (IGY) organized by ICSU in 1957. The IGY was a landmark international effort to better understand the Earth system – unprecedented in scope and international remit, with almost 70 countries participating. One of the scientists who received funding for their projects as part of this year was a young American scientist, Charles D. Keeling. He established the first permanent measurement of CO₂ levels in the atmosphere from a research base on Mauna Loa, Hawaii. His measurements are being continued to this day, and have become known as the Keeling curve – showing an unrelenting increase in atmospheric CO₂ levels ever since.

At the time, the International Geophysical Year had such an impact on popular culture that Donald Fagen wrote a song about it.

In 1967, ICSU and WMO launched a global programme to better understand the behaviour of the atmosphere and the physical basis of climate. The aim of the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP) was to improve the models used for weather forecasting, but eventually it would be drawn into the climate issue. In 1967, a study had noted that a doubling of the CO₂ content of the atmosphere would lead to an increase in global mean temperature of 2°C. In the next decade, other researchers found that there had already been an increase of mean temperature in the Northern hemisphere in the first decades of the twentieth century. The open question at the time was whether this was a natural variation or a human-induced change. This spurred interest in climate change in, for example, the ecology and geology communities. In 1980, ICSU and WMO decided to transform the GARP programme into an forum for international cooperation in climate research. GARP became the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), still making important contributions to modern climate science.

There was, however, still very little effort to synthesize available knowledge about the climate change phenomenon. An initial assessment was prepared by the US National Academy of Science in 1977, aimed at a scientific audience. In 1979, WMO and UNEP organized a first Word Climate Conference. However, the conference focused almost exclusively on the physical basis of climate change. It was lacking in contributions from other disciplines and, apart from a call for more resources for climate research, did not make any attempts to reach out of the academic circles and create awareness of the issue.

Villach I: Gathering the pieces of the puzzle

Shortly thereafter, however, ICSU, UNEP and WMO decided it was time for change. They called for a different meeting. It was time for scientists to step outside of the silos of their individual disciplines. It was time to bring the knowledge gathered by national studies together. In October 1980, they called the elite of global climate science to Villach to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. The meeting was an intimate, international gathering of top-level scientists studying climate change phenomena, bringing together physicists, chemists, meteorologists, geographers, and other disciplines.

Peter Liss, a chemical oceanographer, attended the meeting. He remembers that “Villach 1980 was a seminal meeting. This is when the scientists convinced themselves that this was serious. The models were telling us that it was going to happen.” He recalls that this was the first time that scientists from different disciplines brought together the state of knowledge within their field to paint a bigger picture. “People were working on a lot of different aspects at the time, but this brought it all together showing that this was a big, global problem,” he says. They worked out a statement that warned that “the probability that these potentially serious impacts may be realized is sufficiently great” to justify a concerted effort to improve the understanding of the changes underway was needed and that “it is essential that the research proposed here be undertaken as a matter of urgency.”

Report of the 1980 Villach meeting.
Report of the 1980 Villach meeting.

However, at the time, the outcomes of the meeting were not widely circulated. In his semi-autobiographical account of the creation of the IPCC, Bert Bolin, who chaired the meeting, describes how on the train ride home from that conference, he and other participants discussed that something bigger was needed. Bolin says he was of the clear view that “an analysis that was wider in scope, greater in depth and more international was most desirable.”

Villach 1985: A call to policy-makers

That analysis was initiated by UNEP shortly after the conference. It became the report “The assessment of the role of carbon dioxide and of other greenhouse gases in climate variations and associated impacts”. In 1985, a second Villach conference, again organized by ICSU, UNEP and WMO, met to discuss the results of the study. It became clear that the combined effect of all greenhouse gases could mean the equivalent of a doubling of atmospheric CO₂ concentrations might be on the horizon before the middle of the 21st century. Climate change was becoming a much more urgent issue than previously thought.

The scientists concluded that current convictions guiding investments and social decisions that were based on the climate system remaining stable were “no longer a good assumption,” because greenhouse gases were expected to cause a warming of global temperatures “which is greater than any in man’s history.” For the first time, they called for a collaboration between scientists and policymakers, stating that the two groups “should begin active collaboration to explore the effectiveness of alternative policies and adjustments.”


Bert Bolin in an undated photograph. Photo: The Royal Swedish Academy of Science (KVA)
Bert Bolin in an undated photograph. Photo: The Royal Swedish Academy of Science (KVA)

The 1985 Villach conference recommended that a task force should further study the issue, and ICSU, WMO and UNEP formed the “Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases (AGGG)”, with two members nominated by each organization. The group was more aimed towards informing the leadership of the three organizations, rather than engage with policy-makers. Its limitations were soon becoming obvious.

The ozone layer, droughts and a media moment

By then, however, political momentum had picked up. Possibly seeing an opportunity following the process that led to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, UNEP Executive Director Mostafa Tolba pushed for an international convention on climate change. In Toronto, the “International Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security” issued a stark warning: human impact on the planet was leading to a multitude of environmental changes ranging from depletion of the ozone layer to global warming and sea level rise, and was “likely to cause severe economic and social dislocation.” An unusually hot summer in the USA led to worries about food security, bringing the issue into public discussions. In part due to support from parts of the influential U.S. administration, planning soon was underway for an intergovernmental science-policy mechanism that was to create regular assessments of the state of science on climate change, its impacts and potential response strategies.

Both the political and the scientific community now agreed that action was needed. All of a sudden, there was a perfect storm. The fact that there was an increasing body of knowledge that needed to be assessed, that governments were starting to see the need for such an assessment, and the convening efforts of the WMO and UNEP. The scientists involved in the Villach meetings, on the other hand, felt that, now that they had succeeded in bringing the issue to the political agenda, it was appropriate to maintain the independence of research. Scientific work should be performed independently of any government.

That is why ICSU at the time concentrated on rallying the scientific community around the big research questions in climate change, global ecology and biogeochemistry. It founded the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in 1986, which became a major supplier of knowledge to the IPCC assessments. In 2014, the IGBP merged with two other ICSU-sponsored environmental research programmes (the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and DIVERSITAS), to form Future Earth, which is now working to supply the scientific basis for a sustainable future. WCRP continues its contributions to the analysis and prediction of climate change as part of Earth system change.

The intergovernmental nature of the new assessment body, on the other hand, made it a natural fit within the remit of WMO and UNEP, both intergovernmental organizations. They went on to form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, whose anniversary we are celebrating this week. Happy Birthday, IPCC!

Further Reading:

  • Agrawala, Shardul: Context and Early Origins of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climatic Change (1998) 39: 605.
  • Bolin, Bert: A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change: The Role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University, Cambridge, 2007.