Communicating climate change has never been so important, and this IPCC report pulls no punches


Simon Torok, The University of Melbourne; James Goldie, Monash University, and Linden Ashcroft, The University of MelbourneOn Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first instalment of their sixth assessment report. As expected, the report makes for bleak reading.

It found all regions of the world are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and its warming projections range from scary to unimaginable.

But the report also makes for dry reading. Even the Summary for Policymakers, at 42 pages, is not a document you can quickly skim.

Local governments, national and international policymakers, insurance companies, community groups, new home buyers, you and me: everyone needs to know some aspects of the IPCC’s findings to understand what the future might look like and what we can do about it.




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With climate action more crucial than ever, the IPCC needs to communicate clearly and strongly to as many people as possible. So how is it going so far?

The most assertive report in 30 years

The gruelling IPCC process and an extensive author list of 234 scientists make IPCC reports the world’s most authoritative source of climate change information. Every sentence is powerful because each one has been read and approved by scientists and government officials from 195 countries.

So when the report states “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”, there is absolutely no denying it. In fact, the IPCC has become progressively more assertive in the 30 years it has been assessing and summarising climate science.

In 1990, it noted global warming “could be largely due to natural variability”. Five years later, there was “a discernible human influence on global climate”. By 2001, “most of the observed warming […] is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”.

This week’s reference to “unequivocal” human influence pulls no punches.

Why has this language changed? Partly because the science has progressed: we know more about the complexities of the Earth’s climate than ever before.

But it’s also because the report’s authors understand the urgency of communicating the message effectively. As this week’s report makes clear, limiting warming to the most ambitious 1.5℃ goal of the Paris Agreement may be (at least temporarily) out of reach within decades, and the goal of keeping warming below 2℃ is also at risk.

As the IPCC’s scientific assessment reports are only published every seven years or so, this may be the authors’ last chance to warn people.

Climate change communication isn’t easy

Communicating any science is hard, but climate science has particular challenges. These include the complexities of the science and language of climate change, people’s misunderstanding of risk management, and the barrage of deliberate misinformation.

The IPCC has standardised the language they use to communicate confidence: “likely”, for example, always means at least a 2-in-3 chance. Unfortunately, research has shown this language conveys levels of imprecision that are too high and leads to readers’ judgements being different from the IPCC’s.

The gruelling report approval process also means IPCC statements can be conservative to the point of confusion. In fact, a 2016 study showed IPCC reports are getting harder to read. In particular, despite the IPCC’s efforts, the Summaries for Policymakers have had low readability over the years, with dense paragraphs and too much jargon for the average punter.

Thermometer on the right marks increments of 0.1 °C, with 1.1 °C (the current warming level, 1.5°C and 2°C highlighted. Infographic equates 5 years of global emissions at the 2019 rate or 42 billion tonnes of CO2 to 0.1 °C of warming.
Condensing the IPCC report to its highlights, such as in this graphic, is an effective way to engage time-poor readers.
Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub/IPCC

There has also been a rise in communication barriers since the final part of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report was released in 2014, including more fake news, and climate news fatigue.

The IPCC’s complex results can appear controversial and hotly debated, because of politicisation and a well-funded disinformation campaign from fossil fuel giants. And with news so often passed through social media, it’s easy for people to turn to someone they trust, even if that person’s information is wrong.




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While there has been an increase in communication imperatives, including the urgency for action and the increase in science information, these are all taking place during a headline-stealing global pandemic.

Also, people are exhausted. Eighteen months of living with a pandemic has probably shrivelled everybody’s ability to take on more big problems.

On the other hand, hunger for COVID-19 information has raised familiarity with exponential curves, model projections, risk-benefit calculations, and urgent action based on scientific evidence to combat a global threat.

Remaining hopeful

To address the challenges of communicating the science, climate communicators should aim for consistent messages, draw on credible information, focus on what is known rather than the uncertainties, offer tangible action, use clear language that avoids despair, connect locally, and tell a story.

To a large extent, Australian contributors to the IPCC release this week have done just that, chiselling relevant facts from the IPCC’s brick of a report into blogs and bites.

To its credit, the IPCC has also provided a plethora of communication resources in different formats. This includes videos, fact sheets, posters and, for the first time, an interactive atlas enabling you to explore past and possible future climate changes in any region.

However, there’s (so far) less focus on information for different audiences, such as students, young people, managers and planners rather than just politicians and scientists.

And the atlas, while a great tool, still requires users to have some climate science literacy. For example, average users looking for future climate information may not understand that CMIP6 and CMIP5 are the next, and previous, generations of climate models used by the IPCC.

While mainly focusing on the report’s terrifying findings and commitment to global warming, media coverage this week also emphasised the importance of immediate action, and sources of hope.

This is a positive approach because feeling that humanity cannot, or will not, respond adequately can lead to a lack of engagement and action, and eco-anxiety.

As Al Gore pointed out 15 years ago in An Inconvenient Truth:

there are a lot of people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually doing something about the problem.

Early next year, the IPCC will release two volumes about ways to adapt to, and reduce, climate change. After the confronting results of this first volume, the next two must provide messages of hope if we’re to keep fighting for our planet.




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Click hereto read more of The Conversation’s coverage of the IPCC reportThe Conversation

Simon Torok, Honorary Fellow, School of Earth Sciences, The University of Melbourne; James Goldie, Senior Knowledge Broker, Monash University, and Linden Ashcroft, Lecturer in climate science and science communication, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fossil fuel misinformation may sideline one of the most important climate change reports ever released


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Christian Downie, Australian National UniversityThis week’s landmark report on the state of the climate paints a sobering picture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, without deep and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, the world is very likely headed for climate catastrophe.

In November, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for the latest round of United Nations climate talks. It’s the most crucial round of climate negotiations since those which led to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The question is: will governments around the world now listen to the climate science? Or will misinformation campaigns backed by vested interests continue to delay action?

If we’re to avert a climate disaster, we must not underestimate the power of climate misinformation campaigns to undermine the IPCC findings and ensure governments continue to ignore the science.

Person in crowd holds sign
Science must be at the heart of policy-making if climate change is to be addressed.
Shutterstock

A history of heeding the science

Scrutiny of Australia’s climate policies will be particularly harsh at the Glasgow meeting, given the Morrison government’s failure to implement substantive policies to reduce emissions. We can expect renewed international pressure on Australia to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 and set out a national plan to decarbonise the economy this decade.

For those who believe in the power of science, the failure of world leaders to act urgently is frustrating, to say the least.

We have acted on the concerns of scientists in the past. In fact, it was scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen who put climate change on the agenda back in 1988, triggering international negotiations.

Scientific concern over the growing hole in the ozone layer prompted the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to curb the use of ozone-depleting substances.

And of course, scientific advice is guiding the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are many reasons why the calls of climate scientists are not being heeded at present. But one factor has been particularly successful in delaying climate action: scientific misinformation campaigns.

These campaigns damage public understanding of science, erode trust in research findings, and undermine evidence-based policy.




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A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial


Earth from space
Governments heeded scientific warnings over the ozone hole – so why not climate change?
Shutterstock

Muddying the waters

Research has shown climate misinformation campaigns are often backed by corporate interests which stand to lose if the world transitions to a cleaner energy future.

Such a future could bring incredible benefits to Australia – a country with some of the world’s best solar and wind resources.

The campaigns have wrought untold damage to the public debate on climate science. These corporations have funded industry associations, think tanks and front groups (even including paid actors) to mobilise a counter movement to climate action.

Examples of the phenomenon abound. In the United States, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil reportedly knew of climate change 40 years ago, but funded climate deniers for decades.

Reports emerged last week that Facebook failed to prevent a climate misinformation campaign by the oil and gas industry during last year’s US presidential election.

The war against climate science has been waged in Australia, too. Researchers and journalists have described the lengths the oil, gas and coal industries have gone to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, and to kill off policies put in place to limit emissions.

Australian media companies such as News Corp have also been criticised for downplaying the significance of the climate crisis. Little wonder, then, that Australian news consumers are far more likely to believe climate change is “not at all” serious compared to news users in other countries.




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man holding sign reading 'Tell the Truth'
News Corp has been accused of underplaying the seriousness of climate change.
Shutterstock

Calling out misinformation

The latest IPCC report was five years in the making. It involved 234 leading scientists from more than 60 countries, who rigorously assessed more than 14,000 research papers to produce their synthesis. The result is the most authoritative, reliable report on the state of Earth’s climate since the last IPCC report of its kind in 2013.

But as the history of climate action has shown, incontrovertible science is not enough to shift the needle – in large part due to climate misinformation which deceives the public and weakens pressure on governments to act.

We must call out attempts by those who seek to delay climate action in the name of profit – and then counter those attempts. As the IPCC has shown this week, further delay equals catastrophe.




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The Conversation


Christian Downie, Associate professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With the release of a terrifying IPCC report, Australia must face its wilful political blindness on climate


Lukas Coch/AAP

Mark Kenny, Australian National UniversityI remember the acute frustration of watching one of the US news feeds on September 11, 2001 — 20 years ago next month.

With the stricken twin towers smoking away in the background, the news anchors described the heroic rescue mission going on behind them, continuing for several excruciating moments after one tower had simply ceased to exist — a fact terrifyingly obvious to viewers.

“It’s gone” I yelled at the TV helplessly, “there is no rescue!”.




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The other building would soon follow as the full horror went from unimaginable to undeniable in a single morning.

Many Australians feel a similar frustration – this time chronic – at the refusal of their government to “turn around” to face what’s clear to everyone else, a galloping climate emergency which portends death, suffering and species loss on a planetary scale.

Yet, as the evidence has accumulated, and the new IPCC report reinforces it, Australia has carved out a name for itself as a global laggard — grouped with denialist authoritarian states like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia.

And it has done so by re-interpreting the global climate evidence as just another domestic political argument – an opportunity for creating winners and losers and profiting from the electoral dividends yielded.

The 2050 pantomime

Ever wonder why an Australian political class steeped in short-termism is so animated about 2050 — a date way beyond the horizons of those currently in power?

Partly it is because if an economy is to genuinely commit to emitting net-zero carbon by 2050, the hard work of adjustment needs to commence immediately. But mostly it is that 2050 has become a useful distraction from the here-and-now.

Barnbaby Joyce at the despatch box
Barnaby Joyce’s return to the Nationals leadership has not helped Australia’s progress on climate change.
Lukas Coch/AAP

And it is on this faux battleground that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has excelled in restricting not just his own rhetorical manoeuvrings, but increasingly, those of his opponents. Indeed, Morrison has achieved a remarkable double by simultaneously reducing 2050 to mere symbol, while also framing it as the only battleground on which the climate contest can be fought.

This way, he either wins, or he doesn’t lose, because the stakes are rendered so distant and so low as to not affect voting preferences appreciably.

From waving a lump of coal to Glasgow

Since appearing at the National Press Club in February 2021, the man who once brandished a lump of coal in parliament has moved to assure voters he now wants Australia to get to net-zero “as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”.




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Though intentionally vague, this putative hardening from merely “as soon as possible” was treated as progress by many in the press gallery, which is arguably too aware of Morrison’s partyroom arithmetic and thus overly inclined to see the climate challenge as his rather than the country’s.

(This is this same commentariat, by the way, that gave Morrison an unequalled level of authority inside the partyroom following his “miracle” election victory in 2019.)

Since that February address, most observers have assumed Morrison would find a way to get his government to the 2050 commitment ahead of the Glasgow COP26 summit in November. That would mean strong-arming climate-sceptic Liberals, as well as the much harder task of wrangling the Nationals.

The Joyce factor

But if anything, that task has steepened in recent months with the election of Barnaby Joyce as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister.

As Joyce (speaking in the third person) told the Australian Financial Review in July:

The likelihood of Joyce getting endorsement from his party room to agree to net zero is zero.

And if Joyce was to come back to the party room and said ‘I had a really interesting conversation, I’ve just agreed to net zero’, then his prospects of getting out of that room as a leader would be zero.

That such unvarnished self-interest flies as a legitimate policy argument says everything about the vapid quality of the climate change debate in Australia.

Labor’s retreat

In truth, Morrison is comfortable keeping the argument on 2050 anyway, knowing the date is as abstract and intangible to many voters as the dangerous build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide is visible to the naked eye.

And why not? Labor has already retreated from its last election pledge of a 45% cut by 2030, hounded into meekness by Morrison’s 2019 scare campaign alleging runaway job losses and lower economic growth from Labor’s rapid adjustment.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese.
Labor is set to reveal it’s new climate policy ahead of the next federal election.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Labor’s new policy will be unveiled closer to the election, but it is not expected to be as ambitious, even though since 2019, the rest of the developed world has embraced targets at or beyond this scale.

In a sign a milder policy is in the offing, Labor insiders plead the previous 45%-by-2030 policy had been set in the middle of the last decade and that commencing that reduction from 2022 is unrealistic. Yet, the first IPCC report for seven years warns the 1.5℃ warming threshold will now be reached as early as 2040, which probably means Labor should, in fact, propose to go harder.

There’s no sign of the government going harder either. Asked on Tuesday if Australia would set out more ambition in light of the IPCC warning, Morrison said,

we need more performance, we need more technology, and no one will be matching our ambition for a technology-driven solution.

It was an answer perfectly consistent with his past mantra of “technology, not taxes”.

Thus, it was also an answer that was perfectly inconsistent with the facts set out by the world scientific community. Facts to which Australia is yet to turn its full face.The Conversation

Mark Kenny, Professor, Australian Studies Institute, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.