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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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