The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific body established by the United Nations. Thousands of climate researchers and 195 governments from around the world contribute to the IPCC.
Since 1988, the IPCC has periodically reviewed the most recent scientific knowledge on climate change and produced government approved assessment reports that are used to inform policy makers. The latest assessment report (AR5) was issued during 2013-2014, and followed the AR4 report from 2007.
We attended the Transformational Climate Science conference in Exeter during May 2014. During this event we spent two days observing leading climate scientists and other academics who were involved in the IPCC process discuss their work.
IPCC assessment reports are a collaborative effort involving thousands of researchers and governments from around the world.
The report is a systematic review of publications relevant to the scientific, technical and socio-economic aspects of climate change. The aim is to provide a comprehensive view of current knowledge.
Each assessment report covers three main areas of climate change research, each with its own Working Group:
- Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis
- Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
- Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change
These reports are further broken down into chapters covering specific themes within each of the three working groups. An additional Synthesis Report is also produced, which brings together the findings of the three working groups.
Each assessment report is underpinned by a set of climate scenarios. Over time new scenarios are produced to reflect developments in research and data, and increased sophistication in modelling. This is how the IPCC describes a scenario:
In climate change research, scenarios describe plausible trajectories of different aspects of the future that are constructed to investigate the potential consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Scenarios represent many of the major driving forces – including processes, impacts (physical, ecological, and socioeconomic), and potential responses that are important for informing climate change policy…The goal of working with scenarios is not to predict the future but to better understand uncertainties and alternative futures, in order to consider how robust different decisions or options may be under a wide range of possible futures. [IPCC website]
These scenarios cover factors such as carbon emissions, climate conditions, environmental conditions and socioeconomic vulnerability and ability to adapt to changes.
From AR4 to AR5 the process for generating the underlying scenarios fundamentally changed. The scenarios for AR5 were commissioned by the IPCC from the climate research community in 2006 before AR4 was even completed.
These scenarios are then used as the basis for the development of climate models that are produced by many different research groups. The Met Office Hadley Centre contributes the HadCM3, HadGEM2-CC, HadGEM2-ES and HadGEM2-A climate models to the process. Model data is made available to researchers around the world through four central repositories, including the British Atmospheric Data Centre in the UK.
The outputs from these models are then used as the basis for analysis which is published in the research literature on the physical science basis for climate change. This research is then reviewed in Working Group 1’s report for AR5.
Selecting the authors
Each of the three IPCC Working Groups has a team of authors who are experts in the field. These authors volunteer their time to work on the assessment report.
Authors are nominated to the IPCC by governments and observer organisations. Nominees’ detailed CVs are reviewed and authors are selected based on a variety of criteria including area of expertise, geographic location (developed and developing nations), gender and level of experience (experienced and newer scientists). Authors can come from research and academic organisations, industry and not-for-profit organisations.
Once selected, an author is assigned to a chapter that reflects their area of expertise. They may also be designated a lead or coordinating author. Those who have been nominated but not selected as an author, might become expert reviewers of the reports. In total 831 experts contributed to AR5. This process results in a formal structure for assembling the final reports.
Reviewing the literature
The IPCC does not conduct its own original research, rather it undertakes a systematic review of existing scientific research literature. The cut off date for AR5 was research published before 2012.
The IPCC does not conduct its own research, run models or make measurements of climate or weather phenomena. Its role is to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic literature relevant to understanding climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation. Author teams critically assess all such information from any source that is to be included in the report. [IPCC Factsheet: What literature does the IPCC assess?]
The systematic review covers research and other publications from around the world. Included in the review are publications authored by climate scientists at the Met Office and the Climatic Research Unit about their work on gridded datasets, climate models and other analyses published during the time period under consideration.
Examples include reports from governments, industry and research institutions, international and other organizations, and conference proceedings. Information about certain experiences and practices in mitigation and adaptation activities in particular may be found in sources other than traditional scientific and technical journals. [IPCC Factsheet: What literature does the IPCC assess?]
Publications are submitted for review, and all publications that are reviewed are referenced, ensuring a high level of transparency for readers of the draft and final reports. The reviewers look not only at the publications, but also any sources related to them.
Reviewing the literature is a collaborative process. Chapter teams review the literature, and comments are collated for consideration by designated Review Editors before a draft report is compiled.
Drafting the report
The first draft reports are reviewed by a wide range of expert reviewers and governments who submit their comments to the Working Groups. Anybody can register to be a reviewer. The process relies on reviewers declaring their expertise when they engage with the process.
Following another round of expert reviews, final drafts are then prepared including a revised SPM report.
Before publication, the SPM then undergoes a round of expert and government reviewing in order to reach a level of agreement about the findings of the review.
During the writing of the three Working Group reports for AR5, 136,706 comments were received from experts and governments and reviewed by the Working Groups. All of these comments are documented and published for transparency and reference purposes.
Before the IPCC reports are published, they must go through a final process of approval by the 195 member governments of the IPCC.
As the culmination of a report’s development, IPCC member governments endorse the report. The endorsement process is based on a dialogue between those who will use the report – the governments – and those who write it – the scientists. Endorsement by governments acknowledges that the report is a definitive assessment that has been developed following the IPCC’s defined procedures, underpinning the report’s authority. [IPCC Factsheet: How Does the IPCC Approve Reports?]
The culmination of this process in AR5 WG1 led scientists and governments from around the world to conclude that:
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased… Human influence on the climate system is clear…It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century…Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.[AR5 WG1 headline statements]
Temperature data generated by Weston Park Museum weather station contributed significantly to the scientific understanding underlying these conclusions.
Key questions for climate scientists now are how climate change impacts particular locales and regions of the world differently, and to what extent regional weather conditions are attributable to climate change.
Our temperature datum – generated in June 2014 by the newly installed Met Office equipment at Weston Park – will make a contribution to climate scientists’ efforts to answer such questions. Similarly, amateur observer and Professor of Climate Change, Edward Hanna hopes that the observation data he is generating will contribute to understanding more about the local impacts of climate change.
Making a contribution
Many of the scientists that we observed spoke of their pride in contributing to the IPCC process. During the public event, Prof. Peter Cox (Co-lead author of WG1) described how the IPCC was a “miracle of consensus” and he was “very proud to be part of that“.
Thousands of scientists and academics contribute their time voluntarily to the IPCC process as reviewers and authors of the three working groups. Prof. Thomas Stocker (co-chair of Working Group 1) described these individuals as:
The fine fabric of the root system of the scientific community. [video]
The IPCC process is a mammoth task, but scientists and academics contribute because they recognise the inherent societal value in the work they are engaged in and are proud to be involved.
Threats to the process
Yet Stocker cautioned about over reliance on the voluntary labour of scientists and academics contributing to the process, and requested more institutional support:
Stocker also pushed the academic community to be alert to the potential for a weakening of the scientific process as researchers and funders respond to the IPCC. He was wary of research proposals that claim they are important because they will be good for the IPCC. Instead, he stressed the importance of curiosity driven research in the process of scientific discovery.
Whilst all panels had at least one woman, they were predominantly made up of older white men. Whilst this was a UK-based event and this undoubtedly had some impact upon the demographics, this observation does reflect the gendered and racialised nature of the leadership and decision making within international climate research.
Developing a consensus is at the heart of the IPCC process, and this came through strongly in the presentations. Critical engagement with the panelists generally came from the audience, rather than other panelists.
Some diversity of message did begin to emerge from the more interdisciplinary panels in the proceedings. For example, Working Group 3 (mitigation) and the panel on the relationship between science and policy. However, some of panelists felt the need to be explicit about when they were speaking as an individual rather than as a representative of the IPCC on some topics.
These observations reflect that whilst scientific consensus is strong in relation to the science of climate change, a more political space exists around what should be done about it, and highlights a possible tension for those that challenge the common sense of this political space within the IPCC.
Some panelists also drew attention to the structure of the IPCC working groups. Ottmar Edenhofer (Co-chair of WG3), for example, argued that whilst there was good co-operation between the groups, better integration of working groups was needed for future assessments.
Communication and engagement
The IPCC Transformational Climate Science conference was fairly heavily branded by the institutions organising the event: the Met Office, University of Exeter and University of Leeds. This contributed to a professional, somewhat corporate, style to the proceedings and publications.
As is common within scientific research many of the speakers used slides of charts and tables to illustrate their presentations. During the public event more visual imagery was used in an effort to communicate better with a non-scientific audience.
This communication style is reflected in the IPCC’s written output. Each working group report is a lengthy professionally produced report of between 1400-1900 pages, written in a scientific technical style. However, a shorter PDF document featuring 19 headline statements was published for policy makers.
Tensions between different communication cultures go to the heart of the IPCC process. These tensions focus on both the what and how of communication.
Key speakers stressed that they felt it was important for the IPCC to
Provide scientific knowledge in a policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive manner. [Prof. Thomas Stocker, Co-Chair WG1 – Observation notes]
However this position was challenged on a number of occasions by audience members who demanded a more pro-active approach to policy shaping from the IPCC scientists. There was applause when one member of the audience suggested that it was possible for the IPCC to point out policy inconsistencies without being prescriptive.
Another area of contention from the audience related to WG1’s decision to present all different future climate scenarios in the final report. In particularly, audience members questioned whether it was a good decision to present the 2ºC warming scenario even though it was now almost impossible to achieve this target.
Audience members also challenged the IPCC’s medium of communication, suggesting more was needed beyond PDF documents to engage policy makers and the public with the findings.
Websites featuring short videos, images, key facts and figures, and downloads of relevant documents for each working group have now been published. This is the video produced by Working Group 3:
Follow the links below to explore the websites reporting the findings of the different IPCC working groups:
- Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis
- Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
- Working Group 3: Mitigation of climate change
Despite these efforts to produce more accessible publications around the IPCC findings, public engagement tends to be through the lens of the media. Dr Saffron O’Neill (University of Exeter) presented research about how different media cultures influence significantly the message that is reported to the public.
Her findings demonstrated that the Guardian newspaper tended to report scientific consensus on key findings, whereas the Daily Mail tended to focus more on uncertainty when discussing the findings of the IPCC process. This demonstrates the ways in which the media can influence how the public understand the work of climate scientists and the IPCC.
It was perceived by many panelists that it was important for them to be able to communicate better with the public and policy makers about scientific uncertainty and what it means in the context of climate science:
I’m a mathematician. I’m very comfortable with uncertainty and probability. The question is how to communicate that. [Prof. Mat Collins, University of Exeter, Observation notes]
Opportunity and optimism
Beyond the immediate findings of the three working groups, a discourse of opportunity emerged strongly, particularly from WG2 (adaptation).
A relatively technocratic discourse emerged from some speakers on this panel. For example, Prof. Chris Field Co-Chair of WG2 presented climate change as a challenge of managing risk: the problem needed to be made understandable and “actionable”. “Sophisticated tools” and a “smart policy environment” were perceived to be part of the solution. He also recognised that climate change impacts were “uncertain” and “distribution” was unequal and “unfair”. He called for significant investment in adaptation research, but was keen to present a discourse of optimism and opportunity.
Similarly, Prof. Corinne Le Quere (University of East Anglia and Tyndall Centre) argued that “most of the solutions [are going to be] in technology innovation“ [Observation notes], and advocated exploring further the management of the natural environment and the development of ecosystem services:
The economics of climate change
A similarly technocratic discourse emerged in relation to a second key theme: that of a “carbon budget”. The carbon budget is the amount of carbon dioxide the IPCC has calculated society is able to emit in future years, whilst still avoiding the most serious and adverse climate change impacts. It is predicted that at the current rate the climate budget will be exhausted within thirty years, and warming of more than 2ºC will be inevitable.
Thomas Stoker (WG1 co-chair) described how the “carbon budget” was a new concept that had been introduced by the IPCC and it was making its way into the policy process. He explained that he perceived the concept to be “extremely powerful”, but recognised it was only part of the answer [Observation notes]. Similarly, Corinne Le Quere described it as “simple and elegant” [video].
Professor Ottmar Edenhofer (Co-Chair of WG3) also argued that in was necessary to develop “a reasonable carbon pricing” to reduce emissions [video].
Many other panelists spoke positively about the climate budget concept, yet there were questions from the audience about the possible implications of adopting this approach.
For example, one individual asked how a carbon budget could be applied without impacting negatively upon the vulnerable and asked for more consideration of the political economy of climate change.
Similarly, another questioned how much time was spent by the IPCC discussing the limits of the current economic system particularly around issues of inequality and wealth distribution. It was questioned whether a climate budget would be able to address the issue of unequal distribution of climate change impacts amongst the global population.
Another audience member argued that there was too much emphasis on economic solutions and modelling, which they thought was concerning given the disarray of the economics discipline post-financial crash.
There was sympathy with some of these issues from some panelists, and the distribution of climate change impacts were discussed by a number of speakers, for example Simon Carney (WG3) [video]. However, Prof. Thomas Stocker (WG1 Co-Chair) highlighted the restricted structures the IPCC process exists within when he argued that it was important for scientists to speak a language that policy makers understand: that of “GDP and dollars” (Observation notes).
Sample of observation notes from Transformational Climate Science conference (not yet available)
We’d like you to take a minute to reflect on what you have read above and add a comment to the discussion below.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- What are your thoughts on the organisation of the IPCC process?
- How do you think the cultural values at other stations such as Weston Park make a contribution to the strength of the IPCC’s conclusions?
- What are your thoughts on governments being involved in the IPCC reviewing process? Do you think any other non-scientific organisations should be involved in this review process?
- How important do you think it is for people from around the world to work together to understand climate change and plan how best to mitigate and adapt to it?
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