On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first installment of its sixth assessment report. As expected, the report makes the reading gloomy.
He found that all regions of the world are already experiencing the impacts of climate change and that his projections of warming range from frightening to unimaginable.
But the report also makes the reading dry. Even the 42-page Summary for Policymakers is not a document you can quickly flip through.
Local governments, national and international policymakers, insurance companies, community groups, new home buyers, you and me: Everyone needs to know some aspect of the IPCC findings to understand what the future might look like and what we can do about it.
Read more: This is the bleakest record yet on climate change and the future of the Earth. Here’s what you need to know
As climate action is more crucial than ever, the IPCC must communicate clearly and forcefully to as many people as possible. So how’s it going so far?
The most assertive report in 30 years
The grueling process of the IPCC and a long author list of 234 scientists make IPCC reports the most authoritative source of climate change information in the world. Each sentence is powerful because each has been read and approved by scientists and government officials from 195 countries.
So when the report states “that it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, the oceans and the land,” it is absolutely undeniable. In fact, the IPCC has become progressively more assertive over the 30 years that it has evaluated and summarized climate science.
In 1990, he noted that global warming “could be largely due to natural variability”. Five years later, there was “a noticeable human influence on the global climate”. In 2001, “most of the observed warming […] is probably due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations ”.
This week’s reference to “unequivocal” human influence is not without consequence.
Why has this language changed? Partly because science has advanced: We know more than ever about the complexities of Earth’s climate.
But it is also because the authors of the report understand the urgency of communicating the message effectively. As this week’s report makes clear, limiting warming to the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious target of 1.5 may be (at least temporarily) out of reach decades from now, and the The goal of keeping warming below 2 is also threatened.
Since the IPCC science assessment reports are only published every seven years or so, this may be the last chance for authors to warn people.
Communicating about climate change is not easy
Communicating any science is difficult, but climate science presents special challenges. These include the complexities of the science and language of climate change, people’s misunderstanding of risk management, and the barrage of deliberate disinformation.
The IPCC has standardized the language they use to communicate trust: “likely”, for example, always means at least a one in three chance. Unfortunately, research has shown that this language conveys too high levels of imprecision and leads to different reader judgments than those of the IPCC.
The exhausting report approval process also means that IPCC statements can be confusing to the point of conservatism. In fact, a 2016 study showed that IPCC reports are getting harder and harder to read. In particular, despite the efforts of the IPCC, summaries for policymakers have had poor readability over the years, with dense paragraphs and too much jargon for the average bettor.
There has also been an increase in communication barriers since the publication of the last part of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, including more fake news and climate news fatigue.
The complex IPCC findings may appear controversial and hotly debated, due to politicization and a well-funded disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel giants. And with the news so often transmitted through social media, it’s easy for people to turn to someone they trust, even if that person’s information is fake.
Read more: Fossil fuel disinformation could sideline one of the most important climate change reports ever to be released
While there has been an increase in communication imperatives, including the urgency to act and the increase in scientific information, these are all taking place during a global pandemic making headlines.
In addition, people are exhausted. Eighteen months of living with a pandemic has likely reduced one’s ability to cope with bigger issues.
On the other hand, the thirst for information on COVID-19 has made it possible to become familiar with exponential curves, model projections, risk-benefit calculations and urgent actions based on scientific evidence to combat a threat. global.
To keep hope
To meet the challenges of science communication, climate communicators must aim for consistent messages, rely on credible information, focus on what is known rather than uncertainties, propose concrete actions, use clear language that avoids desperation, connect locally and tell a story.
To a large extent, the Australian contributors to the IPCC press release this week did just that, chiseling the relevant facts out of the brickwork of an IPCC report in blogs and bites.
To its credit, the IPCC has also provided a plethora of communication resources in different formats. This includes videos, fact sheets, posters and, for the first time, an interactive atlas allowing you to explore past and possible future climate changes in any region.
However, there is (so far) less emphasis on information for different audiences, such as students, young people, managers and planners rather than just politicians and scientists.
And the atlas, while a great tool, still requires users to have some knowledge of climate science. For example, average users looking for future climate information may not understand that CMIP6 and CMIP5 are the next and previous generations of climate models used by the IPCC.
While focusing primarily on the report’s terrifying findings and its commitment to global warming, this week’s media coverage also highlighted the importance of immediate action and sources of hope.
This is a positive approach because the feeling that humanity cannot or does not want to respond adequately can lead to a lack of commitment and action, and to eco-anxiety.
As Al Gore pointed out 15 years ago in An Inconvenient Truth:
there are many people who go straight from denial to despair without stopping at the middle step of doing something to fix the problem.
Early next year, the IPCC will publish two volumes on ways to adapt and reduce climate change. After the contradictory results of this first volume, the next two must bring messages of hope if we want to continue fighting for our planet.
Read more: Australians are 3 times more worried about climate change than COVID. A mental health crisis looms
Click here to read more about the coverage of the IPCC report by The Conversation