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Gearing up for IPCC’s sixth assessment report

You can watch all plenary talks from this three-day event through a series of recorded livestreams. Watch day one, day two and day three.

World-leading climate experts met in Stockholm from 28 to 30 August to discuss the research needs for the  next tome from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): its sixth assessment report (AR6) – scheduled to come out in 2022.

Since IPCC’s last such report in 2014, nations have forged the Paris Agreement on climate, launched the Sustainable Development Goals and agreed the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The next report, in other words, will come out in a different world with new politically agreed climate goals. During the opening of the event in Sweden, IPCC chair Hoesung Lee remarked in a speech that these major political milestones will inevitably influence the shape of the next IPCC report, and IPCC must expand its notion of risk to include these developments.

The Stockholm meeting, hosted by Sweden’s Future Earth global hub and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, attracted the senior IPCC leadership, including the panel’s new co-chairs and vice-chairs, plus Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin.

The broader international events, and perfect timing – nine months in advance of the first IPCC AR6 scoping meeting – helped shape a remarkable three days that repeatedly challenged the status quo. One of the key themes of the event was trust: throughout the workshop, experts argued that for the next report to achieve maximum impact, those involved will need to think creatively about how they communicate, not just assess, the science. The Paris Agreement, however, is a testament to the success of the IPCC model. 

Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin gives a plenary talk at the recent Future Earth, IPCC and PROVIA workshop. Photo: Erik Pihl

Future Earth, IPCC and the Programme of Research on Climate Change Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation (PROVIA) called the meeting to ask important questions: What could be learnt from the previous report? Where are the gaps in science to support policymakers? And how can scientists improve how knowledge is assessed? The meeting focused on five areas: research gaps, solutions, risks, scenarios and regional challenges. Many participants had not been closely engaged in the IPCC before and, with the recent appointment of a new IPCC chair and working group co-chairs, the mood in the room was very much to build on the successes of previous reports but also inject new ideas and fresh perspectives. No issue was out of bounds. 

A collaborative process

Isabella Lövin said policy-makers need research directly related to the role of climate on conflicts, war, land degradation, food security and, inevitably, migration. She added that policy change is hard without a strong signal from the knowledge community.

The first series of talks (all available online) outlined some of the immediate challenges. Several speakers called for greater integration across IPCC’s three working groups: the physical science basis of climate change; adaptation and vulnerability; and mitigation. While the final synthesis for each report in the series does provide a greater degree of integration across the working groups, the argument went that this process needs to begin much earlier than it does today – as scientists conduct their original research. 

Workshop participants pose for a group photo outside of the headquarters of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Photo: Erik Pihl

The need for more “co-designed,” “co-produced” research arose repeatedly together with demands from all sides to bring in a broader range of expertise into the IPCC process. Participants, in other words, were clamoring to see more research designed and produced in partnership with leaders in fields outside of science. This led to the coining of a new verb to “Future Earth” the research agenda. Workshop co-chair Kristie Ebi, a global health specialist from the University of Washington in the U.S. and former executive director of the IPCC Working Group II technical support unit, compared integrated research and solutions at the global scale to a multi-dimensional chessboard. There is a dizzying array of permutations and choices, some more visible than others. Unlike chess though, “We won't know when we've won,” she said.

Burning embers

That game is also a collaborative one, with large numbers of nations participating in writing and reviewing IPCC reports – "intergovernmental" is in the name after all. While these reports have undoubtedly influenced climate policy, the pitfalls of this collaboration are obvious in their sprawling text. A recent linguistic analysis published in Nature Climate Change concluded that IPCC’s “summaries for policymakers,” the landmark product for a broader audience, “clearly stand out in terms of low readability, which has remained constant despite the IPCC’s efforts to consolidate and readjust its communications policy.” Earlier assessments score higher than later ones.

This descent is not uniform across the three working groups. The AR5 summary for policymakers produced by working group III on mitigation options was the “least readable document across the entire sample.” Working Group I, where natural sciences dominate, is relatively easier on the brain than Working Groups II and III, which draw research from more diverse fields. The authors speculate that this might lead to “a greater need to compromise, in turn leading to longer and more complex sentences.”

A recent survey of Britons from the market research group Ipsos MORI found that scientists are among the most trusted professionals in the nation. Graphic: Ipsos MORI

The role of science in society, particularly pertaining to IPCC’s reputation based on trust and integrity, rose high on the agenda. Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research at the University of East Anglia and IPCC lead author, quoted British politician Michael Gove’s infamous outburst in the run up to Brexit: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” But she demonstrated that evidence points in precisely the opposite direction. According to one survey, scientists are one of the most trusted groups in society, well above bankers and journalists. In the trust league table, politicians are in the relegation zone. Le Quéré brought up a much quoted risk equation:

risk= probability x impact

And suggested a new equation:

influence = trust x volume

The problem is that politicians are loud but not trusted, whereas scientists are trusted but remain quiet. She argued that climate researchers should devote 20% of their time to communicating their work. Isabella Lövin agreed, explaining that when researchers discuss their work, many feel uncomfortable speaking broadly about an issue and often only proffer a view on their very narrow field of study. She argued there are just a small handful of scientists prepared to discuss the broad picture of global change, and that this is a signifcant problem in the public discourse.

Officially titled "Reasons for Concern," this graphic has been nicknamed "burning embers" for its cinder-like appearance. The graphic shows how different levels of climate warming can lead to risks around the globe. Graphic: IPCC

The focus wasn’t just on language, either. In a plenary session, Maria Carmen Lemos, from The Great Lakes Integrated Sciences & Assessments (GLISA), University of Michigan, and Le Quéré, also a member of the Future Earth Science Committee, supported the call for more strong visualisations in IPCC reports. They cited the example of “burning embers,” a graphic that depicts the dangers of climate change in blazing hot colors.

Le Quéré pointed to a new graphic in AR5 (below) that, she argued, effectively demonstrated how cumulative emissions will affect global temperature. She said she would like to see this approach used again in AR6. This was supported by Sonia Seneviratne, coordinating lead author on IPCC’s special report on extreme events, who suggested other versions could replace the y-axis to show crop yields or health impacts, for example. However, while scientifically robust, as an effective communications tool, perhaps deeper analysis is needed before thrusting it onto policymakers. The main point of the visualization – that just one scenario delivers on the 2 degree target – is unclear. Viewed on a large screen in an auditorium, or on a computer screen – the two dominant means people will view it – it needs careful explanation. The four time lines are cluttered together and compete for attention, for example. It would certainly be useful to assess its impact with its intended audience through user testing.

Originally published in the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, this graphic shows how different levels of human emissions can affect global temperatures over the next century. Graphic: IPCC

Indeed, bringing in academic data visualization expertise may prove effective if IPCC is to improve its communication, as recommended in a recent series of workshops from a group called EcoVis. However, graphics in IPCC reports must go through the same negotiation mill as text, meaning that clarity can become the victim of the consensual process.

Talking climate solutions

In all, the workshop focused a lot on ways to address global problems associated with climate change. Benjamin Preston, Deputy Director of the Climate Change Science Institute at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, commented that he’d heard more discussion on solutions as they appear in IPCC reports than ever before. However, a stumbling block remains around how IPCC assesses adaption solutions, such as building sea walls to protect against rising seas. Many of these solutions are evaluated in “grey literature” rather than peer-reviewed science journals, which a number of researchers consider less scientifically reputable. However, several speakers suggested IPCC must go to greater lengths to incorporate the grey literature. Many of these reports undergo an intense review processes, and research has found that they can meet higher standards than some peer reviewed journals.

Shobhakar Dhakal from the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand was one of many experts to comment on the trajectory of climate change being unlikely to be incremental. And the trajectory of solutions, too, is unlikely to follow an incremental path. The world needs to understand and prepare for rapid climate changes, and conversely, researchers must develop visions of the future that are transformational rather that linear. The research community must develop transformational scenario in support of AR6, concluded several speakers.

In a separate discussion, Corinne Le Quéré proposed adopting new IT systems to help support the IPCC assessment. That includes a knowledge assessment platform that she is building with colleagues at the Tyndall Centre and University of East Anglia, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. This platform is also part of the Future Earth Media Lab.

Kristie Ebi warned that an emphasis on solutions must not come at the cost of analysing the risks that climate change poses, given the sheer number of vulnerable communities in the world. Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, suggested that the platform should expand its assessments to include a broader range of risks, including ones facing particular regions of the world. Several experts also noted that IPCC’s risk analyses are based on expert judgement, rather than firm numbers. They said that more quantification would enhance our understanding of the dangers facing the planet from climate change. One of the outcomes of the workshop is to develop a research paper to explore this idea in more detail.

IPCC’s AR6 scoping meeting will take place in May 2017. There, experts will design the foundations of process for the next report. The Stockholm workshop co-chairs and organisers will produce a summary report to submit to IPCC in advance of this meeting. In addition, participants will also develop a research paper outlining a risk framework for AR6 that incorporates the new political agenda.

By providing an open platform outside the confines of the official IPCC process, the meeting may be seen as an important milestone in shaping of the next report. The injection of new people and institutions – bringing new ideas – will undoubtedly enrich the process without compromising IPCC’s integrity and relevance to policy.