Thursday, April 3, 2014

Communicating Climate Change: How the IPCC Gets it Right, and How They Get It Oh So Wrong

Graphic courtesy of NASA
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) officially rolled out the second volume of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on March 31, 2014. Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the report compiled over the last several years by Working Group II of the IPCC, provides in excruciating detail the future risks of our changing climate. While they don't exactly put it this way, their findings can most succinctly be summarized as "humans are creating severe negative impacts to our planet, and we are sorely unprepared to deal with it."

This Working Group II (WGII) report follows on the heels of last fall's WGI report: The Physical Science Basis, which examined (again in excruciating detail) the physics, empirical measurements, and voluminous data that unequivocally demonstrate we are warming our planet, mostly due to our reliance on fossil fuels and the associated emissions of carbon into the climate system.


And by that I mean that it is great that the IPCC has once again summarized the data since the last time they summarized the data, which of course covered the data that had been produced since the time before that. As the AR5 suggests, this is the 5th time the IPCC has produced these voluminous reports over the last 25 years. We're warming our planet. And that is not a good thing.

And yet, we haven't taken any substantive action to deal with that scientific fact. Mostly because there are vested interests out there spending millions of dollars intentionally denying the science and blocking discussion of policy options. So is the IPCC getting the scientific point across or not? Let's take a look at some of the things the IPCC has done right, and then a few things they need to do a whole lot better.

Doing right!

More time spent with the rollout of the report: Unlike past reports, the IPCC seems to have finally realized that they can't just have a press conference, hand out a 2000+ page report, and start planning on the next round of reports due in 7 years. This time they actually tried to get national and international media outlets interested. This wasn't always successful, but it needed to be done.

Individual scientists are more open to doing media: One of the biggest problems in the past is that scientists tended to be gun-shy about doing media. Let's face it, they had good reason. The media, even the best intentioned ones, generally do a horrific job presenting science. But some scientists - Michael Mann is probably the best known at the moment - have been willing to risk attack to be interviewed. And yes, I mean attack. Mann especially has been attacked by climate deniers, both the professional lobbyists and their amateur denier followers. But speaking to the media - and the public itself - has become mandatory in order to counteract the disinformation campaigns.

Hey, Did you see it on YouTube?: One of the best communication devices IPCC has employed on this go-around are videos. Even the IPCC has discovered YouTube and provided professionally produced videos highlighting key scientists in the Working Groups, basic concepts, and the main conclusions. Bravo! [Ah, but it isn't all good. See below and next post.]

Needs a lot of improvement!

I have several of these so I'll split them over a couple of posts. Let's start with the obvious.

2000 pages are good, but how about something for me?: The reports by necessity are long. After all, they have to synthesize thousands of papers published since the last review. Since only die-hard scientists will read (and understand) the full reports, the IPCC provides a Summary for Policymakers for each WG report. While that is great for policymakers it really is worthless for most of the general public. What IPCC needs to do is provide a one or two page Summary for People, written in plain language, that highlights the major principles and conclusions. And write it for me - I watch The Big Bang Theory, not study it.

Here is what a Summary for People might look like:

WGI: The Physical Science Basis

Point 1: The climate system includes the atmosphere, the oceans, the ice, the plants, the animals, and even the rocks and soil.

Point 2: Energy from the sun warms our planet.

Point 3: Our atmosphere keeps the surface of the planet about 30 degrees C warmer than it would be without it.

Point 4: While more than 99% of the atmosphere is made up of Nitrogen, Oxygen, and Argon, none of these materials has any effect on the temperature of the planet.

Point 5: A handful of trace gases are responsible for maintaining our temperature at a livable level. The most important of these gases, called greenhouse gases, are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4, and water (H2O).

Point 6: While water is the most important on a short-term basis, carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas for determining the long-term temperature of our atmosphere.

And so on. Keep it to one or two pages.

The point of this Summary for People is that most of us, like, say, 99.99% of us, don't need to know the aforementioned excruciating details so carefully discussed in the full report. And even the Summary for Policymakers is too technical for a general public whose main responsibility is to raise their family in a complex world. To be honest, it's clear most policymakers can't understand the Summary for Policymakers either (nor can their staffs). And some policymakers don't care anyway since taking action requires taking responsibility, something that they don't really want to have to do (especially in an election year).

But, and here is the take-home message for this post, it is the people who will tell their elected representatives to stop avoiding reality and start doing their jobs, i.e., figure out how to deal with the fact that we humans have been turning up the dial on the heat of the planet. It is us people that will put pressure on those policymakers to actually make policy, and do so before that heat dial goes all the way up to 11.

So come on, IPCC. Let's take the science to the people directly. And let's do it in language the people can understand. Let's heed the advice of writers, where there is a oft-repeated mantra to "kill your darlings." Writers should delete unnecessary language even when, and perhaps especially when, they've fallen in love with a particular turn of phrase. The IPCC needs to kill its darlings. The scientific language is fully necessary for the technical reports; it needs to be shaved in the Summary for Policymakers; but it needs to be left by the wayside in the Summary for People. And a Summary for People is absolutely necessary.

I'll end this post here but want to delve into the videos IPCC produced for the rollout of the reports, so I'll deal with that in the next edition. Be sure to come back.