Thursday, April 10, 2014

What the IPCC Gets Wrong With Their Latest Climate Change Report Communication

Graphic courtesy of NASA
As mentioned previously, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rolled out the second volume of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, on March 31, 2014. This was on top of the WGI report: The Physical Science Basis, issued in the fall of 2013. Last week I mentioned some of the things the IPCC did right, including their apparent discovery of YouTube as a communication device. This week I'll take a look at what they could have done better with their videos.

First, the fact that they have videos at all is a sign the IPCC is at least trying to reach the public. The videos are professionally produced and include vignettes of stunning visuals interspersed with explanatory statements by key scientists in the Working Groups. So far, so good. But, and there is a big but. In fact, several. Here are a few:

1) At about 7 minutes and 30 seconds into the WGI video (The Physical Science Basis), Dr. Thomas Stocker, co-chair of WGI, comes on camera to state that "we have three key messages..." He then clearly and succinctly states that:
  • The warming of the climate system is unequivocal and based on observations and multiple lines of evidence,
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear, and
  • Continued greenhouse gas emissions will cause more impacts in the future
Wonderful. Except most of the viewers stopped watching the video when the first scientist came on camera. So it's a major problem that he doesn't say this until more than 80% into the 9:19 minute video. It should be the first thing they say in the video, then repeated at least once more to reinforce it. The reasons why will become evident below.

2) At 9:19 minutes for the WGI video and 12:04 minutes for the WGII video (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability), the videos are too long for the general public.

3) The audio is sometimes hard to understand, as sound quality is variable. It is essential that the voices are easy to understand by anyone listening.

4) The videos, while available on YouTube and the IPCC website, are not distributed widely enough to engage the general public. Not once have I seen them pop up on Facebook and other "popular" outlets.

Which gets to the crux of the issue. The target audience for the videos appears to be other scientists and policymakers. That's fine, to a point. Some policymakers are too lazy to even have their staffs read the Summary for Policymakers and would prefer a video. But policymakers, especially in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia, simply are not going to start making policy unless their constituents, i.e., the people, you know, like us, start understanding that there is a need to press the policymakers. Sorry, this is a fact of life.

Which means the IPCC and other outlets need to use videos to reach out and engage the populace. And these videos just don't cut it. For example, the WGII video shows many impacts and attempts at adaptation around the world, but most are from developing and/or highly vulnerable regions. That's fine, in fact, essential, given that they may be disproportionately impacted. But the real drivers of action will be the aforementioned "Big 4" (US/UK/Canada/Australia). These are where the most influential people live, and also where the most egregious climate denial lobbyists are active. These are the people that need to understand the dire need for action. And they simply aren't going to be become activists by flashing only places that they can't relate to as exemplars of impact. They need to see how a warming planet impacts them, with "them" being the millions of people living in the Big 4 who generally don't have to worry about their parched climate getting even drier, or their sinking island sinking faster, or the next Super Typhoon. They need to see what impact it will have on the price of food they buy in the local supermarket, the cost of electricity for their houses, and on immigration patterns. In short, the populace needs to feel that this global problem will have local impacts right there in River City, or whatever place they call their back yard.

So, my recommendations to the IPCC and others is to stick with video because it is the medium most likely to be seen and understood. But make shorter videos that hit the points earlier and are focused on impacts more relevant to the populace of the Big 4. Make the videos Facebook-friendly. Get them out there where everyone can share them. And use language non-scientists can easily understand. Use memes if you have to.

But reach out directly to the public, for it is they who will stimulate the policymakers into action.