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The IPCC provides the vocabulary — now its time to weave the prose

Oct 22, 2013 by | 1 Comment

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was pub­lished last month, sum­mar­ising the state of the art in our under­standing of cli­mate change.

It is an incred­ible under­taking – thou­sands of sci­entific papers reviewed, painstak­ingly syn­thes­ised and then presented to the world’s policy makers. Although there are many critics within the sci­entific com­munity who argue that the pro­cess could be much improved, most recog­nise the phe­nom­enal achieve­ment of cor­ralling so much evid­ence into one document.

As expected, the report emphas­ised the unam­biguous link between human activity and the rapid cli­matic changes that have occurred over the past cen­tury. It under­scored the pressing urgency of redu­cing our carbon emis­sions. The IPCC has once again spoken. So what hap­pens next?

Anyone who has been fol­lowing the cli­mate change debate over the last decade will likely be exper­i­en­cing a degree of ennui in the after­math of the release of the report. For policy makers, it is a clear and unam­biguous signal – but it is a signal that they have received many times before. For the media, it offers a rare chance to put cli­mate change on the front page – but as ana­lyses by Carbon Brief show, the upturn in interest was short lived. And for the public, buf­feted by eco­nomic wor­ries and dis­in­clined to con­cern them­selves with an abstract future risk, the IPCC’s report is simply another ana­lysis of a problem that long ago stopped being a sub­ject on most people’s lips.

The problem is that the facts do not speak for them­selves. Watertight sci­entific and eco­nomic cases have been made in favour of taking strong action now to tackle cli­mate change, but public interest and ambi­tious polit­ical action has not fol­lowed. Until com­mu­nic­ators can figure out a way of trans­lating the dry, face­less facts of the IPCC reports into living, breathing reasons to care about cli­mate change, mean­ingful public engage­ment will remain out of sight.

Never mind whether sci­ent­ists are 90% or 95% cer­tain that human carbon emis­sions are causing cli­mate change. These kinds of tech­nic­al­ities, as important as they are, do not fire the hearts and minds of the gen­eral public. What does the IPCC report mean for the dozens of dif­ferent sec­tors of the eco­nomy who will be affected by cli­mate impacts? How should the tourism industry, the con­struc­tion trade, or health ser­vice pro­viders respond to a chan­ging cli­mate? These are prac­tical ques­tions that people might have a genuine stake in. But they are not being asked.

The IPCC reports are like a dic­tionary. The facts they con­tain provide the basic vocab­u­lary, but the real chal­lenge is in weaving poetry and prose to inspire people to care about the problem, to con­sider what it might mean to them, or to engage in the deep, reflective forward-planning and dreaming that cli­mate change demands of us.

There is an incred­ible oppor­tunity to use the IPCC report to start a new con­ver­sa­tion about cli­mate change. Like the IPCC pro­cess itself, this would have to be an ini­ti­ative that was ambi­tious, co-ordinated and backed at the highest polit­ical level.

Imagine an inter­na­tional pro­gramme of cli­mate change debates and con­ver­sa­tions – events designed not to make an eco­nomic case, put for­ward sci­entific facts or win an argu­ment, but to allow people to express and dis­cuss their con­cerns, fears, dreams and hopes for the future. What could be a more useful demo­cratic func­tion than providing the fora and sup­port for the world’s cit­izens to talk to each other about how cli­mate change will impact on their future, and how they want to respond to it?

Isolated examples of these kinds of ini­ti­at­ives have taken place before. When they have occurred, a striking pat­tern has been observed: people move from dis­in­terest to a pos­i­tion of engaged con­cern. It is dif­fi­cult to believe that anyone – given the time and oppor­tunity to reflect on what cli­mate change means for their family, their friends, and their future – would dis­miss the issue out of hand, as so many cur­rently do. But what cur­rently passes for public engage­ment on cli­mate change – cor­porate gre­en­wash, half-hearted gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ives and the wrong-headed belief that people can only tol­erate fluffy and upbeat mes­sages – pro­motes a super­fi­cial treat­ment of such a pro­found subject.

So as crit­ical as the IPCC’s reports are, they are only one piece of a com­plex puzzle that involves reframing the idea of cli­mate change away from an abstract topic of sci­entific study to a soci­etal fron­tier that everyone has a direct and per­sonal stake in shaping. If we can assess the state of sci­entific know­ledge every five years on some­thing as com­plex as cli­mate change, shouldn’t we be able to do a better job at trans­lating it into some­thing that people beyond the sci­ent­ists and the policy wonks can engage with?

Originally pub­lished by The Guardian on 21.10.13

1 Comment + Add Comment

  • but the real chal­lenge is in weaving poetry and prose to inspire people to care about the problem”

    Try pointing them to the Harry_read_me file. That puts a human face on cli­mate sci­ence. You really get to care for poor Harry, by the end of it.

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