Complex language stalling global efforts on climate change


publication date 05/12/2016

Global action on climate change is being hindered because reports issued by the world’s leading body of advisors are too hard to understand.
Publication of International researchers

An international team of researchers from France, the UK, Germany and Italy has recently published the results of a sentiment analysis of Summaries for Policymakers (SPMs) issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These SPMs are published roughly every five years to accompany the panel’s full assessment reports on climate change, and drawn up via a complex drafting process involving scientists, government delegations and observers. The IPCC’s remit is to synthesise and communicate the current state of climate research to non-scientific audiences at all levels. As such, it is crucial that non-specialists (such as policymakers or the news media) are able to understand the information that is provided by the IPCC.
However, the analysis shows that policymakers would need the equivalent of a PhD in the subject to begin to make full sense of the reports. Readability of SPMs remains very low despite the IPCC’s efforts to consolidate and readjust its communication policy, and are in stark contrast to scientific and quality newspaper coverage on the topic, which has become increasingly readable and emotive. This is very relevant for climate policy, and more generally since the IPCC – through the SPMs they issue – can be seen as the main communication interface between climate science and international climate policy.

The findings highlight the benefits that could be achieved by making SPMs more accessible to non-scientific audiences. They also provide further evidence that the mainstreaming of climate change is likely to exacerbate this mismatch between scientific and public or popular understandings of climate-related issues: in recent years, the climate change-related news has moved beyond the science niche towards headline news, leading to a more emotive and opinionated coverage in popular media. Thus, there is an even greater need for the IPCC to communicate its research findings in a way that non-scientific audiences (including the news media as transmitters) can understand them.

Barkemeyer R., Dessai S., Monge-Sanz B., Renzi B.G., Napolitano G. (2016). Linguistic analysis of IPCC summaries for policymakers and associated coverage. Nature Climate Change, 6(3), 311-316.