RealClimate logo


Technical Note: Sorry for any recent performance issues. We are working on it.

A failure in communicating the impact of new findings

Filed under: — rasmus @ 6 December 2013

I was disappointed by the recent summary for policymakers (SPM) of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) assessment report 5, now that I finally got around to read it. Not so much because of the science, but because the way it presented the science.

The report was written by top scientists, so what went wrong?

I guess we need to recognise the limitations of the format of the SPM, and the constraints that they have to work under (word by word approval from 190 country representatives) may not have been helpful this time. The specified report length, combined with attempts from lots of people to expand on the content, may have complicated the process.

My impression is that the amount of information crammed into this report was more important than making a few strong messages.

The SPM really provides a lot of facts, but what do all those numbers mean for policy makers? There was little attempt to set the findings in a context relevant for decision making (ranging from the national scale to small businesses).

It is difficult to write a summary for a report that has not yet been published, and for that reason, the SPM is cluttered by technical details and discussions about uncertainty and confidence which have a better place in the main report.

The authors of the SPM are experts at writing scientific papers, but that is a different skill to writing for non-scientists. Often, the order of presentation for non-scientists is opposite to the way papers are presented in sciences.

A summary should really start with the most important message, but the SPM starts by discussing uncertainties. It is then difficult for non-scientists to make sense of the report. Are the results reliable or not?

I asked myself after reading the SPM – what’s the most important finding? If the IPCC hoped for good press coverage, I can imagine all journalists asking the same question.

My recommendation is that next time, the main report is published before the SPM. That way, all the space used on uncertainty and confidence in the SPM could be spared.

I also recommend that people who decide the structure of future SPMs and undertake the writing take a course effective writing for non-scientist. At MET Norway, we have had such writing lessons to improve our communication skills, and I have found this training valuable.

It takes some training to find more popular ways to describe science and spot excessive use of jargon. Many words, such as ‘positive feedback‘ have different meanings if you talk to a scientist or a non-scientist (a bad phrase to use in the context of climate change for people with very little science background). Also the word ‘uncertainty‘ is not a good choice – what does it mean really?

There are some examples of how the report could be written in a better way: The European Academies of Science Advicory Council (EASAC) followed a different strategy, where the main report was published before the summary, and hence the summary could be written as a summary and with a more coherent structure and a stronger connection to the reports target group.

The World Bank report of last year also comes to my mind – I think that is a much clearer form of presentation.

If I could have my way, I would also suggest that IPCC’s main reports in the future come with supporting material that includes the necessary data (extracted for the plotting purposes, but with meta-data providing the complete history of post-processing) and source code for generating all the figures in the report.

One way to do that could to use so-called ‘R-packages’ as suggested by Pebesma et al (2012) (PDF). It would also be good if future assessment reports pay more attention to replicating important results as a means of verification or falsification.

p.s.There exists a set of headline statements have been issued from the IPCC. THere is also a short video on the IPCC working group 1 findings

p.s. After posting this article, I was made aware of two short documents summarizing the IPCC reports – link here. I’m really grateful for this feedback. -rasmus


References

  1. E. Pebesma, D. Nüst, and R. Bivand, "The R software environment in reproducible geoscientific research", Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, vol. 93, pp. 163, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2012EO160003

214 Responses to “A failure in communicating the impact of new findings”

  1. 201

    Edward Greisch, one part of the problem is that Barton Levenson’s paper simply hasn’t been published in a peer reviewed journal. A paper that has not been published in this fashion typically isn’t given much weight in the scientific community. Peer review is a quality check by experts in the field that, while allowing for differences of opinion recognizes that the paper has met certain minimal criteria necessary to be brought to the attention of others for further consideration.

    However, a deeper problem is that Levenson’s work presupposes Dai’s results and currently there is some question as to just how robust those results are. In fact, one recent paper disputed whether there had been significant change in the fraction of land experiencing drought.

    Please see:

    Sheffield, Justin, Eric F. Wood, and Michael L. Roderick. “Little change in global drought over the past 60 years.” Nature 491.7424 (2012): 435-438.
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v491/n7424/full/nature11575.html

    … which you might contrast with:

    Dai, Aiguo. “Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models.” Nature climate change 3.1 (2012): 52-58.
    http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n1/full/nclimate1633.html

    Analysis of the differences between Sheffield et. al. and Dai may be found here:

    Sheffield vs. Dai on Drought Changes
    Posted on 23 November 2012 by dana1981
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/sheffield-vs-dai-drought.html

    … along with links to further commentary, and as I pointed out earlier, there is more recent work by Trenberth and Dai himself where they acknowledge some of the controversies and analyze the sources of uncertainty.

    For a prepublication version, please see:

    Trenberth, Kevin E., et al. “Global warming and changes in drought.” Nature Climate Change 4.1 (2014): 17-22.
    http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/trenberth.pdf/Drought_ClimCh_v7-ss.pdf

    … and for an overview:

    Still Uncertain: Climate Change’s Role in Drought
    Bobby Magill (Climate Central), December 20th, 2013
    http://www.climatecentral.org/news/many-uncertainties-in-climate-changes-role-in-drought-16878

    Then there are the recent PNAS papers I pointed to that are part of:

    Global Climate Impacts: A Cross-Sector, Multi-Model Assessment Special Feature
    http://www.pnas.org/search?tocsectionid=Global+Climate+Impacts:+A+Cross-Sector%2C+Multi-Model+Assessment+Special+Feature&sortspec=date&submit=Submit

    In particular, you might look at:

    [Abstract] Drought severity is defined as the fraction of land under drought conditions. Results show a likely increase in the global severity of hydrological drought at the end of the 21st century, with systematically greater increases for RCPs describing stronger radiative forcings. Under RCP8.5, droughts exceeding 40% of analyzed land area are projected by nearly half of the simulations.

    Prudhomme, Christel, et al. “Hydrological droughts in the 21st century, hotspots and uncertainties from a global multimodel ensemble experiment.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2013): 201222473.
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/12/1222473110.full.pdf

    It should be noted, however, that RCP8.5 is considered a high emissions scenario.

    Please see the online textbook:

    A set of four RCPs were selected. The most extreme one, RCP8.5 displays a continuous rise in radiative forcing during the 21st century, leading to a value of about 8.5 Wm–2 in 2100.

    Introduction to climate dynamics and climate modelling
    6.1.3 Representative concentration pathways (RCPs)
    http://www.climate.be/textbook/chapter6_node5.html

    … and as such their projection of 40% in of the land surface in drought by end of century may be considered overly pessimistic.

  2. 202

    PS to 201:

    I hadn’t noticed earlier, but:

    Trenberth, Kevin E., et al. “Global warming and changes in drought.” Nature Climate Change 4.1 (2014): 17-22.
    http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/trenberth.pdf/Drought_ClimCh_v7-ss.pdf

    … includes Justin Sheffield of:

    Sheffield, Justin, Eric F. Wood, and Michael L. Roderick. “Little change in global drought over the past 60 years.” Nature 491.7424 (2012): 435-438.
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v491/n7424/full/nature11575.html

    … in addition to Aiguo Dai of:

    Dai, Aiguo. “Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models.” Nature climate change 3.1 (2012): 52-58.
    http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n1/full/nclimate1633.html

    I am guessing the discussion between coauthors was at times somewhat lively.

  3. 203
    Edward Greisch says:

    202 Timothy Chase: You have given me a lot of stuff. Starting with
    http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n1/full/nclimate1633.html
    Aiguo Dai has reproduced his prediction that GW brings increasingly severe drought over this century in the major food growing areas of the Earth. The thing that is lacking is a decision point for failure or collapse to be declared.

    Agriculture has collapsed when you personally go to the grocery store and find no food. Bart Levenson’s contribution is to estimate when that will happen. Collapse has to happen some time unless we manage to irrigate every farm on Earth. Irrigation is generally not permanent because irrigation water is rarely perfectly salt free.

    There are a lot of variables to play with. To simplify the matter, Bart Levenson chose the time at which 70% of the land surface becomes too dry to support growing food. Changing to different food could stretch the time available, but is not a permanent solution. There is still a date this century when food runs out. It has happened before.

    For the average person to understand that GW is a bad thing, you have to tell them about something that GW will do that they do not want to happen. Famine is the perfect example. Other predictions are not that meaningful to most people.

  4. 204
    Hank Roberts says:

    “Famine is the perfect example”

    Yep. Contemplating that brings out the best in everyone.

  5. 205
    Hank Roberts says:

    On the other hand, each time we get a better look at the planet, more people seem to understand that keeping it is a really good idea, and not a given. Several new very high resolution satellites are coming available to the general public:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/the-first-hd-video-of-earth-from-space-that-you-can-buy/282684/

  6. 206
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS — it’s clear which demographic/political group needs help understanding the impact of the science, from this (hat tip to MT and Planet3.org).

    That’s why announcing inevitable famine isn’t a good approach to those who are susceptible to the notion they can just bunker down and wait it out, rather than inspired to become more cooperative and work together with everyone.

  7. 207
    wili says:

    I’m not sure I catch your meaning here, Hank. I get pretty much the opposite interpretation from the graph at your link http://planet3.org/2013/12/07/the-2-axis-political-model-and-global-warming/ .

    It shows that nearly all those who think that GW is real and is a serious threat are also egalitarians and communitarians, while those who don’t think it’s a threat at all (and who probably correspond pretty well with the people who assume that it isn’t real) are the hierarchical/individualist types.

    So the more those communitarian folks understand the threat to be even more dire, I would assume the more they would react in a cooperative way, working together to build resilient communities…

    That is pretty much what I see in my neck of the woods: many egalitarian/communitarian types forming ‘Transition’ groups, getting together to see how they can make their communities less dependent on ff’s and more resilient to the shocks that they understand are coming down the pike.

    The hierarchical people who don’t believe in GW at all anyway aren’t going to become more of survivalists than they already are just because some scientist they don’t trust tells them that GW which they don’t believe in is going to be even worse than the warnings already given which they have already been ignoring.

    But I am probably missing your meaning here, somewhere. Care to elaborate?

  8. 208

    Hank Roberts wrote in 206:

    PS — it’s clear which demographic/political group needs help understanding the impact of the science… That’s why announcing inevitable famine isn’t a good approach to those who are susceptible to the notion they can just bunker down and wait it out, rather than inspired to become more cooperative and work together with everyone.

    One word: Flooding.

  9. 209

    wili, in an essay at Skeptical Science Andy Skuce looks at a study by the same author:

    Kahan, Dan M., et al. “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks.” Nature Climate Change 2.10 (2012): 732-735.
    http://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/faculty_publications/265/

    … and comes essentially the same view as yourself:

    We know that we are unlikely to win over many hard-core contrarians with our rebuttals or blog posts. In reality, our target audience is that large group of people who are not yet committed or engaged. We hope that people who have questions about climate change will come here via a Google search or a reference from somewhere else. Our basic rebuttals, in particular, are aimed at people new to the climate discussion and are intended to nip misinformation in the bud.

    Scientific literacy and polarization on climate change
    Andy Skuce (Skeptical Science), 2012-06-15
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Kahan.html

  10. 210
    Hank Roberts says:

    wili,
    > people who don’t believe in GW at all anyway
    > aren’t going to become more of survivalists …

    I’d imagine that Edward G’s suggestion — talking up famine as inevitable — would drive that group further away from cooperation.

    > nearly all
    I don’t think we can say that from looking at the chart. The cluster of blue dots is clearly nearly all up in one quadrant. The rest are more spread out (more diverse)

  11. 211
    Hank Roberts says:

    On famine, etc., the point of Catton’s Overshoot is that, as long as we have cheap reliable transportation, any local area can indeed run out of food or anything else from local sources and yet have what’s needed brought in from elsewhere. That’s what allows exceeding carrying capacity — overshooting the limits to growth. Vast areas aren’t occupied by people yet — the oceans, remember? — yet are having their production hoovered up and transported to human uses. 90 percent of the big fish are gone.

    We’re eating or burning or trashing the life on the planet — the carbon sink — at the same time as we overload the atmosphere and oceans with carbon.

    But I doubt anyone’s managed to come up with a climate model that puts in, say, a complete reforestation, a halt to burning forests, and recovery of the large fish and whale populations that kept the plankton populations healthy (as top predators do).

    I wonder what it’d look like to punch in returning the hundred-year-old forests all over the world and having the whales back in great numbers — what would the climate look like with a recovery — getting primary productivity and biological cycling back to using every CO2 molecule multiple times through many living things rather than turning it rapidly into dead sediment sinking to the seabottom?

    See, a thriving biosphere captures energy too — by holding it and passing it around as molecules doing living things.

    We lost most of the thriving biosphere in the same three or four centuries over which we we pumped up the carbon dioxide. We traded off trapping energy as life in abundance — “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful ” — and instead have been trapping energy as heat.

  12. 212
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS re arguing “famine” — Catton’s argument in Overshoot (cited above) is holding up well several decades after he wrote that cautionary book. Here:

    From Food Insufficiency towards Trade Dependency: A Historical Analysis of Global Food Availability

    Miina Porkka et al, December 18, 2013
    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0082714

    While food supply has increased globally, food self-sufficiency (domestic production>2500 kcal/cap/d) has not changed remarkably. In the beginning of the study period insufficient domestic production meant insufficient food supply, but in recent years the deficit has been increasingly compensated by rising food imports. This highlights the growing importance of food trade ….

  13. 213
    wili says:

    Hank at #210:
    >> people who don’t believe in GW at all anyway
    >> aren’t going to become more of survivalists …

    >I’d imagine that Edward G’s suggestion — talking up famine as inevitable — would drive that group further away from cooperation.

    That’s the point–people who don’t believe in AGW aren’t going to give one fig for EG’s arguments that AGW will bring famine, as far as I can see. And see TC’s note at #209. In any case, this is a side issue from the central question of the validity of warnings of imminent famine. The standard prediction, iirc, is that for every one degree C of GW we should expect a 10% decrease in global food production; but other factors obviously come into play, since our so-far .8 degrees increase has not witnessed any net loss on food production, afaik. But we may be about to play some rather grim ‘catch up’ on that front:

    “In the run-up to the holidays, few noticed a rather horrifying number California water managers released last week:

    5%.

    That’s the percentage of requested water the California State Water Project (SWP), the largest manmade distribution system in the US, expects to deliver in 2014. The SWP supplies water to two-thirds of the state’s 38 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland.”

    http://qz.com/161935/california-faces-a-catastrophic-drought-next-year/

  14. 214
    Hank Roberts says:

    … an interesting experiment in science communication and teaching dreamed up by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. Realising that the average Aussie has quite a few questions about ‘how stuff works’, but has little idea how to answer those questions, Ian engaged former Quantum star and science editor, Leigh Dayton, to put together a short, punchy, topical and easily understood book about why science is good for the country.

    http://conservationbytes.com/2013/12/04/biowealth-all-creatures-great-and-small/


Switch to our mobile site