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At the first ever IPCC meeting dedicated to communication

By Adam Corner on February 11, 2016

Adam Corner, Oslo Feb 2016
Photo credit: Climate Outreach

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been the world’s foremost authority on climate science for more than 25 years. Hundreds of thousands of hours of scientists’ time have been spent condensing vast and diverse academic literatures into a series of Assessment Reports (ARs).

Over time, the ARs have painted an increasingly clear (if bleak) picture of human impacts on the climate. Our understanding of the scale of the climate challenge is in large part due to the phenomenal efforts of the IPCC, which were recognised in 2007 with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Given the prestigious nature of the organisation, you might think IPCC authors would be keen to shout about their science from the rooftops. But until 2007 (and the release of AR4), the IPCC did not even produce a press release to mark the publication of its groundbreaking work – fearful that even this minor foray into ‘managing’ wider perceptions could be misconstrued as an unscientific misdemeanour.

I participated in this week’s IPCC meeting in Oslo as a social science representative. This meeting was the very first in the organisation’s history to be dedicated to communication, and this represents a significant shift in the working practices and ambition of the IPCC. It is a progression that should be applauded, even if – like the UN agreement in Paris in December – it is happening a couple of decades later than it should have.

The meeting took place across two unseasonably warm winter days, snow conspicuous by its absence from the Norwegian streets. And it was clear from the outset that the meeting would be a learning process for everyone – longstanding IPCC experts and newly invited communications specialists alike.

The first hurdle to overcome was the ‘clash of cultures’ between the the norms that govern ‘good science’ (e.g. careful, cautious, nuanced statements filled with caveats and uncertainties) and the evidence base on what makes for good communication (e.g. framing messages to reach people with different values, keeping things simple, and connecting climate change with the things people feel passionately about).

But while there were a few incredulous expressions as communication scholars described the value of emotive, human narratives over scientific facts and figures, there seemed to be a broad recognition that it is a disservice to the phenomenal effort undertaken by the IPCC’s scientists if the IPCC doesn’t also commit to the ‘science of science-communication’.

Not that this means the IPCC is about to become the Intergovernmental Panel on Communicating Climate Change anytime soon.

One reason is its unique structure. The core secretariat is supported by hundreds of the world’s governments (although the vast majority of input is provided voluntarily by scientists from around the world), which means it is ultra-conservative in terms of making changes to the already delicate balance of the organisation. But there was also a sense that the last thing the IPCC needs is a cluster of new academic disciplines to corral.

Even so, there were some (relatively) revolutionary conversations about how to integrate social science expertise into the IPCC. Suggestions included ways to improve the readability of the reports, whether there should be a summary for the public as well as for policy makers, how the IPCC can play catch-up with communications methods and formats in the social media age, and how to work more closely with partners and specialists to help translate the science of the IPCC into a social reality – similar to the recommendations we made in our 2014 Science & Stories: Bringing the IPCC to Life report.

In fact, it felt like the Climate Outreach approach of working at the interface between research and practice on climate change communication was a welcome piece of the puzzle. We contributed one of the advance papers, and the recommended reading list for the meeting cited several of our reports and publications.  

The IPCC will always be a slow-moving and cautious institution: this reflects both its remit (reviewing lots of complex science should be done slowly and carefully) and its structure. With representatives from the world’s national governments required to ‘sign off’ on the final summary for policy-makers that accompanies each report, it is astonishing that anything has been agreed at all.

The shift towards embracing principles of more effective communication is an obvious step in some sense: of course an organisation with such an important role on the world stage should have a better-funded and more strategic media plan; and of course a group of scientists should seek to draw on the best available evidence to ensure that their work is engaged with as widely as possible.

But just because it is an obvious step doesn’t mean it is an easy one. The Communications Director Jonathan Lynn is navigating in uncharted waters by opening a dialogue with partners with communications expertise – with their wacky talk of ‘stories’ to supplement the science, and insistence that not everyone can comprehend a multi-dimensional scatterplot of mean-adjusted global temperatures.

Even the question of whether to include a live video-feed of the meeting – a seemingly obvious commitment to transparency – was not an easy one. But the positive response to the stream on social media suggests that there is an appetite for this kind of public-facing decision making process – just as there is an appetite for more public engagement around the scientific reports themselves.

So the Oslo meeting was an essential progression, and one that indicates the fundamental role that the social science of public engagement will play as we respond to climate change in the decades ahead, now that the physical sciences have set out just how significant a challenge we face.

The many recommendations made by participants at the meeting – some plausible and concrete, others unfocused and most likely unfeasible – will be formally considered by the IPCC in April. But whatever happens next, the important thing is that the IPCC is already asking – five years ahead of the next planned Assessment Report – how they can develop a communication and engagement plan that matches the ambition of their scientific reviews.

And for an institution that saw a press release as a radical innovation less than a decade ago, that is nothing less than a cautious, measured, evidence-based revolution.

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2 responses to At the first ever IPCC meeting dedicated to communication

  1. Very nice write-up. I definitely love this site. Thanks!

  2. Stuart Capstick says: says:

    It is a welcome development that the IPCC is willing to look at ways of improving its communication. I recall the first time I went to the IPCC website a few years back, and actually thought I had made a mistake because it looked like some clunky effort from the 1990’s.

    Clearly they have to tread carefully – credibility is everything, and there are people willing to attack what they see as any chink in the IPCC’s armour. But it’s worth noting that scientists are actually very used to providing clear summaries of their work. Every paper published, of course, has a short abstract condensing findings. Good science communication doesn’t shy away from even mind-bogglingly complex ideas – see for example an article today about gravitational waves by one of the researchers involved in the discovery – https://theconversation.com/gravitational-waves-found-the-inside-story-54589

    One thing it would be very useful for the IPCC to do – for a public audience – is to make very clear where there are areas of high certainty. As you’ve written about before, ‘start with what you know’.

    They already do this in their summary for policy-makers, e.g. “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems” and “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”

    If these messages could more effectively be put across to the public (rather than buried in a pdf for policy-makers on an obscure website) that I think would be a helpful service!

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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