This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made some interesting decisions about how to make its reports more useful, communicate them more effectively, and involve more scientists from developing countries.
It’s worth noting, this week’s meeting in Nairobi was not in response to Dr Pachauri stepping down as chairman after 13 years.
As is customary for the IPCC after the release of one of its major assessment reports, this week has been about reflecting on lessons learnt and how to move forward.
So what’s been decided?
Will we see shorter, more focused IPCC reports from now on?
The short answer is no. At least, not as a general rule.
Every 5 to 7 years, the IPCC publishes an enormous review of scientific literature on all aspects of climate change. These are known as Assessment Reports.
Some scientists and governments have suggested this timeline isn’t very effective since it doesn’t capture topics in which the science evolves rapidly. The sheer size of the reports is also very demanding on the scientists who volunteer to write them, without payment.
In response, the IPCC has been considering producing “rapid updates”. These are short, targeted reports published in between the major ones, looking at specific topics or regions.
IPCC secretary Dr. Renate Christ told a press conference this morning that while more frequent reports “might sound like a good idea, there are practical limitations to doing so”.
Each report has to go through a rigorous triple-review process by governments and experts. It’s this process that sets the IPCC apart from other organisations, Prof Tom Stocker, co-chair of Working Group 1 and nominee for role of IPCC chair, told Carbon Brief at a press conference last year:
It’s this very lengthy, but carefully designed process of the IPCC carrying out this assessment that makes it distinct from all other sources of information. That’s a point we would like to preserve.
Producing more reports would mean adding to the already large workloads of the scientists and reviewers involved, Christ explained. So the IPCC has come to a compromise.
The IPCC will continue to produce assessment reports every five to seven years, but it will make better use of ‘Special Reports’ to provide slimmer, more focused assessments, too.
The government of Monaco requested a special report on the oceans, for example. It says:
It would seem extremely useful and relevant if [the] IPCC could produce a special report dedicated to the ocean. As a continuation of the AR5 chapters dedicated to the ocean, the report would gather in a sole document all the scientific knowledge related to the role of the ocean in the climate system and climate change impacts.
How will the three Working Groups work better together in future?
Also under discussion this week was how to better connect the dots between the IPCC’s disciplines. Working Group 1 looks at the physical basis of climate change. Working Group 2 looks at impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Working Group 3 looks at mitigation .
The Working Group 2 co-chairs suggested it would make more sense if the impacts in their report could be explicitly linked to the physical risks identified in WG1, for example:
[I]mpacts can be much more compelling and actionable if they include physical changes like drought, heavy precip, heat waves, in the context of interactions with the vulnerability and exposure of human systems.
One way to better link the reports would be to space them more regularly, the co-authors said. In the IPCC’s fifth assessment, the Working Group 2 report came out six months after Working Group 1, closely followed by Working Group 3 just a couple of weeks later.
So what’s the verdict? The IPCC has decided that regular spacing has its benefits in allowing information in one report to be adequately reflected in another. But it says the total time period over which all reports are released shouldn’t be too long:
All parts of an assessment report should be released within about one year, but no more than eighteen months.
But spacing the reports out too much may be bad news for generating interest. Dr Saffron O’Neil, an expert in public engagement with climate change at the University of Exeter, who is currently researching media coverage of the latest IPCC report, tells Carbon Brief:
It’s important that the IPCC considers the timing of the Working Group reports carefully, as how and when they are released can impact the type – and amount – of news media coverage that they receive.
Full IPCC press conference. Nairobi, 27th February 2015 (watch from 9 minutes)
How could the Summary for Policymakers be more useful?
The IPCC reports collect together the wealth and breadth of scientific knowledge on climate change. But running to many thousands of pages, the full reports make very difficult reading for policymakers and the public.
So, the IPCC distills the policy-relevant findings into a document about 30 pages long. This is a called the “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM). There’s one for each Working Group.
But, even in its stripped-back form, the SPMs make heavy reading, says O’Neill.
What is written in the Summary for Policymakers is arguably the most important part of this process, but the SPMs have been criticised for their low readability.
In response, the IPCC has said it will seek advice from communications professionals to help make the SPM “more readable”.
Christ told the press conference that while the scientist authors would have final say over the wording of the SPMs, the IPCC recognises the value of having “science writers and graphic designers” who can translate specialist scientific terms into plain language.
This is good news, says O’Neill:
Communicating the IPCC reports is a specialised and important task. There is a community of social scientists and communication practitioners who have the relevant expertise to help in this process. Involving such experts would help extend the reach and impact of the IPCC reports.
What else will the IPCC do to improve outreach?
The IPCC’s job shouldn’t end when the reports and SPMs are published, says today’s press release. More effort will go into communication activities, such as using “up to date digital technology for sharing and disseminating information”, Christ told journalists.
The government of Norway has proposed holding a workshop this summer where countries can swap communications experiences of the fifth assessment report, and share ideas for strengthening future activities.
The IPCC hasn’t decided whether or not to take Norway up on its offer yet – it’s up for discussion in Nairobi this afternoon – but Christ said such ideas had been “very well received”.
The IPCC certainly has the budget to do more on communications than it currently is.
Documents on its website show the organisation underspent on its total budget for 2104 by £2.82 million. Of the £851,000 allocated to “communication activities” in 2014, the panel spent just over half (£430,000), leaving £421,000 in the bank.
With another £344,000 allocated for communication in 2015 and a forecast £154,000 for 2016 and 2017, that’s a total of £652,000 available over the next three years. The figure available jumps to more than £1 million if you include the amount underspent in 2014.
How can developing countries be more involved?
By far the majority of published research comes from developed countries, so do the authors. The IPCC has said it is keen to increase participation from developing countries.
To start with, the IPCC has increased the size of the bureau – which includes the chair, co-chairs and vice-chairs – from 31 to 34 to include more representatives from Africa and Asia.
The IPCC says it will explore the possibility of holding more meetings in developing countries, and offering financial support to authors and young scientists to encourage participation.
In this time of reflection, the IPCC is clearly undergoing some changes. While there aren’t any significant alterations to the reports themselves, the IPCC seems to be making some promising noises about wanting to broaden the involvement of under-represented countries and to improve the way the science is communicated.