How do world leaders know what to do about climate change? And how are tens of thousands of scientific papers summarised into one concise report? First-hand discussion with climate scientists reveals how climate data gets from scientist, to
author, to government, to news headlines.
This simple guide to climate change will give you the most recent facts and figures surrounding our crisis, but how do
these reach our news headlines, and who is explaining it to the world leaders? Thanks to the Bristol University Sustainability Team, we can hear first-hand about how climate data is processed and reviewed to the nth degree.
Read on for a jargon-free, or jargon unpacked, explanation on how climate data is presented to global leaders, underpinning important decisions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988. Its objective? To provide governments of all levels with scientific information, which they can use to develop climate policies.
Climate policies? Dr. Jo House, former Head of Climate Advice for the Government Office for Science and IPCC author, describes policy as ‘a series of ideas and plans that are used as the basis for decision making.’ Consequently, climate
policy refers to a set of guidelines which aim to stabilise our changing climate.
What is in a name?
For anyone already lost, do not worry. Before heading behind the scenes at the IPCC, let us unpack what it means, word for word.
First, ‘intergovernmental’ means ‘between governments’. For the IPCC, intergovernmental means communications between 195 governments around the globe, making it an international organisation. A ‘panel’ on climate change means bringing a
group of people together who will collectively decide the most effective actions needed to counteract climate change.
‘Climate change’ is not a new term, yet there are still misconceptions and uncertainty around what it means. In a sentence, climate change is the change in weather and temperature patterns across the globe. Whilst a change in climate has
occurred many times throughout Earth’s history, the rapid rate of the ongoing climate change is the first to be human-induced; apparent from the mid-20th century and attributed to the excessive use of fossil fuels that fills the Earth’s
atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
‘Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.’—IPCC Working Group I headline statement.
It would take far more than a sentence to describe the specifics and the effects of climate change, as climate change will impact each of the world’s 195 countries differently. This is where the IPCC comes in.
Report, review, repeat
The IPCC produces thorough reports on climate change predictions, effects, mitigations, and monitoring, which are presented to policy makers in worldwide governments.
Dr. Matt Palmer leads sea level and ocean heat research at the Met Office Hadley Centre and explains that the IPCC has access to a vast amount of data. Fourteen thousand scientific publications were used as the basis for the most recent
IPCC report, published in August 2021.
How on earth are these thousands of papers sourced, where do they come from? Scientists are encouraged by their peers and their countries to submit relevant material directly to the IPCC. Each submission is then reviewed, read by lead
authors who are widely recognized experts from academia, research facilities, industry, government and non-government organisations (NGOs).
Lead authors also consult with expert scientists in the field, inviting those with needed expertise to serve as contributing authors. But do not worry, any problematic bias between friends is erased later down the line by two rounds of peer
and public review. Nepotism and bias are made even more unlikely by the unpaid nature of being an IPCC contributor.
Once privy to thousands of publications and data, how does the IPCC even begin to summarise climate data from all over the world, analyse the impacts, weigh up the necessary actions for mitigation and then condense it into a
digestible yet detailed report?
‘Fourteen thousand scientific publications were used as the basis for the most recent IPCC report.’
Before IPCC authors can say how climate change will affect people, wildlife, crops and landscapes; they must first have a strong understanding of what these changes will look like. Ingeniously, the reporting process is staggered into four
stages, or working groups (WGs). Working Group I (WG I) explores the Physical Science Basis of climate change (i.e., the temperature rises, the rainfall, the storms, the droughts).
‘It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.’—IPCC Working Group I headline statement.
The earlier mentioned August 2021 IPCC report is only concerned with the physical science basis, it is a Working Group I report. The report, which you can read online, breaks the future into five possibilities, each with varying
levels of greenhouse gas emissions (very high, high, intermediate, low and very low).
Writing such a report is no easy feat. With 234 authors from 65 countries, the full version of the report has 12 chapters, each hundreds of pages long which, as you can imagine, is no light read for policy makers. As such, the full report
is condensed twice over, once into a technical report, and once more into a summary for policy makers (SPM). This summary is a far lighter read, ‘just’ 39 pages.
What is more, through this process there were two rounds of review which generated an astonishing 78,000 public review comments, each addressed and ironed out. This constant cycle of writing, reviewing, condensing and rewriting takes time,
accumulating to a three-year process behind just one report, but there is more than one report to write.
In progress: the Sixth Assessment Report
The physical science within the WG I report will feed into the Working Group II and III reports, set to be published in February and March 2022, respectively.
Working Group II (WG II) investigates the impacts, adaptations and vulnerability surrounding climate change. So, the WG I report predicts how global temperatures may change in the future and WG II will tell us what effect this will have on,
say, sea level rise and crop growth. In other words, WG II explores how a changing climate will affect people’s lives.
Working Group III (WG III) explores the Mitigation of Climate Change and its report provides policy makers with ways to avoid worst case scenarios. WG III assesses methods from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and removing greenhouse gases
from the atmosphere.
‘Working Group III supports the IPCC’s solution-oriented approach but does not advocate any specific mitigation options’—IPCC on Working Group III.
As the future looms ever closer and merges with our present, it is important that the IPCC have means to measure greenhouse gas levels without having to wait three-plus years for a published report. This is where the Task Force on National
Greenhouse Gas Inventories (TFI) comes in, allowing the IPCC to continually monitor emissions and removals, seeing how they compare to earlier predictions.
This is particularly important, as countries need to continually measure their emissions and compare it with targets set at COP21 in Paris seven years ago.
COP26, held last year in Glasgow, was the 26th Conference of Parties (COP), organised by the UN. The WG I report was a key input into climate negotiations at COP26 and a basis for decision making.
This may seem a huge responsibility for just one organisation, but remember that the IPCC is not just one organisation, but hundreds of scientists and authors, and thousands of international, academic minds.
We need this vast, multidisciplinary approach to avoid irreversible and damaging change to the climate. What is more, we need accessible information and education, so that everyone can grasp the complex intricacies behind both climate
change and its mitigation.
I have had the privilege to hear about this process directly from climate scientists, Dr. Jo House and Dr. Matt Palmer among them, thanks to the Bristol University Sustainability Team. To hear more about the ins and outs of the IPCC you can
watch a recording of the discussion
on YouTube, and stay tuned for more as the WG II and III reports are published over the coming months.
Featured Image: Number 10 | Flickr
Bristol University Sustainability Team (2021) ‘IPCC authors discuss climate change and beyond | Bristol University Sustainability Team’. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLfUKVb3LP8 [Accessed January 20th,
IPCC (2022) ‘The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’. IPCC. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch [Accessed January 20th, 2022]