IPCC: A failure in communicating the impact of new findings

by Rasmus Benestad
Monday, March 10, 2014

In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Summary for Policymakers (SPM) to accompany the report of Working Group I on the physical science evidence for a warming planet. The SPM is designed to be the headline-grabbing addendum to the main report, written in plain language for nonscientists: policymakers, the media and the public. It is supposed to explain the findings of the unwieldy main report in a clear, concise manner. It fails to do so. I found it disappointing — not so much because of the science, but because of the way it presented the science. The report was written by top scientists involved in putting together the main report, so what went wrong?

Let’s start with the good. At 33 pages, the SPM pales in comparison to the full 2,500-page report from Working Group I, which compiles a tremendous amount of information, including the results from more than 2 million gigabytes of numerical data of climate model simulations, and cites more than 9,200 scientific publications. The summary provides a lot of facts, and includes explanations of certainties, uncertainties and probabilities.

But what do all those numbers and explanations mean for policymakers? There was little attempt to set the findings in a context relevant for decision-making, whether the decision-maker is a national policymaker or a small-business owner. For starters, we need to recognize the limitations of the format of the SPM, and the constraints that the authors have to work under, such as that representatives of 190 countries have to approve every word. In addition, the report had a specified maximum length, and although it was written by a much smaller committee than the main report, there were attempts by many people to expand on the content, complicating the process. The SPM is cluttered by technical details; discussions about uncertainty and confidence are better placed in the main report as they are not explained well enough to be of much use to the public.

My impression is that those who wrote it viewed the amount of information crammed into this report as more important than the need to convey just a few strong messages. That’s the problem. The SPM should be about the message.

The authors of the SPM are experts at writing scientific papers, but that is different from writing for nonscientists. Often, the preferred order of presentation for nonscientists is opposite the way scientific papers are presented. A public summary should start with the most important message, but the SPM starts by discussing uncertainties. It is difficult for nonscientists to make sense of the report. The reader is left wondering if the results are reliable or not — exactly opposite of the scientific goal, which is to explain what’s reliably known. I’m a climate scientist, and the summary still left me asking what the most important finding was. I can imagine journalists are asking the same question.

I recommend that people deciding the structure of and writing such summaries in the future first take a course on writing effectively for nonscientists. At MET Norway, we have had writing lessons to improve our communication skills, and I have found this training valuable. It takes practice to find more accessible ways to describe science and eliminate the use of jargon. Many words or phrases, such as “uncertainty” and “positive feedback,” have different meanings to scientists and nonscientists. Neither is the best choice of phrasing to use when writing about climate change for a nonscientist audience anyway.

Better still would be to have an actual science writer write the summary reports.

Interestingly, months after reading the summary I learned that IPCC also released a two-page list of “headline statements” that offer bite-sized highlights of the report — a summary for the summary, if you will. The headline statements are quotes from the summary report, however, and still use jargon that could be lost on the intended audience.

I think it is important to provide feedback to the IPCC about how we can improve the reports. In the future, the format of the reports should reflect their target audience, which is ultimately the general public. Given the democratic governance systems in most countries, it is important that society is enlightened on issues such as climate change. If the public doesn’t understand the problem, politicians will have a hard time gaining support for the difficult solutions that such complex problems require.

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