I’m sitting here trying to write something about the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and I just can’t seem to get excited. This week, the final Synthesis Report that summarises the IPCC’s massive Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is out. It is the most important report on climate change that there is. It represents the latest agreed science on climate change, all wrapped up in a form that’s supposed to be digestible for policy makers and the media. I will use it again and again over the years ahead to help me to communicate about climate change with diverse audiences. But it fails to excite me. Why?
It’s easy to become cynical and jaded about the whole IPCC process. This is the fifth big assessment report the IPCC has produced since its establishment in 1988. That’s more than 25 years of scientists crying out, more urgently each time, that something needs to be done about climate change. Yet effective action still seems distant. More information, more data, is simply not getting through to decision makers or the general public. Shouting the science louder is just not working.
The findings are as alarming as they always are. Human emissions of greenhouse gases are causing the climate to change. If we keep doing it, there are going to be huge negative consequences for human and natural systems. There are many things we can do to respond, but we need to get moving because we are running out of time to avoid the worst impacts. It’s not that the report doesn’t demonstrate the importance and urgency of rapid action on climate change. It’s just that it feels like more of the same, when something different is needed to break the global stalemate on climate change.
To be fair, the IPCC has tried a few different things. Each of the three Working Group Reports that make up the bulk of the AR5 has its own video, summarising the findings and the process of reaching them in about 10 minutes each. At least this is an attempt to engage the YouTube and social media generation. But I’ll be perfectly honest – I haven’t managed to sit through any of the three videos in total yet. There was too much dry science and not enough to create a sense of agency for people – OK, so there’s a problem, but what exactly can I do? Looking at the number of views for each of the videos, it’s clear they haven’t set the world on fire (no pun intended). Who even has 10 minutes to watch a video like this in our short-attention society.
There’s also a trailer for the new Synthesis Report, which I’ve included below.
This is a bit better – short and to the point at less than two minutes. It did talk about some of the positive opportunities we have to respond, although I have to say the overall tone was more likely to create fear and worry than a sense of hope and agency. But there’s a telling moment in the video, when Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairperson of the IPCC, summarises the dilemma as he sees it:
It really comes down to a matter of choice. We either continue on the path that we’re on and possibly face catastrophic consequences of climate change, or we listen to the voice of science, and act accordingly. That’s really our choice.
This sums up the IPCC’s approach in a nutshell. Listen to the science and make a rational choice. We scientists are telling you that we are on a path to catastrophe and we can move off it by taking the right action, so get on with it!
The problems with this approach are manifold. First, people are not rational. We make decisions based on rules of thumb, habit, social norms and emotion, as much as rational deliberation. The kind of emotion created by scientific messages is critically important in shaping how people will respond. When I look through the IPCC reports and videos, I get a sense of fear for the future, I get a sense of a problem with massive scale that is beyond individual agency, and I get a sense of complexity and uncertainty. None of those irrational responses are conducive to action. When I’m fearful, I want to make the fear go away, perhaps by denying the problem is really so big, or seeking solace in entertainment. When I can’t see how my individual efforts can make a difference, I can fall into apathy and push the blame onto institutions like government or business. When something looks complex and uncertain, it sows doubt and makes we wonder whether there really is a problem after all.
Second, there are many vested interests that are doing very nicely out of the status quo. For the leaders of conservative governments, or businesses with interests in fossil fuels, the ‘rational’ thing to do seems to be to resist action on climate change to protect their ideologies or profits. Those interests have been pursuing this path with great diligence and success, often using the emotional responses I discussed above to their advantage. They emphasise uncertainty, provide fig leaf solutions that give a comforting illusion of action, and sow fear about what responding to climate change will entail.
Third, there is no single audience that we need to reach here. People have different values, worldviews and motivations and different messages and frames might move them to take action. The scientific framing of the problem will work for some people but it won’t work for plenty of others. Maybe it is not the role of the IPCC to provide these alternative framings but who is doing the work to translate the scientific messages of the IPCC into terms that work for other audiences? In fairness, the answer to that question is – lots of people. There is a huge amount of work going on to improve communication of climate change around the globe. It just lacks the profile of the IPCC.
So what should we be doing differently? Do we need to reform the IPCC to turn it into a beacon of climate change communication, or do we accept it for what it is and build a more systematic effort to translate its scientific messages? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Here’s one crazy idea. Why not set up a fourth Working Group under the IPCC? Working Group I looks at the physical science basis for climate change, Working Group II considers impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and Working Group III examines mitigation options. My proposed Working Group IV would look at communicating about climate change and motivating action. It would consider how transformational processes of change have happened in the past, how they might be facilitated in the future, and how we should engage all people in such processes of change. And it wouldn’t just summarise the science on transformational change – it would actively experiment with new communication approaches and share the lessons.
All ideas, crazy or not, are welcome!