The IPCC's risky talk on climate change
- 04 Apr 2014, 12:00
- James Painter
There can be no doubt how Professor Chris Field wanted the
latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to
be understood. As well as being co-chair of the IPCC's
Working Group 2, Professor Field is an astute media performer with
a keen sense of clear messages.
So it was highly significant just how much emphasis he put on
the idea of framing the climate change challenge as one of risk
As he told Reuters before the press conference in Yokohama,
thinking of climate change in this way makes it easier for many to
"Climate change is really a challenge in
managing risks. And it's not that we're talking about identifying
particular things that're going to happen in a particular place, at
a particular time.
It is understanding how to be prepared
in two critical ways: one is decreasing the amount of climate
change that occurs, and the other is finding a way to cope as
effectively as we can with the climate changes that can't be
The official IPCC press release picked up on the same
language. It explained the two reasons why the
characterisation of climate change as risk management is
It considers the full range of possible outcomes, including not
only high-probability outcomes.
- It also considers outcomes with much lower probabilities but
much, much larger consequences.
- Characterising climate change as a challenge in managing risks
opens doors to a wide range of options for solutions.
And as if this was not enough, the IPCC's
slickly-produced video to accompany the report started with the
phrase "climate change is a challenge in managing risk".
BBC Radio 4 Today programme on the same morning, Professor
Field summarised the key points of the report like this:
- Climate change impacts have already occurred with real impacts
around the world
- Moving forward, risks with climate change are really pervasive
especially with a high emissions trajectory
- Risks are substantially decreased with mitigation and
Another interesting aspect was the addition to the
Summary for Policy Makers - this time - of the famous 'Burning
Embers' graphic (below) which had been left out of the previous
report of 2007 as it was regarded as too
alarmist. It explicitly illustrates the increasing risks as
global mean temperatures increase.
Source: IPCC WG-II, Summary for Policy Makers, p.
So the message was clearly hammered home. Climate change
is not all about doom and gloom. And we can manage the
uncertainties if we adopt more of a risk-type approach.
It's an approach many have argued could have advantages with
policy makers, and with the wider public, and was the focus of a
Reuters Institute study on how the media reported risk and
So how much did the media pick up on the IPCC messaging? The
Reuters Institute is involved in two research projects looking at
how television and print media around the world are framing their
reporting of the three IPCC reports.
A simple word search in the UK print media provides some
interesting (very) preliminary results.
- There were 106 reports in all the UK press mentioning climate
change and the IPCC on the 30 March, 31 March and 1 April.
- 84 of them included the word 'risk'.
- But only 3 of them mentioned the words 'risk management'.
We should not be surprised that so many of the press reports
included the word 'risk'. After all, the word appeared more
than 230 times in the 26-page Summary for Policy Makers (compared
to 40 times in the 2007 report), more than 5,000 times in the draft
full report, and 22 times in the two-page IPCC press release.
But it must be disappointing for the IPCC that the idea not just
of the risks (mainly seen as adverse impacts) but of managing the
risks did not get more mentions.
There were some exceptions. Both the Reuters and
Associated Press environment correspondents wrote pieces
highlighting the use of risk language in the run-up to the release
of the report.
And Damien Carrington of the Guardian wrote a nice
blog on comparing taking action on climate change with taking
out an insurance policy.
He is not the first to have made the analogy.
Others have suggested the failure to take action in the face of
uncertainty on climate change is equivalent to continuing to smoke
cigarettes, drive without a safety belt, or refusing to take out
But it seems that this sort of framing of the climate change
challenge will need a lot of repeated messaging if it is to catch