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Climate reports: all Greek to most?

A group of researchers has analyzed the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and says the way they are phrased is too complex. Could clearer writing speed up action on global warming?

A group of researchers has analyzed the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and says the way they are phrased is too complex. Could clearer writing speed up action on global warming?

They are the basis of political decisions about the ecological future of our planet; but the way the annual reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are written is too complex, researchers say. And that has consequences.

Even the „summary for policymakers“, which has to be approved line by line by the governments of the world, is so difficult in places that is not easily understood by anyone without a a Ph.D. or an IPCC background, the researchers say.

Nobel prize for Gore and the IPCC

Nobel prize for Gore and the IPCC

The IPCC is a scientific intergovernmental body. Among its members are governments as well as hundreds of international climate researchers and scientists from relevant disciplines. The IPCC was founded in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In 2007, the IPCC even won the Nobel Peace Prize – together with former US Vice-President Al Gore.

The IPCC researchers produce climate scenarios and reports on the causes and possible effects of climate change. They also inform political decision makers about the latest scientific findings on climate research – a complex affair.

Is the devil in the detail?

Communicating these concepts and theories is tricky because neither politicians nor civil servants in government agencies, let alone lay people, understand in detail the information conveyed by the IPCC. The result: there are deficits when it comes to the implementation of the reports. That is the finding of an international team of researchers, who have analyzed the IPCC reports from the years 1990 to 2014. Their findings were published in the journal "Nature Climate Change."

"The confusion caused by the style in which the summaries are written could be an obstacle to combating greenhouse gas emissions,” says Ralf Barkemeyer, lead author and an Associate Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility at Kedge Business School in Bordeaux, France. Barkemeyer assesses the readability to be extraordinarily low, since the texts are packed with unusually long sentences and technical terms.

Japan Yokohama Rajendra Pachaur IPCC Working Group II

Tough: communicating the IPCC findings

They are the result of weeks of negotiations between experts and government representatives. Word by word, sentence by sentence, line by line, they are phrased to be apolitical and satisfy all parties. The report of the IPCC in turn serves as the basis for the annual UN climate conference. The final report put together by the 194 member states is the only binding legal contract for climate policy under international law.

Ambivalently phrased text passages can have serious consequences for the environment, society and the economy, because the document also contains options and recommendations for adaptation to global warming and for limiting it.

Like a game of Chinese whispers?

Co-author of the language analysis Giulio Napolitano from the University of Bonn says the reasons the reports are so hard to follow, is the need to find compromises between the countries' different points of view.

The communication experts recommend that the IPCC improve the comprehensibility of its reports in order to make faster progress in the fight against global warming. As a result, the IPCC is currently looking into consulting with creative writers and graphic design experts in order to make the scientific reports more easily understandable.

Ralf Barkemeyer remains skeptical, however. He is concerned that bringing more parties into the process alongside the scientists and government representatives might just add to the confusion.

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