Weaving the Narrative of Climate Change: The Process Behind the IPCC 5th Assessment Report

The 5th Assessment Report from the International Panel on Climate Change represents an example of broad scientific collaboration.

From a presentation on “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Volume I.” Image Credit: IPCC Working Group 2, AR5.

From a presentation on “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Volume I.” Image Credit: IPCC Working Group 2, AR5.

In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released the final draft of its 5th Assessment Report (AR5): Working Group III, “Mitigation of Climate Change.” The final Synthesis Report, incorporating all three Working Groups, is to be published in October. Each section of AR5 represents extensive collaboration unique in the scientific community. For example, the 30 chapters of Working Group II: Impacts, Assessment, and Vulnerability, released in March, involved 243 lead authors from more than 70 countries and 436 additional contributing authors from more than 50 countries. It was reviewed by more than 1,000 experts in relevant fields.

While many scientists periodically collaborate with colleagues in comparable fields for a project, the size and breadth of international scope of the IPCC partnership is unusual in science, or in any domain for that matter. In an interview with Earthzine, Dr. Christopher Field, co-chair of Working Group II (WGII), offered some perspective.

Coordinating the Report

“I can’t think of any other aspect of science where there’s this level of commitment to comprehensive evaluation of the science and this kind of co-ownership of the process by the governments and the scientists,” Field said.

“The key challenge in an endeavor with so many participants is to weave a single, coherent narrative from the varied skies of contributed information. The desire is for chapters to represent “community products and not products of a few individuals.”

“It really is a challenge for people to kind of step away from their personal perspective and their personal scientific perspective and take this big picture approach,” Field said. “So we spend a lot of time … coaching people about how to do that.”

The process of writing collaboratively, Field explained, is far different from the process that goes into writing an individual research paper. The IPCC’s ability to overcome the challenges inherent to a gargantuan group project is determined by two main factors: a clear organizational structure and the commitment of its volunteer authors, contributors and reviewers.

Sometimes it can be difficult to communicate the level of commitment required to authors who have not participated in a previous report, but the organizational set-up of the Working Group helps to provide structure for the process as well as guidance for the writers themselves.

Each chapter within the Working Group has one to three coordinating lead authors. Coordinating lead authors are responsible for aligning the chapter with a broader vision for the report outlined by previous IPCC meetings.

Along with the coordinating lead authors, most chapters also designate between five to eight lead authors. The lead authors attend author meetings and help maintain a clear narrative for the chapter. Many lead authors also directly contribute to text, taking primary responsibility for multiple pages.

The work of the lead authors is augmented by up to 20 additional contributing authors. The contributing authors are experts within a specific field who offer their topic-specific knowledge on a portion of the text. If accepted, these contributions are then reviewed, modified, and melded into the report as a whole.

Logistics of the coordinating process are overseen by a volunteer chapter scientist. The volunteer chapter scientist is often either a postdoctoral or Ph.D. student based in the same country as one of the coordinating authors. Field describes their role as “[the person who] turned the crank to make sure that things came in on time, that people understood the formatting for the references, that references didn’t get lost and that we handled the operation details.”

Finally, there is a technical support group that facilitates communication between group members, such as helping to arrange conference calls. For Working Group two of AR5, the technical support team was based as Carnegie Institution for Science.

A Volunteer Effort

The production of an IPCC report is fundamentally the work of volunteers. The scientists who donate their time usually continue to conduct their own work during the production of the report. Therefore, time committed to the project must be squeezed into weekends and evenings. Yet although there is a high level of obligation associated with participating in a Working Group of an IPCC report, there are rewards as well.

“It is really valuable as scientists to make this investment in figuring out what we know and what we don’t know, but it also is really satisfying in a sense that people feel like they’re contributing to something that has a chance to make a difference…. You really get to do what scientists like to do: figure out where we are in the development of a deep understanding of an important topic,” Field said.

Unsurprisingly, the process of producing a report provides an opportunity for learning to those who are involved. Field explains:

“It is really valuable as scientists to make this investment in figuring out what we know and what we don’t know, but it also is really satisfying in a sense that people feel like they’re contributing to something that has a chance to make a difference.”

The difference that the IPCC report hopes to make is to promote knowledgeable decision-making by providing an extensively evaluated and carefully reviewed statement from the global scientific community. Policymakers are confronted with a wide spectrum of responses to climate change, from adaptation to mitigation and incremental to transformative in approach. The purpose of the IPCC reports is not promote to one approach over, but rather to provide an overview of the latest information available so that policymakers have the ability to make well-informed decisions in determining responses to climate change. Dr. Field describes the function of the IPCC as “to present science that’s policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive.”

Lessons for the Future

The reports are intended to inform everyone from individual members of the public to governments and firms in a way that is relevant and useful.  Having well-informed decision-makers is likely to be increasingly important in the future.  The Summary for Policy Makers of “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis” the portion of the 5th Assessment Report released last year, states: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

Figure SPM.3 (b), Credit: Twelfth Session of Working Group 1, Summary for Policymakers, 2013 p.29

Figure SPM.3 (b), Credit: Twelfth Session of Working Group 1, Summary for Policymakers, 2013 p.29

These changes have a broad range of projected impacts for ecology, economies, and public health and safety. The extent and rate of change anticipated to occur over the next century may be unprecedented, but the nature of the changes themselves is not, and Dr. Field sees this as a reason to believe that humans have the ability to cope with the changes to come.

“I don’t actually think it’s right that climate change is an overwhelming problem. What we see is that climate change has complicated aspects, but the fact that it’s really closely related to problems that we deal with every day, decisions we make every day as individuals or communities, really does mean that we can begin to build smart decisions about climate into smart decisions about the future.”

For Field, this means that the core message of the IPCC assessment report is that society has the tools necessary to address climate change, but in order to use these tools effectively we need to utilize this information the same way that information is utilized to plan for uncertain future conditions in other sectors, such as the financial market or international security.

“We just need to recognize that the information’s there, that it has value, and there’s smart things we can do in order to build on that information.”