the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first instalment of their sixth assessment report. As expected, the report makes for bleak reading.
It found all regions of the world are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and its warming projections range from scary to unimaginable.
But the report also makes for dry reading. Even the Summary for Policymakers, at 42 pages, is not a document you can quickly skim.
Local governments, national and international policymakers, insurance companies, community groups, new home buyers, you and me: everyone needs to know some aspects of the IPCC’s findings to understand what the future might look like and what we can do about it.
The most assertive report in 30 years
The gruelling IPCC process and an extensive author list of 234 scientists make IPCC reports the world’s most authoritative source of climate change information. Every sentence is powerful because each one has been read and approved by scientists and government officials from 195 countries.
So when the report states “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”, there is absolutely no denying it. In fact, the IPCC has become progressively more assertive in the 30 years it has been assessing and summarising climate science.
In 1990, it noted global warming “could be largely due to natural variability”. Five years later, there was “a discernible human influence on global climate”. By 2001, “most of the observed warming […] is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”.
This week’s reference to “unequivocal” human influence pulls no punches.
There are a lot of people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually doing something about the problem.
Climate change communication isn’t easy
Communicating any science is hard, but climate science has particular challenges. These include the complexities of the science and language of climate change, people’s misunderstanding of risk management, and the barrage of deliberate misinformation.
The IPCC has standardised the language they use to communicate confidence: “likely”, for example, always means at least a 2-in-3 chance. Unfortunately, research has shown this language conveys levels of imprecision that are too high and leads to readers’ judgements being different from the IPCC’s.
The gruelling report approval process also means IPCC statements can be conservative to the point of confusion. In fact, a 2016 study showed IPCC reports are getting harder to read. In particular, despite the IPCC’s efforts, the Summaries for Policymakers have had low readability over the years, with dense paragraphs and too much jargon for the average punter.
There has also been a rise in communication barriers since the final part of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report was released in 2014, including more fake news, and climate news fatigue.
The IPCC’s complex results can appear controversial and hotly debated, because of politicisation and a well-funded disinformation campaign from fossil fuel giants. And with news so often passed through social media, it’s easy for people to turn to someone they trust, even if that person’s information is wrong.
While there has been an increase in communication imperatives, including the urgency for action and the increase in science information, these are all taking place during a headline-stealing global pandemic.
Also, people are exhausted. Eighteen months of living with a pandemic has probably shrivelled everybody’s ability to take on more big problems.
On the other hand, hunger for COVID-19 information has raised familiarity with exponential curves, model projections, risk-benefit calculations, and urgent action based on scientific evidence to combat a global threat.
To address the challenges of communicating the science, climate communicators should aim for consistent messages, draw on credible information, focus on what is known rather than the uncertainties, offer tangible action, use clear language that avoids despair, connect locally, and tell a story.
To a large extent, Australian contributors to the IPCC release this week have done just that, chiselling relevant facts from the IPCC’s brick of a report into blogs and bites.