Will the IPCC Be Ready to Communicate About Its Fifth Assessment Report?

By Chris Mooney | June 2, 2011 9:52 am

Please excuse the lack of posting yesterday; I was entombed by work and not feeling particularly insightful. In a “new directions” post coming up soon, I’ll explain how we are going to have some new voices here at “the Intersection” that should increase total content volume in the future, and prevent many post-free days from occurring on weekdays.

In the meantime, though, I want to call attention to my latest DeSmogBlog post, which is about the IPCC and communication. It builds on Andy Revkin’s recent writings, and starts like this:

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the world authority on the science of climate. But at the same time, it has been increasingly beset by controversies that call into question its approach, and its preparedness, when it comes to communication.

Essentially, the IPCC releases highly technical reports, fairly infrequently, that get an initial flurry of mainstream media attention and then get attacked viciously until the next report comes out. And when attacked, IPCC has opted for an ill advised strategy of “hunkering down,” as Andrew Revkin puts it. Indeed, following “GlacierGate”—when a very real error was found in one of IPCC’s reports—IPCC came off as defensive and was very slow to admit the mistake.

Following the various “-Gates” of 2009 and 2010, a cry went out in many circles that we need to improve climate science communication. As a result, all kinds of communication innovations are now going forward, many of which are ably summarized by Revkin in a recent article in the Bulletin of the World Meteorological Organization (which was central to creating the IPCC itself in 1988).

But where does IPCC fit in the context of this innovation wave?

Read here for my at-best-mixed answer.


Comments (12)

  1. Chris,
    You bring some really good point to the fore – and I agree it si nearly criminal that the IPCC is only now getting around to putting a comms team in place. That said, I’d have to echo a call from your last post on their communications failures and ask bluntly – who in the science journalism or communications professions has ever offered to help them out? You, Revkin, Sheril and many others could have given them excellent guidance off-book on how to manage these issues, but so far as we know, you never even offered. I know that you try to preserve some sort of wall between you and the folks you write about – and as a journalist you need to – but surely some of the IPCC’s image and messaging issues could have been solved already by a conscientious volunteer effort. Heck, even a coordinated blogging campaign across the science blog-o-sphere would have been better then what we’ve seen to date.

  2. Chris Mooney

    Hi Philip
    The short answer is I get asked to help all sorts of groups all the time in the climate arena, and I do, to the extent that I can. For instance, I serve on the board of the American Geophysical Union, principally due to my science journalism/communication expertise. And that is a fully volunteer activity, not one I get paid for. So I feel that I do try to help out, though it has not involved working with IPCC.

  3. Fair enough, but it also sort of proves my point (and your) – IPCC being an extra territorial body (i.e. one that is not controlled by or affiliated with a single or lead country) lacks many of the institutional structures that would make these sort of this easier to staff and deal with. You have made a choice – and a wise one – to work through AGU and other U.S. based/affiliated organizations, though they are not governmentally affiliated either. But if you aren’t able to reach to a transnational entity, who else will? Given what you’ve’ written about how poorly most scientists communicate with the general public, I’d argeu that they need the help.

  4. TransientEddy

    And what have you done so far with the AGU to improve communication? Since you seem to know all the answers, it would be nice to know what was done so that we can judge the efficacy of your approach.

    Also, I should note that there are plenty of scientists who volunteer with the AGU (as section chairs, etc) and also volunteer with the IPCC. So there is nothing really keeping you from jumping in there.

    As you (and Kloor and Revkin and Olsen) like to remind us climate scientists, ad nauseum, we suck at communication. And a lot of us do. But the fact is, 1) we are not trained for communication and 2) it is not our job. If you guys know how to get the message across, then why don’t you take up that responsibility writ large? Or is it just easier to chastise scientists who already work 50-80 hours a week?

  5. Susan Anderson

    Trouble is, scientists ARE overworked, and so – I’d guess – is Chris Mooney. Before one attacks him, one should read The Republican War on Science and Storm World. He pretty much wrote the book on exposing the diseased underbelly of fake skepticism with its roots in big tobacco and hawkish nuclear defense. One should also take a look at standard infotainment fare – morning and evening TV, for example. We need Fergie, Taylor Swift, Simon Cowell, et al., the entire staff of Dancing With the Stars, the Miami Heat, people really pay attention to them. Who cares about mouldy old scientists who won’t even say they’re certain?

    It is no longer possible to get people’s attention without vast sums of money, and if one looks at who advertises on one’s favorite public media, it might make one a little ill.

    Until money and infinite consumption on a finite world no longer dominate, it will not be possible for an army of dedicated and honest volunteers or even paid advocates to get past the increasing and ever more skillful PR tactics of dishonest advocates. Many of them don’t even know they are accepting material that is the exact opposite of skepticism, bought and paid for and lacking roots in reality.

  6. Chris Mooney

    Thank you Susan. I will take one issue with Transient Eddy’s # 2–if you receive certain types of government grants, it actually is your job. And increasingly, it is going to become so, I suspect.

  7. Susan Anderson

    In addition to possibly being part of the job, as a human being it is now incumbent on each of us to do what we can. Sure, we’re all tired and believe we deserve better. But when was life ever fair?

    If you are in doubt, this might be a wake-up call. I think the source is secondary, but it’s all I can put my hands on at the moment:

    Business as usual: emissions at 132% by 2150: 5.5-7.1 degrees C by 2100 (1.8 x 7.1 = almost 13 degrees F)

    All hands on deck, pulleeeaze! We’ve had one degree and if you can’t tell things have changed you have to have your blinders on (I just survived a late May heat wave in NJ and just missed the tornadoes that accompanied the change in the weather on my way back to Boston – don’t tell me this is not likely, because it is, only more and more … and more).

  8. We should not expect the IPCC to carry the weight of official reportage.

    It is a major disservice to see reporters standing around the conflagration waiting for the “official briefing”.

    No, it is a media blunder by shameful hacks.

  9. TransientEddy


    So then what is your role? If I’m responsible for the science and the communication, what is the role of the actual communicators and journalists? Because so far, it seems like the most you all have accomplished is to write a series of blog posts that amount to little more than clucking your tongues and expressing your deep disappointment in scientists.

    I’ll repeat the question I asked before-what exactly are you doing as part of AGU to increase the effectiveness of their outreach and communication efforts? And what benchmarks have you set to judge the efficacy of you approach? That would at least give us something concrete to discuss.

  10. 5.   Susan Anderson: “big tobacco and hawkish nuclear defense.” I think you meant “big tobacco and coal.” It is coal that is making 40% of our CO2. Nuclear weapons have nothing to do with it. I take it you made a Freudian slip. Why you added “hawkish” I don’t have a clue.

  11. Susan Anderson

    Asteroid Miner, no, I meant the SDI (“Star Wars” – Stategic Defense Initiative) in the 1980s – “hawkish nuclear defense”. There were nuclear bombs before there was nuclear power. Sorry I didn’t make my frame of reference clear, but surely you’ve heard about Merchants and Doubt, The Republican War on Science, and the development of effective PR techniques, the likes of Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, et al. from tobacco, the cold war etc. and the genesis of the skillful disinformation campaign we all now face. Sadly these well-honed skills are preventing adequate measures to prevent further exploitation of our abused planet.

    You do seem to go off your otherwise sensible rails defending nuclear, but please make sure you aim your arrows at real targets.

    BTW, there is nothing good about coal, too, though our friends on the right would say the power we all use from it is good, and in some ways you (and I) would agree. Your defense of nuclear power addresses the same issues – where ARE we all going to get the massive and increasing amounts of power we have come to regard as our birthright?

    Don’t know if you’ll see this, but please consider what I might mean next time. I do get things wrong sometimes, but this wasn’t what you thought it was and I didn’t need the free but inaccurate analysis.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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