#65 The G|O Briefing, August 5, 2021

Exclusive: ‘Act now,’ confidential IPCC report tells governments; lawsuit sheds light on Big Tobacco tactics; and can systems be held responsible?

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

We hope you are well. The summer of 2021 is turning out to be a febrile and—for International Geneva—busy one, between WHO’s efforts to deal with the magnitude and unpredictability of COVID-19 and the 54th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the conclusion of which is imminent.

Today in The Geneva Observer, an exclusive on what the IPCC scientists will tell governments when they meet in Glasgow in November for the COP26 conference.

Jamil Chade reports on a highly confidential draft report that is currently being finalized and will be unveiled next Monday, August 9. As you might expect, the document is necessarily blunt, and comforting it is not. Its message, too, couldn’t be clearer; it’s high time to act, the scientists tell their primary audience—policymakers.

The industry pushback against the WHO/Michael Bloomberg joint calls for strict regulation of vaping has been swift. Among the reactions to the publication of the report–see here for our Briefing last week–was one from Derek Yach, a former WHO senior executive who, after first leaving the organization to join Pepsi Cola (“The health expert happy to sleep with the ‘enemy’,” as the FT wrote at the time) is now director of the controversial Smoke-Free World Foundation (FSFW) funded by Philip Morris. The story is a textbook case in the very same industry tactics denounced by WHO. Read on…

Nicolas Agostini’s essay last week about the pitfalls of ‘systemic analyses’ was meant to open a conversation, and it did just that, prompting Daniel Warner to reflect further on the problem of blaming ‘systems’ when trying to attribute responsibility for violations. It also elicited this reaction from one of our readers:

“The absence of historical, geographic and comparative perspectives in the assertions of ‘systemic racism’ or ‘systemic fill in the blanks’ would be laughable if it did not have rather negative consequences on the future of US politics, and hence the world. I believe the craziness of the Trump presidency was contagious on its adversaries, and polarized the US (and now the world) polity so much that reason, comity and common sense are lost to polarized assertions of victimhood—necessitating permanent penance and punishment!”

Exclusive: The IPCC new report that will be debated at the COP26

IPCC panel strongly rebuts climate denialists in latest confidential assessment

If you were wondering whether climate change is responsible for the recent raft of deadly natural disasters occurring over the last few months, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the answer is very likely yes. Such seems at least to be the inescapable conclusion that springs from a confidential IPCC draft report to be officially released next Monday (August 9), obtained by The Geneva Observer.

The highly-sensitive document—marked “Do Not Quote, Cite or Distribute”—was produced in early May, with more than 100 global climate experts contributing to its writing. The authors note that their comprehensive report incorporates all literature on climate change accepted until January 2021.

Parts of the document titled “Summary for Policymakers” (currently circulating among governments while being finalized) read like an exact projection of what we have seen happen over the last few months. “Many changes in the climate system, such as heat waves over land and ocean, heavy precipitation, droughts, and loss of Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost, become larger with increasing global warming,” it says, adding that “further global warming will intensify changes in the water cycle, including the year-to-year variability and severity of wet and dry events.”

The experts’ assessment is blunt, and leaves little hope for a reversal: “The frequency and intensity of hot extremes and the intensity and duration of heat waves will increase even if global warming is stabilized at 1.5°C,” they write. “Glaciers will continue to lose mass for at least several decades even if global temperature is stabilized,” and “It is virtually certain that global mean sea level will continue to rise over the 21st century,” the scientists warn.

The document emanates from the IPCC Working Group 1 (WG1), one of the panel’s three working groups. WG1 examines the physical science underpinning past, present and future climate change, and its report is considered one of the most significant elements of the IPCC’s recent work—largely because it is expected to be one of the main texts used to put pressure on governments, at the COP26 international climate summit in Glasgow in November, to meet the conference’s goals.

In a clear push to see an ambitious agreement reached in Glasgow, the document warns that global warming of 2°C, relative to 1850–1900, is extremely likely* to be exceeded during the 21st century, unless there is a steep decline in greenhouse gas emissions before the middle of the century.
(*extremely likely translates to 95-100% certainty in IPCC calibrated language, which is described in full below.)

“Human influence has warmed the climate system at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years” –IPCC Report

Human influence

The draft text seen by The G|O forcefully dismisses denialists’ attempts to play down the role of human activity in the process of climate change: “Human influence has warmed the climate system at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years,” the report states unequivocally. It helpfully defines human influence as “human-driven activities that lead to changes in the climate system due to perturbations of the Earth’s energy budget (also called anthropogenic forcing). Human influence results from emissions of greenhouse gases, aerosols and tropospheric ozone precursors, ozone depleting substances, and land use change.”

“Some key findings are statements of fact,” the scientists note, writing for instance that “it is an established fact that human influence has warmed the climate system and that widespread and rapid climate changes have occurred.” However, “For other findings, confidence is indicated using the IPCC calibrated language,” which can be summarized as follows:

“Each finding is grounded in an evaluation of underlying evidence and agreement. A level of confidence is expressed using five qualifiers: very low, low, medium, high and very high, and typeset in italics, for example, medium confidence.

“The following terms have been used to indicate the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result: virtually certain 99–100% probability, very likely 90–100%, likely 66–100%, about as likely as not 33–66%, unlikely 0–33%, very unlikely 0–10%, exceptionally unlikely 0–1%.”

The IPCC report uses this methodology to produce a detailed evaluation of the ways in which human activity has impacted climate change—and they make some of the most arresting findings:

“It is very likely that human-caused greenhouse gas increases were the main driver of tropospheric warming since 1979, and extremely likely that human-caused stratospheric ozone depletion was the main driver of lower stratospheric cooling between 1979 and the mid-1990s,” it claims.

“Human influence likely contributed to increases in atmospheric moisture and extremely likely contributed to changes in ocean salinity. Globally averaged land precipitation has likely increased since 1950, with a faster increase since the 1980s (medium confidence), and with likely human influence on the pattern of observed precipitation changes.”

The IPCC also states that “It is virtually certain that the global ocean has warmed over the past five decades and extremely likely that human influence is the main driver of this warming,” further claiming that “human influence is very likely the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s and of observed reductions in Arctic sea ice since the late 1970s, and very likely contributed to the observed decrease in Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover since 1950.”

In sum, what we see in the planet is not its natural cycle, but the consequences of our actions.

Alongside this stark conclusion, the IPCC also claims that there has been a substantial increase in confidence when it comes to attributing “observed changes in weather and climate extremes” to human influence—“in particular for extreme precipitation, droughts, tropical cyclones and compound events (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the frequency and intensity of hot extremes and the intensity and duration of heatwaves have increased across most land regions since 1950, while cold extremes have become less frequent and severe.”

Alarming new projections

An alarming new set of projections is also presented. In it, the IPCC claims that it is very likely that temperatures will be higher by 1.0°C–1.8°C during this century even under the lowest CO2 emission scenario, and by 3.3°C-5.7°C under the highest CO2 emission scenario. To put this figure into dramatic context, the report points out that “Sustained global warming levels of more than 2.5°C higher than 1850–1900 have not occurred since over 3 million years ago.”

The report will also include a detailed and comprehensive interactive atlas, which can be used to map the effect of climate change around the globe, analyze different scenarios, and simulate its effects on temperature and precipitation changes.


The vaping and tobacco industry push back against the WHO. Behind the smoke, no transparency.

In last week’s G|O Briefing about WHO’s publication of a new report calling for more stringent regulations on the use of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), we focused on the organization’s comprehensive deconstruction of the tobacco industry’s tactics to combat regulations. The industry reaction was swift and indeed pulled no punches. Its campaign, it would appear, largely confirms WHO’s assessment (backed by serious academic research) of those very tactics. As a case in point, The G|O received the following communiqué signed by Dr Derek Yach, the FSFW’s President:

“The WHO’s tobacco control approach is fundamentally flawed. In 20 years, they have simply failed to make any meaningful progress to reduce tobacco consumption, with over 1bn tobacco users today and 8m people dying annually from tobacco-related illnesses.

“The slowing decline in use of combustible cigarettes is a serious indictment of the organization and their Bloomberg partners who have been focused on excessive rhetoric as opposed to action, undermining true progress. Favored consumption reduction mechanisms, such as effective tax policies, have badly lagged in most developing nations, and there has been a massive failure to help smokers in these countries quit, with doctors rarely engaged and nicotine replacement therapies not available. This despite over $1bn being invested by Bloomberg in these countries.

“The exceptional growth of next generation devices offers the WHO a real opportunity to tackle combustible consumption once and for all. Over 100 million ex-smokers use reduced risk products, and the WHO should be taking advantage of massive investment in the sector by encouraging governments to provide an incentivized regulatory framework to enable greater expansion.
“If ever there was a time to show some pragmatism and get serious on harm reduction strategies, as health systems play catch up from the pandemic, it is now.”

We’ll let the statement speak for itself. But, as it turns out, a recent lawsuit against FSFW (brought by Lourdes Liz, its former Director of Digital and Social Media) offers a revealing look at FSFW and its backers’ modus operandi.

The Foundation was created in 2017 with the stated mission “to end smoking in this generation,”  thanks to a massive $80 million annual contribution from Philip Morris International (PMI).

In her lawsuit filed earlier this year, Lourdes Liz alleges that FSFW activities were actually “designed to increase the profits of and to do the bidding of Philip Morris” and its former parent company, Atria. She also claims that she was forced out of her job after questioning why her former employer was specifically targeting teenagers when promoting vaping in the name of tobacco reduction.

According to her lawsuit:

“Ms. Liz learned that the Foundation’s President, Derek Yach, in conjunction with the advertising firm Ogilvy, proposed an advertising concept that used Instagram influencers and personalities who performed vaping and e-cigarette related tricks (such as blowing circular ‘vape’ bubbles after inhaling from an e- cigarette)—an advertising idea clearly targeted at teenagers and adolescents that promoted a pro-vaping, and therefore pro-PMI and Altria, message that vaping was a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes. (…) Right around this time, however, Mr. Yach expressed, in no uncertain terms, his lack of concern about teenage vaping and e-cigarette consumption, which he argued was somehow safer than smoking. Mr. Yach dismissed the addictive nature of the nicotine present in e-cigarettes, describing it instead as a mere ‘dependency,’ such as what someone can develop for caffeine. Mr. Yach chose to ignore or dismiss the far higher level of nicotine present in e-cigarettes than is found even in traditional tobacco cigarettes.”

Producing internal documents, the former FSFW employee also disputes FSFW’s claims that it is independent from PMI, and mentions several meetings during which FSFW’s activities were closely coordinated with the tobacco firm.

Those activities, her lawsuit states, included lobbying WHO: “PMI and the Foundation, at the direction of Mr. Yach, [coordinated] open letters to the executive leadership of the World Health Organization in January 2019. Notably, Ms. Liz and others disagreed with sending such an open letter to the WHO, but Mr. Yach forged ahead, seemingly at the direction of and/or in coordination with PMI.”

The G|O has asked WHO for a comment.

Systemic Racism and Human Rights: A Response

Nicolas Agostini’s critique of the use of the term ‘systemic racism’, in the Human Rights Council and elsewhere, is perceptive, thoughtful, and inconclusive. He rightly warns that focusing on ‘systemic racism’ obscures accountability and responsibility. “If one focuses entirely on systems,” he writes, “one risks undermining the moral or legal basis of holding individuals accountable.”

The core of Agostini’s argument is that one cannot hold a system responsible. By setting up a binary ‘either/or’—either the system or the individual is responsible—he rightly shows that systemic analysis lacks “nuance and proportionality.” But what he means to say is that a system cannot be punished. A ‘system’ is a vague, overarching term. How can it be punished if accused of being responsible for human rights violations? How can it be changed?

The present difficulty in attaching the term ‘system’ to the notion of responsibility is similar to an older conundrum: that of corporate responsibility. What is a corporation? Corporations are legal constructs, and systems are sociological ones. When discussing them, we endow them with human characteristics: “ExxonMobil pollutes;” “systemic racism condemns Black people to a second-class status,” and so on. We give human characteristics to non-human entities because we lack the necessary vocabulary. We project human qualities onto corporations or systems because we have no other language to describe them.

Forty years ago, in a famous article, Columbia Law School Professor John C. Coffee argued that corporations have “no soul to damn, nobody to kick.” That is exactly what Nicolas Agostini says about systemic racism today. But whereas corporations can at least be punished, with fines and sanctions, systems cannot.

And what about states? States are, after all, the primary subject of international law. Can states be held responsible for climate change, for example? If so, what does that mean? State responsibility was the subject of extensive work by the International Law Commission (ILC), carried out over 45 years (1956–2001). The Commission’s work was terminated in 2001, with no binding conventions or treaties resulting from it. The ILC was unable to establish obligatory arbitration between states, to agree on penalties for international crimes, or to establish any formal legal structure with which to oversee legal state responsibility.

Agostini wants to punish violations but thinks that indiscriminately using systemic analyses to pursue that laudable goal might end up being counterproductive. He justly emphasizes the point that punishment is a human reaction, to violations done by humans, who must be punished as humans are punished. International law agrees with him: it remains the case that the International Criminal Court can only try individuals, not states.

Discussions around corporate responsibility (as well as recent discussions on artificial intelligence ethics or work such as Toni Erskine’s on the ethics of multilateral institutions) all deal with agency. To hold someone responsible for an act is very different than holding something responsible. Historically, a soul to damn and a body to kick has been sufficient but trying to assign responsibility (and punishment) to systems or corporations is a very different ballpark—just as it is for states or multilateral institutions.

Agostini raises an interesting linguistic and moral problem. How can we ever hold non-human agents responsible for wrongdoing, and can we do it using existing language? It took years for lawyers to unravel corporate responsibility. Like Agostini, I am not persuaded that holding systems responsible will get us very far. In his warning about the indiscriminate use of the term ‘systemic racism,’ he tells us that the concept may sound persuasive to the ear, but that invoking it in pursuit of meaningful change could be a fruitless task.


Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Editorial assistant: Ciara O'Donoghue

Edited by: Paige Holt