‘Unreadable’ UN science reports hampering climate action – study

You need a relevant PhD to understand IPCC summaries, find researchers, arguing for clearer writing

Hoesung Lee is the newly elected chair of the IPCC (Pic: IISD)

Hoesung Lee is the newly elected chair of the IPCC (Pic: IISD)

By Megan Darby

The UN climate science body’s reports are “unreadable”, holding back evidence-based action on global warming.

That is the uncompromising verdict of a study from Kedge Business School published in Nature Climate Change on Monday.

Based on linguistic analysis, it found readers needed a relevant postgraduate qualification to understand the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summaries for policymakers.

“Global action on climate change might be seriously hampered,” said study lead author Ralf Barkemeyer.

“If governments are not able to understand the scientific facts presented to them, how can they hope to reach consensus or joint decision?”

Given the complexity of IPCC output, the public relies on media interpretations, which researchers found tended to take a more pessimistic tone than the source material.

Tabloids newspapers in particular were more likely to use negative terms like “disaster”, “storm” and “crisis”, in contrast to the neutral phrasing of IPCC content.

Barkemeyer added: “If these summaries were simpler and more accessible, the public could turn directly benefit to these documents and discover the true nature of the challenges.”

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Coming a week after governments elected a new IPCC chair, the study outlines a major challenge for the institution.

Some observers have suggested the IPCC employ science writers and graphic designers to make the reports more accessible.

Incoming chief Hoesung Lee, an economist from South Korea, has downplayed that idea.

“I think the problem may not be particularly with the readability of the SPMs,” he told London-based blog Carbon Brief.

“My hypothesis is, it’s not the way the SPM was presented, but the content of the SPM presented to the decision makers…

“If this is the case then a science writer or a graphic designers, their contributions won’t work.”

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Lee has proposed getting more inputs from the private sector and shifting the IPCC’s focus towards solutions to make it more relevant to policymakers.

Frank Figge, director at Kedge, told Climate Home the IPCC reports could and should be made more readable without losing precision.

That means using shorter sentences, an active – not passive – voice and more verbs.

Even papers in scientific journals, aimed at an expert audience, are easier to read than IPCC summaries, he said.

“If you have people in a classroom and they don’t understand, they fall asleep. Do we need the IPCC to be understood? Yes.”

The IPCC will discuss ways to improve communications at an expert meeting next February, including the possibility of involving specialist writers.

A spokesperson said: “There is no doubt that more needs to be done to make IPCC reports more readable and accessible. The newly elected Chair of the IPCC, Hoesung Lee, has made this point and we are determined to tackle it.

“The challenge is to do it in a way that does not damage the scientific rigour and robustness of the reports, or allow important nuances in them to be lost.”

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