Communication Fail: Why the IPCC Must Do a Heck of a Lot Better in 2013

Regular readers know I’m pretty critical of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–particularly when it comes to how this expert body communicates climate science. Basically, my view is that any organization that holds a key climate meeting in Copenhagen in winter is pretty clueless about the politics and public perception of this issue. [See Correction Below.] But even worse is that IPCC has shown far too little investment in communication or public outreach (although lately that is beginning to change), and has handled crisis communication moments—like the Himalayan glaciers flap—terribly.

Now, before I get too many ticked off emails: I know the IPCC is the leading expert source for climate science assessments, and deservedly so. I know that the scientists who volunteer to work on its reports do a heroic job. I recognize and commend all of this. But it simply isn’t enough in this day and age—and it is in the communications sphere where the IPCC’s scientific excellence simply has not been matched.

A new paper in the scientific literature that studies major scientific assessment reports, and their public impact, supports this view. The study in Climatic Change, by Brenda Ekwurzel and Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists and James McCarthy of Harvard, shows that IPCC-related scandals have received a dramatic level of press attention, coming in second only to IPCC reports themselves in media attention. Furthermore, the paper also suggests that these reports are written in technical language that is likely misinterpreted by public audiences.

The new study shows that when IPCC releases one of its rare and treasured assessment reports, it does get more coverage than other assessment reports released by, say, the National Academy of Sciences or the U.S. government. That’s very appropriate: The IPCC is, after all, the gold standard and its reports are long awaited and endlessly cited.

But consider: The IPCC related “controversy” of late 2009 and early 2010 drew about 1/3 as much total coverage as the 2007 IPCC release of its Fourth Assessment Report, and more total coverage than the release of key assessment reports by the U.S. government and National Academy of Sciences. And I would argue that even this comparison is misleading. Anyone observing politics in this country would have to concede that the IPCC “scandals” have been far more influential than the IPCC’s science, at least over the past half decade.

The new study also looks at how the IPCC communicates its findings: i.e., in technical language that’s likely to be misunderstood. For instance:

When presented with excerpted sentences from the AR4, survey respondents consistently underestimated the certainty implied by extremes, such as “very likely” (>90% probability, according to the guidelines) and “very unlikely” (<10%). Twenty-five per cent of respondents, for example, interpreted “very likely,” as in “average Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were very likely higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years” (IPCC 2007), as meaning less than 70% probability…Thus, IPCC terminology intended to succinctly represent authors’ consensus on the range of probabilities associated with key findings may itself be a significant barrier to understanding for public and policymaker audiences.

The IPCC’s “likely/very likely” language represents a group of scientists trying to use ordinary language to quantify uncertainty. The goal has always been to be as accurate as possible—but how these word choices strike people has been a far less prominent consideration. In other words, IPCC has been communicating for scientists, rather than for audiences.

A new report shows that from 2007 to 2011, the U.S. public showed a 14 % decline in its concern about global warming. That’s a period that was kicked off by an IPCC report announcing that “most” of the global warming we’ve seen is “very likely” caused by human activities.

Which pretty much says it all.

Correction: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, not the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, organized the Copenhagen summit. My apology for this mistake.


Perhaps they should replace “very likely” with “almost certainly”. Or just say “greater than 90% certainty”.

They probably need a “summary for the public at large” written in plain English. Suggested title heading: “You’re Screwed.”

Perhaps the only solution is to simply leave out such modulations in communications meant for the public. As in “Global temperature is rising at an unprecedented rate and this is caused by the equally unprecendented increase in concentration of an important greenhouse gas”. Followed by elementary empirical evidence and arguments. Look at the tobacco discours for examples. ‘Smoking harms and kills’ is quite accepted, even though in reality smoking tobacco does not at all kill everyone who smokes.  

I’m not sure if IPCC’s mandate supports this way of communicating. The IPCC’s task is to gather current scientific knowledge and uncertainties of climate and climate change and to present an assessment of this. Avoiding the modulations in this assessment would raise integrity issues.

As denialists often come up with statements that are quite clearly false, they actually could be countered by unequivocally stated argumentation. IPCC can do this on some separate page on an item for item basis, like some websites/blogs do, e.g.:


The IPCC is a bunch of dry, rather banal scientists who cannot deliver a message the average person will want to hear or understand.

If they just came out and told the public in their 2013 report we are all screwed- people will begin to listen.

Hopefully we never see Roy Spencer as an author on the IPCC. I’m not sure whether it’s a good or bad thing, but editor of Remote Sensing Wolfgang Wagner has resigned over the journals slack standards & failure to pick up on obvious mistakes.

Spencer, the intelligent designer & member of the right wing organization the Marshall Institute had is fault ridden paper published in the fringe journal & subsequently the propaganda piece was picked by right wing media & blogs everywhere. The damage was done.

Fortunately for Remote Sensings credibility, they have now admitted their mistake & the editor resigned.

I guess the good thing to come out of this is. Spencer will have virtually no chance of being published again, except for in the other fringe journal of deniers choice Energy & Environment. He wouldn’t dare try at Remote Sensing again after humiliating their peer review process & the scrutiny from any credible journal will mean Spencer is essentially ostracized & can no longer peddle his wares anywhere but his own blog.


But correct to resign.

You are right - this will prevent bona fide journals from publishing stuff by the creationist. Now Huntsville University has a chance to make some fame ;)

In fairness, the “IPCC scandals” stories were artificially inflated by the right-wing press and blogosphere “piling on”. Then again, the IPCC made it easier by being overly defensive.

I hope communication of its message to the wider public becomes a top priority.