Turning global climate science into local stories: How to cover the IPCC’s Working Group I report05 August 2021
In 1988, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. Its initial task: To prepare a comprehensive review of the state of knowledge on climate change and the social and economic impacts of that science, and to present this review to policymakers around the world to help them develop informed climate policies.
Thirty-three years on, the IPCC has produced five of these Assessment Reports, known as ARs, and many other special reports in between. We’re currently in the sixth cycle. The first part of AR6, known as the Working Group I (WGI) report, is set to be released this August.
But the actual role and functioning of the IPCC can be a mystery to those unfamiliar with it, including journalists, who are responsible for covering the contents of these reports and distilling their complex information into relevant stories for their local audiences. So, how can journalists do that most effectively, particularly with the upcoming WGI report? To answer that question, EJN convened three IPCC and journalism experts in July 2021 and turned the key lessons from their conversation into this guide.
Read on for insights and recommendations from IPCC experts and senior journalists on the best way to take the report's exploration of global climate science and use it to produce engaging, local stories for your audiences and communities. Although this resource specifically focuses on WGI, the advice will continue to be relevant as the rest of AR6 (and future reports) are released in early 2022.
What is the role of the IPCC, and why is it significant?
“In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a growing awareness among scientists about climate change,” explains Jonathan Lynn, the IPCC’s head of communications and media relations. "There was so much science being published about it that it was impossible for any one government to keep on top of it all.”
To fill that gap, UNEP and WMO created the IPCC. 195 member states participate by sending delegates to regular plenary sessions, where they decide what reports should be written, evaluate the IPCC’s budget, elect scientists for each new assessment cycle and more. You can learn more about the full structure of the IPCC on their website.
Essentially, the IPCC’s job is to evaluate the state of science: “This is what we know, and this is what we don’t know,” Lynn said, explaining that the reports are designed to include both areas where scientists agree and where they disagree or where there is not yet enough scientific information.
He offered another key clarification on the IPCC’s role: “The IPCC doesn’t do original research,” Lynn said. “We’re an assessment body.” That means the IPCC is tasked with combining existing climate science into larger reports.
The institution is also neutral, Lynn explains. The reports are not designed to tell governments or people what they should do, but instead to provide information and options so that policymakers working on climate issues can be as well-informed as possible.
The reason the IPCC remains such a significant player in the world of climate policy is because there is buy-in from both scientists and governments around the world. Its status as an independent and objective body allows policymakers and scientists to effectively work together to approve and disseminate the reports.
“That’s what makes IPCC reports so powerful,” Lynn adds. “They're endorsed not just by the scientific community, but also all the world’s governments stand behind them as well.”
What is the upcoming Working Group I report and what will it contain?
The Working Group I report only covers the physical science of climate change, rather than providing solutions or strategies for governments. Working Group II looks more deeply at the impacts of that science, the people and places that are most vulnerable and possible adaptation strategies. Working Group III focuses specifically on mitigation – how we can prevent the effects described in the first two reports.
After all three are released by early 2022, later in the year there will also be a Synthesis Report, which integrates the findings from the three Working Group reports and the additional special reports into one cohesive document. For a detailed timeline on when each component will be released, please read the IPCC’s AR6 factsheet.
More than 200 scientific authors contributed to just the Working Group I report, which contains more than 14,000 citations. In order to ensure that the report truly represents the scientific consensus on climate change, there is an exhaustive review process. For WGI alone, that process generated more than 78,000 review comments from hundreds of additional scientists, governments and expert reviewers. For context, most peer-reviewed scientific papers only receive two or three comments.
This process creates an incredibly comprehensive document, and Lynn said he believes this report “will be a real wake-up call” for people, demonstrating the severity of climate change and its cascading impacts.
Within WGI, there are 12 chapters focused on everything from the water cycle and sea level rise to extreme weather events and global carbon emissions.
Notably, there are also several components that are completely new this year and were not present in past IPCC reports:
- Human influence on the climate system: Chapter 3 of the report focuses on what we know about humanity’s impact on our planet’s climate system and how we determine the difference between human influence and natural variability.
- Attribution science and extreme events: Chapter 11 of the report focuses on attribution science, or how scientists attribute certain extreme events to climate change or not. For example, determining whether – and to what extent – a flooding event was caused or worsened by climate change.
- Regional information and data: Throughout the entire report, there is a new focus on regional information and data. Lynn said the reason for this new direction comes down to relevance: If policymakers have more robust data about their regions, they can make better decisions and create better policies.
“What we’re trying to do in this report is bring the knowledge about the changing climate down from the global level to the regional level,” Lynn adds. “That is the level that is so much more useful to policymakers.”
The new report aims to bridge the global-regional divide with a new interactive tool, called the Interactive Atlas. Keep reading to learn more.
What is the new Interactive Atlas tool being prepared by the IPCC and how can journalists best use it?
In the past, IPCC reports have contained a printed atlas. The online, interactive nature of this Interactive Atlas is completely new. It is a novel digital tool for flexible spatial and temporal analyses of the climate change information provided by WGI, both current data and future projections. It’s designed to be both temporal (time-based) and spatial (location-based) so users can evaluate historical observed data and future climate change projections. The Atlas also includes information on how both will impact specific regions.
That means policymakers, journalists and the public can access the Atlas and view maps, charts and other data on specific regional areas and during specific timeframes. Once the tool is publicly available, users will be able to create a map to evaluate sea level rise in Asia over the last century, for instance, or look at annual precipitation data for the Middle East now and into the future.
For journalists, this tool will be invaluable – you will be able to review specific data about your region and delve into the trends scientists have forecast for the next 10 or 20 years. Access to this information will help you better understand climate science; including this data in stories about climate change will boost your reporting’s impact and credibility.
José M. Gutiérrez, an IPCC Co-Lead Author and one of the Atlas’ developers, gave attendees a sneak peek of the tool during EJN’s webinar in July. Using the tool’s interface, users will be able to select the dataset they want, the variables, the time period and even the season. Then, by clicking on certain regions, more specific information relevant to that area will be displayed.
“Reproducibility is a major focus of this assessment cycle,” Gutiérrez said. “Since we are providing data that is produced from data … we wanted to have all the steps well documented and available so others can produce the same information that we have done just by checking our information. Everything is public, available, and reproducible.”
The tool contains predefined regions rather than country parameters, and there’s a reason for that, Gutiérrez said. Because the WGI report focuses solely on the physical science behind climate change, the regions were selected based on the scientific literature, not international borders. Users have access to four main views: Global, continental regions like Asia, Africa and Europe, major river basins, and finally the thematic regions created by the Atlas developers.
“We don’t allow aggregated information for customized regions or countries, as this is not the remit of the Working Group I report,” Gutiérrez said. “We rely on regions where the regional information makes sense and can be obtained reliably with links to the literature.”
Once the Interactive Atlas is released, Gutiérrez said it will be “frozen” – meaning that, until later IPCC cycles review additional scientific data, it will not be updated with new findings. However, it will remain live for users to browse existing information.
“There will be a live version, not the IPCC version, but a live one,” Gutiérrez said. “The live version will pave the way for the next cycle, so the next team will have resources and won’t need to start from scratch.”
Visit the Interactive Atlas Github page for more information.
How can journalists make the report’s findings useful and relevant on the ground?
With the IPCC’s new focus on regional data, journalists will have more to work with as they report on the release of the WGI report and its relevance to their local communities. But how do you make a long scientific report interesting to your audience – and your editors?
Expert climate journalist and media trainer Imelda Abaño joined our July webinar to discuss her career covering UN climate talks and past IPCC assessment reports, and to offer advice to journalists preparing for WGI’s release. Abaño is EJN’s Content Coordinator for the Philippines and Pacific and works with journalists daily to report on environmental issues in these regions.
“Every newsroom, media outlet and journalist will be expected to report on this comprehensive stock-taking of what we know about how climate change could hit humanity,” Abaño began.
Her first piece of advice? “Learn the science,” she said. In order to write an engaging story – and convince your editors that they should run it – journalists will need to understand the basic science behind climate change and the way it affects their communities. The Interactive Atlas tool and regional information sections of the written report will be important tools for reporters to gain that scientific knowledge.
“Climate science is a very difficult and technical topic to communicate to a non-specialist audience,” Abaño said. “Journalists turn these reports into language most people will understand without harming the science.”
But Abaño also said it’s not enough to know the science: Journalists also need to understand how that science affects every possible beat across journalism – health, finance, politics, sports, human rights, energy, water, development, lifestyle, food and more.
“We need to report what’s relevant to our countries and our communities around us,” Abaño said. “Use different angles and sources. Remember that climate change is not just an environment or science story.”
She also highlighted the importance of avoiding sensationalism: Don’t attribute a single event, like a cyclone, to climate change without doing your research and listening to the scientists. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme events, but that is not enough to infer direct causation or attribution. Don’t take the science out of context or assume you can apply it differently than the report does. Instead, speak with experts to understand potential linkages and read the full report.
Covering the solutions to climate change can be a good way to bring the global science home to a local audience. What initiatives or policies are local communities developing in order to mitigate or adapt to climate change’s effects? How could a story of success in one place provide lessons for other regions dealing with similar issues? These are only some of the questions journalists can explore in their reporting.
Journalists interested in learning more about solutions journalism can reach out to the Solutions Journalism Network, an organization dedicated to promoting this type of reporting. Here at EJN, we are eager to support journalists who are covering climate and environmental solutions, so check our open grant opportunities and send in a pitch. You can also read our tipsheet about solutions journalism for more story examples.
Where can journalists find more information about the IPCC and the upcoming report’s findings?
The IPCC website contains past ARs and special reports, information about authors and sourcing, summaries for policymakers, timelines and outlines, factsheets for journalists, press releases and more. Much of the content is translated into the United Nations’ official languages: Chinese, Russian, French, Spanish and Arabic, in addition to English, and links to some key pages can be found in the section below on further reading.
Another place to access resources relevant to global climate change and policy is the UNFCCC website, Abaño said. The UNFCCC – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – is the parent treaty of the Paris Agreement. Their website has information about regional climate weeks, national adaptation plans, the COP26 climate conference and more.
Background on the IPCC:
- The history of the IPCC
- The structure of the IPCC
- How IPCC reports are prepared
- What is an expert reviewer?
- How does the IPCC select its authors?
- What literature does the IPCC assess?
The lists of authors for each AR6 working group:
Resources for understanding the WGI report:
- Media essentials
- The WGI blog site
- Factsheet about the AR6 report
- Blog post from the UN Foundation about the report
Mainstream media articles on the IPCC:
- How the IPCC reaches scientific consensus on climate change – The Conversation
- What to expect from the next major global climate report – Scientific American
- Climate scientists meet as floods, fires, droughts and heat waves batter countries – NPR
- Researchers begin discussions on vital report – The BBC
- Do leaked climate reports help or hurt public understanding of global warming? – Inside Climate News
- Leaked UN draft report warns of accelerating climate devastation – Al Jazeera
Banner image: An illustration of Australia’s Great Sandy Desert / Credit: USGS on Unsplash.