Enabling the messenger: How can the IPCC get its message across to the public?

  • 23 May 2014, 13:30
  • Ros Donald


The pages of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s new reports tells a range of compelling stories about the huge changes humans and our environment face as the planet warms. 

Trouble is, these narratives are couched in fairly inaccessible language.

We look at two new pieces of research aimed at analysing the way the IPCC communicates and improving the panel's rapport with the public.

Bringing the IPCC to life

For its new  report, 'Science & stories: Bringing the IPCC to life', communications group Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN) interviewed 16 communications experts from UK media organisations and NGOs.

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What Google searches can (and can’t) reveal about climate skepticism

  • 22 May 2014, 15:20
  • Mat Hope

Do controversies about the trustworthiness of climate science lead to greater levels of climate skepticism? A new study turns to people's internet searches to try and find out.

In 2009, a hacker attained emails between scientists at the University of East Anglia. Subsequent reports claimed the email's contents undermined the trustworthiness of climate science, and the episode became high profile enough to warrant its own moniker: climategate. A few months later, the discovery a data error regarding Himalayan glacier melt in a major UN report catalysed similar headlines.

A study published Environmental Research Letters this week shows such controversies can cause a brief spike in public interest, but the attention quickly fizzles out. So does that mean climategate's impact on skepticism was only fleeting, as  some  reports  suggest? A closer look at the data suggests it's not so clear cut.

Search trends

The researchers looked at Google searches around the time of the controversies.They found searches for "global warming" (the black line on the graph below) and "global warming hoax" (the blue line) both increased when the stories broke.

The impact of climategate was notably stronger than the effect of the Himalayan glaciers story, the researchers say - though the latter also caused a small spike.

Climate skeptic google searches

It's not just negative stories that got people Googling. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases a series of reports on the state of climate science every six or seven years. Searches for "global warming" spiked around the reports' releases, the researchers found. The release of Al Gore's film on the scientific basis of climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, also had an impact.

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It’s a bit like a tree: How comparing geoengineering to the natural world bolsters support

  • 22 May 2014, 10:49
  • Ros Donald

cc. Katie Walker

Using pipes to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and storing it underground: doesn't sound very natural. But what if you were encouraged to think of the process as similar to the role trees perform in nature? A new study finds likening geoengineering to bits of the natural world is more likely to make people feel supportive of technologies that change the climate.

Most people are very attached to nature, and  strongly opposed to processes that appear to tamper with it - like so-called geoengineering, which aims to artificially cool the climate. Working from this starting point, a new  study from Cardiff University tests whether likening geoengineering to natural processes might reverse some of that negative feeling.

Because geoengineering is a relatively new idea, researchers talking about it have to find ways to explain what it is. Using analogies is one easy way, as Dr Adam Corner, a co-author of the research, says:

"Scientists and researchers talking about geoengineering are looking for analogies to describe their research. They may describe sucking carbon dioxide out of the air as similar to the workings of an artificial tree, or pumping particles into the air to reflect heat away in terms of how volcanoes work."

These analogies can be suggested by the way some geoengineering processes are supposed to work, he says:

"Lots of this language makes sense in some ways - for example, the idea of pumping sulphate particles into the air comes from the study of volcanoes, which naturally cool the climate. Our question was that given people care so much about nature - and they see natural things as less of a threat than artificial things - how do these analogies affect our perception of geoengineering?"

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BBC most likely to portray IPCC science as ‘contested’: how old and new media covered the IPCC

  • 19 May 2014, 12:00
  • Ros Donald

BBC television coverage of the UN's latest climate science reports was the most likely to portray climate science as not 'settled', according to emerging research. Meanwhile, UK tweeters are the most likely in the world to have debates about climate change 

We're reporting new communication research findings previewed at last week's Transformational Climate Science Conference, hosted by Exeter University. The event was sunny, packed, and buzzing with different ideas about how climate communication is produced and received - including work reflecting on the Intergovernmenta Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s latest report. 

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Top scientific journal rejects Times front-page article claims

  • 16 May 2014, 15:15
  • Roz Pidcock

A Times front page today claims a leading scientific journal has "deliberately suppressed" dissenting views on the severity of global warming.

But the scientific journal in question has dismissed the claims and taken the unusual step of publishing reviewer comments on the paper, which show reviewers had raised concerns about the quality of the research.

The Times front page claims the rejection of work by Lennart Bengtsson, a scientist at Reading University, by the journal Environmental Research Letters (ERL) was an attempt to "reject" evidence that "heaped doubt on the rate of global warming."

But ERL promptly issued a  statement strongly dismissing the claims, saying:

"The draft journal paper by Lennart Bengtsson that Environmental Research Letters declined to publish ... contained errors, in our view did not provide a significant advancement in the field, and therefore could not be published in the journal."

A measure of sensitivity

The research is trying to calculate something called 'climate sensitivity' - a measure of how much warming we're likely to see if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles.

The IPCC  estimates climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range of 1.5 to 4.4 degrees for a doubling of carbon dioxide, but scientists can't narrow the uncertainty any further at the moment.

The Times suggests the journal's reviewers rejected Bengtsson's paper on the grounds that it disagreed with the IPCC's estimate.

The newspaper repeats a reviewer's comments that the research was "unhelpful":

"The unnamed scientist concluded: "Actually [Bengtsson's paper] is harmful as it opens the door for oversimplified claims of 'errors' and worse from the climate sceptics media side."

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Hotter and wetter extremes: How scientists know our weather’s getting more erratic as climate change bites

  • 12 May 2014, 11:00
  • Roz Pidcock

From rising flood risk in the UK to record-breaking heatwaves across Australia, elevated greenhouse gases mean we're seeing warmer and wetter extremes in our weather than a century ago, says Dr Markus Donat.

Markus Donat researches extreme weather at the Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

1. What type of weather events do you look at, and how do you define "extreme"?

My work focuses on temperature and precipitation extremes. In both cases, "extreme" means particularly high and particularly low values, compared to the expected range in a given region.

That means we look at peak temperatures and heat waves, as well as cold spells. For precipitation, "extreme" can mean unusually heavy rainfall over a single day or over several consecutive days. Unusually long periods without any rain are also a type of extreme event.

2. How do scientists measure extreme heat and rainfall events? How good is the data?

We've been working on creating a global database of observations, which means overcoming several big challenges. One issue is data gaps. We have very good observational coverage in the northern hemisphere and in Australia, for example, but large gaps in Africa and South America. Sometimes data exists in written archives, but has never been digitised.

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Analysis: Newspaper coverage of climate change drops despite release of major UN reports

  • 06 May 2014, 14:00
  • Mat Hope

Credit: Roland Unger

Despite the launch of  two major UN reports on climate science, UK newspaper coverage of climate change dropped last month.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released threemajor reports on the causes and impacts of climate change over the past seven months. The publication of the first report last September led to a spike in newspaper coverage. But the latter two reports - launched on the 31st March and 13th April - didn't capture the same level of attention, our analysis suggests.

climate tracker, total, April 2014

Our analysis shows 452 articles were published in April, just two more than an 12-month average of 448 articles per month. That's significantly less than February's 12-month high, where floods catalysed a widespread debate on the impacts of climate change.

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Q & A: What’s El Niño - and why does it matter that scientists say one is on the way?

  • 24 Apr 2014, 12:50
  • Roz Pidcock

Forecasters worldwide are issuing alerts. Later this year, we're likely to be in the midst of an El Niño - a phenomenon driving severe weather worldwide. So when can we expect it to kick in, and what will the consequences be for global temperature? Find this and more in our quick Q & A.

What is an El Niño?

Every five years or so, a change in the winds causes a shift to warmer than normal ocean temperatures in the  equatorial Pacific Ocean - known as El Niño, or cooler than normal - known as La Niña, moving briefly back to normal in between.

Both phases together are known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and are responsible for most of the fluctuations in global weather we see from one year to the next.


Sea surface temperature during El Niño (left) and La Niña (right). Red and blue show warmer and cooler temperatures than the long term average. [Credit: Steve Albers, NOAA]

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Media reaction: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's big climate mitigation report

  • 14 Apr 2014, 12:50
  • Mat Hope

While many were still engulfed in their duvets recovering from the night before, the UN spent Sunday morning launching a big report on strategies to tackle climate change. The report was the third instalment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) major review of the most up-to-date climate change research.

If you've been too busy to catch up on the swathes of media coverage since then, have no fear - we've speed-read it all for you:

International cooperation

A significant proportion of the media focused on the report's message that there is still time for countries to act to avoid the worst impacts of climate change - but only if they work together.

  • The  Financial Times said the IPCC was sure there is "still time to save the world". It quotes one of the report's co-chairs, Ottmar Edenhofer, saying the report carried "a message of hope"  that tackling climate change "can be done".
  • Doing so would mean cutting emissions "by up to 70% by 2050 if it is to prevent global temperatures rising by more than two degrees", the  Sunday Times reports. The IPCC's research shows "stabilising climate is humanity's biggest challenge", it adds.
  • Newswire  Agence France Presse described the report's findings as a "wake up call" for governments. It said the IPCC identifies a 15-year window in which countries' will be able to act to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
  • That means "governments must do more" to address rising emissions, the Washington Post argues. Countries must work together to lower emissions by 40 to 70 percent, according to the IPCC's findings, it said.
  • Taking a slightly different angle, the  Independent on Sunday was the only major UK newspaper to focus on the consequences of inaction. Unless the world acts soon, the IPCC says emissions could reach a level "that could reap devastating effects on the planet", the newspaper reports.

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The what, when and where of global greenhouse gas emissions: A visual summary of the IPCC’s climate mitigation report

  • 13 Apr 2014, 10:50
  • Mat Hope

Erhard Renz

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third and final instalment of its big report today. It calls for policymakers across the globe to come together to formulate ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions and avert the worst impacts of climate change.

The IPCC provides a number of charts and graphics to illustrate the complex report - some more obvious than others. We do our best to translate three of the most startling, showing what the IPCC says must be done, when emissions need to be cut, and where those reductions can be made.

What must be done

In 1992, countries agreed to curb global greenhouse gas emissions to try and prevent temperatures from rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. For this to remain possible, countries are going to have to make some significant emissions cuts over the coming decades, the IPCC says.

This graph shows how emissions will have to change between now and 2100 if the world is going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, according to the IPCC's modelling:

WG3 SPM Emissions Pathways

Each of the coloured strips is a different emissions pathway - or scenario - that the IPCC has modelled.

The amount of warming the world will experience is related to the proportion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, known as the emissions concentration. There's about a 66 per cent chance of keeping warming to two degrees if the emissions concentration stays between 430 and 480 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2100, the IPCC estimates - the light blue strip on the graph above.

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