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Ros Donald

Ros Donald

06.03.2014 | 12:00pm
Science communicationCut the ‘weirdo words’ and put a human face on climate change, says UN chief
SCIENCE COMMUNICATION | March 6. 2014. 12:00
Cut the ‘weirdo words’ and put a human face on climate change, says UN chief

Scientists are making a huge effort to translate and humanise climate change – and cut out “weirdo words” the public and policymakers can’t understand, the UN’s chief climate official said yesterday.

Christiana Figueres told reporters that the UNFCCC, the body dedicated to reaching a global deal on climate change, needs to prioritise getting better at communication. But the way she tells it, there’s a revolution going on.

Many of those involved in the UN climate talks, and the production of the bumper science reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have “reached the conclusion that we’re just not communicating properly” she told journalists yesterday.

The UN’s international climate negotiations are certainly baffling to an outsider. The process is characterised by acronyms, abstract concepts, scientific technicalities, and a complex programme of meetings that happen every year.

But on the horizon is a summit in Paris in late 2015 which observers expect to be the focus of efforts to achieve a global deal on climate. By then, the challenge is to “put a human face on climate change” Figueres said:

“This is not some esoteric concept that has nothing to do with a human being. Inasmuch as we can show what the impact [of climate change] is on citizens, on communities, on cities – that is what actually helps us bridge that communications gap.”

Making international climate politics understandable

Figueres acknowledged it’s “extremely difficult for the delegates of the UNFCCC to speak in a way that anyone on the street understands”.

But that’s going to change, she said. The UNFCCC is already building a simpler website, designed to make the UN body feel more accessible, reporters were assured yesterday.

The site has already started featuring guest editorials, and Figueres appears to be trying to keep her profile high with op eds in newspapers and speeches – reminding governments to stay committed to the process as the UN begins drafting a binding global climate change treaty for 2015.

A more visible role may bring more challenges. For example, comments in a Guardian interview yesterday provoked an angry response from the Daily Mail, which took issue to her suggestion that there was a “ silver lining” to the UK’s floods, in that they reminded us that “solving climate change, addressing climate change in a timely way, is not a partisan issue.”

Explaining the science of climate change

“It is extremely difficult for scientists to speak in a way that policymakers understand,” Figueres also remarked, prompting a chuckle of recognition from the room.

However, the fifth report from the IPCC, released in three parts last autumn and this spring, is “the most compelling scientific evidence that we’ve ever had”, she said. The IPCC and UNFCCC have worked hard to coordinate their work and ensure that the science and policy are joined up, she added.

Figueres said scientists are “making an extraordinary effort” to translate the report into concepts that are accessible to policymakers, with the IPCC making regular contact with negotiators, she said. Governments laying the foundations for the 2015 agreement vowed to take the science on board, she said, adding that this is the first time there has been an intergovernmental resolution to do this in the lead-up to climate negotiations.

The IPCC report contains new concessions for policymakers. In addition to summing up policy relevant science, it outlines carbon budgets, laying out how much fossil fuels the world can continue to burn if warming is to be kept to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The summary for policymakers also contains summary statements for each section, giving time-pressed officials a clear overview of the results.

Decoding the message

The IPCC is set to release the second and third parts of its climate report this year, focusing on climate change’s impacts on human society and the measures policymakers could take to cut emissions and adapt to changing conditions.

The UNFCCC will be aiming to use the contents of the report to “humanise” climate change in the public mind and create a rationale for action among policymakers due to negotiate the next big climate deal.

What that effort looks like, and how successful it is, remains to be seen.

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