What's in the latest IPCC report and how can journalists best cover it?31 August 2021
The world is warming, and humans are responsible.
The IPCC’s Working Group I report states this fact plainly, after years spent assessing over 14,000 scientific publications and receiving over 78,000 comments from scientists, expert reviewers and government officials around the world. This is as close to a consensus as the world can get on climate change science – and as the IPCC continues releasing reports throughout 2022, journalists will need to know how to use them to tell stories about climate change’s effects in their home communities.
Understanding an entity as large as the IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a feat of its own. In July, EJN held a webinar and released a tipsheet for journalists looking to learn more about the IPCC as an institution – how it operates, how reports come to be and how to cover them. You can watch the recording and read the tipsheet, a companion to this one, on our website.
For this second tipsheet, EJN once again hosted a webinar in partnership with the UN Foundation, this time with three IPCC experts: IPCC Vice-Chair Youba Sokona, Working Group I Vice-Chair Carolina Vera and Working Group I Report Co-Author Swapna Panickal. Together, they addressed the report’s key findings, the significance of those results and what comes next now that the report is published.
Looking ahead to the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow this November and further to the IPCC reports slated to be released in 2022, journalists will need a solid understanding of the Working Group I report in order to do their jobs. Keep reading to get started.
What story does this report tell?
“Reports give a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate,” Sokona said. “This is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done and how we can prepare.”
The Working Group I report – and the reports still to come – tell a story, Sokona said, one that can be captured with four key findings: The current state of the climate, an awareness of possible futures, the importance of risk assessment using the report’s data, and what can be done to limit climate change.
When it comes to evidence, the Working Group I report demonstrates just how much more we know than in the past. Scientists are better now at monitoring and observing climate conditions and their related effects, and that has led to improved modeling, which scientists use to predict what might happen based on historical data. More historical data means we have a better sense of what’s to come in the future and can create more accurate predictions.
Sokona also highlighted certain areas of the world where data is still limited – the African continent, for example. Journalists can play a key role in countries where climate data is difficult for the public to access or simply doesn’t exist. By calling attention to it in their stories, there’s a potential for impact.
All of the data comes together to show us a potential future for the world if we do nothing, while also indicating what kind of climate futures are still possible. Sokona said the insights shared in the report about the past, present and future can be used as tools for risk assessment by countries and communities looking to take action.
“Risk assessment is critical for regional adaptation in different contexts,” Sokona said. As governments begin developing strategies based on the IPCC reports’ data, journalists in these communities should be asking questions and holding them accountable.
The IPCC’s Working Group II and III reports will address climate impacts to date and options for limiting future climate change more than this first report, but those recommendations and strategies will be informed by the data presented in the Working Group I report.
“Based on the findings, if the world wants to keep the warming to [no more than] 1.5 [degrees Celsius] by the end of the century, it’s reachable if we have drastic mitigation,” Sokona said.
Without an immediate reduction in greenhouse gases, limiting average warming to 1.5 degrees will be out of reach, added Vera, Working Group I Vice-Chair.
What are the key highlights and findings in the report?
“We’ve known for decades that the world is warming,” Vera said. “But now we can see that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented.”
Vera said this evidence comes from a variety of sources:
- Carbon dioxide concentration is the highest it has been in at least 2 million years.
- In the last 100 years, mean sea level has risen more rapidly than it has in the last 3,000 years.
- The amount of summer Arctic sea ice is at the lowest level in at least 1,000 years.
- Glacial retreat is occurring at a rate unprecedented over the last 2,000 years, at least.
The numbers are concerning, and Vera said they have far-reaching consequences. The intensity and frequency of extreme heat events, heavy rainfall, drought and fire are all increasing.
Ocean warming and acidification are continuing to increase, and there’s also evidence that the ocean is losing oxygen, all of which could drastically hurt marine ecosystems and fisheries. Using the findings from this assessment, ocean journalists could explore the ways their local ecosystems and fishing industries are being affected and any mitigation strategies in place.
“These consequences of heat, rainfall and drought affect our whole planet – not just people, but plants, animals and agriculture,” Vera said. For example, the growing seasons for plants have been affected.
The report was able to identify human influence, through increased greenhouse gas emissions, as a driver for numerous changes, including: ocean acidification, sea level rise, reduction in sea ice, glacial retreat and more. Why does this matter? Mis- and disinformation about the effects of climate change – and its origins – continue to be spread across the world, and journalists, editors and media outlets can use the findings in this report to help counter that.
The changes explained in the report are happening everywhere, but affect regions and communities differently. To capture those differences, Vera said a third of the report is dedicated to regional information, another change from Working Group I reports in past assessments.
“This new regional information is intended to inform decisions related to risk management and adaptation,” Vera explained.
The report provides five distinct models for the future, based on high or low carbon dioxide emissions. If ‘very high’ emissions continue into the rest of the century, the world could warm to almost 5 degrees. On the other side of the scale, ‘very low’ emissions would keep warming below 1.5, with ‘low’ emissions below 2 degrees. With each step up on the scale, the intensity and frequency of the effects of climate change and global warming increase dramatically.
Panickal dived into how this warming actually works: Land warms faster than the ocean, and the polar regions are warming faster than those at the equator. This pattern helps explain why we are seeing intense glacial retreat and the melting of Arctic sea ice.
“As the planet warms, climate change does not unfold uniformly across the globe,” Panickal said. “We can see patterns of regional change.”
Changes to precipitation patterns will also come with increased warming, Panickal explained, although she said the data is more uncertain. Precipitation will increase in higher latitudes, monsoon regions and some parts of the equatorial Pacific. In other areas, such as the subtropics and tropics, precipitation will decrease.
For example, Panickal said, monsoons in Asia will see increasingly more changes as climate change progresses. In turn, that will affect flooding risks in cities and agriculture in rural areas and will require governments to build resilience plans – all story ideas for journalists to begin investigating.
“It is projected that by the end of the 21st century, both the South Asian and the East Asian monsoons will be [strong]er, but will have a lot of variability,” Panickal said. The timing and intensity of the season may shift, and there will be less consistency in addition to more severe storms.
Sea level rise is one of the major areas where adaptation is already needed – and in some places, already underway. Many island nations are working to relocate villages on their coasts as they struggle to deal with erosion, increased storm damage and more. Panickal said that by 2050, mean global sea level rise could increase by another 10 to 25 centimeters, whether or not greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.
“Sea level responds more slowly than other components of the climate system,” Panickal explained. “Even if we cut down the greenhouse gas emissions, sea level will continue to rise for centuries.”
So, what do we do with this information? Journalists in these regions should investigate strategies for managed retreat and relocation. Are governments on track to reach national and global climate goals? What are the challenges? What are communities' concerns? EJN members have produced several insightful, local stories on relocation, and there will be a lot more to be carried out around the world.
“The changes we experience will increase with further warming, and there is no going back,” Panickal said. “But we can limit them.”
What is coming next in global climate policy and how can journalists be prepared?
This report is the first of four: The reports from Working Group II (on impacts and adaptation) and Working Group III (on solutions and mitigation) will be released in early 2022, and then the Synthesis Report summarizing all of this cycle’s reports will come out later in the year. You can learn more about the IPCC’s process for releasing reports in our companion tipsheet, which explores the processes and systems used by the panel.
But in the immediate future, scientists and governments are looking to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November, which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland as a hybrid virtual-physical event. At COP26, governments will use IPCC science to inform negotiations on topics such as enhancing mitigation ambition, climate finance, and loss and damage. EJN will be hosting virtual press briefings for journalists around the world centered on COP26, and you can sign up to receive updates on those.
For Sokona, Vera and Panickal, the next steps are clear: Governments need to take immediate action to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Whether they do that, and how, will be key topics for journalists to cover in the coming months and years. Keep reading for some story ideas to get you started.
Example themes and story ideas
- The disproportionate impacts of climate change on certain regions and communities. Sokona discussed how certain parts of Africa (and other regions, such as the Arctic) have already reached 1.5 degrees of warming, despite global average temperatures still coming in below that. Yet, African countries consistently contribute a tiny fraction of the world’s carbon emissions. The same is true in the Pacific Islands: Despite small populations and low emissions, sea level rise is eating away at their homes already. Where are the vulnerable communities in your area? How are they being protected and prioritized (or not) by your government? What does the IPCC’s Interactive Atlas tool specify about your region, and what are local scientists saying about mitigation and adaptation efforts? Are there communities that are expected to become vulnerable as climate change increases, and do they have adequate information about the risks they may face? All of these questions and more are good starting places for journalists looking to tell locally relevant stories.
- How data is collected and shared in your community. Despite the robust nature of the IPCC report, there are regions of the world where climate data is either hard to find or not even collected. This can happen for many reasons – a country’s lack of scientific resources or political will, the science community’s focus on Western and/or high-income countries at the expense of others and more. Journalists can explore how these data transparency issues affect their communities by asking questions like: What are the gaps in local, regional or national climate data and are there people working to close them? Where is climate and environmental data held by the government stored? Is it publicly accessible, and do people know it’s there? What are the barriers or challenges preventing governments or scientists in a particular region from collecting data? How would conservation or climate initiatives be better implemented with improved data? How could the IPCC report data help fill some of these gaps or provide new avenues for people to access data?
- Risk assessment and the way governments plan for mitigation and adaptation. Climate risk assessment is a process where governments evaluate the risks facing certain communities in order to best implement adaptation strategies. As Vera and Sokona highlighted, one of the main reasons the IPCC’s Working Group I dedicated a third of their report to regional information was in order to assist governments in those assessments. Journalists can investigate if and how governments use the IPCC report in these processes, and how the data may improve the effectiveness of government climate plans. How does your government conduct risk assessments – if they do? How do the risk assessments work and are the results public information? How are these risks communicated to vulnerable communities, and are those communities involved in decision-making about adaptation and mitigation? What programs or initiatives currently in place could benefit from the increased regional data the report provides? What is your government’s plan for integrating the Working Group I’s (and subsequent reports’) findings into risk assessment or other climate mitigation and adaptation processes?
The Working Group I report:
Mainstream media coverage:
- Irreversible human-caused climate crisis threatens Pacific Island nations – Earth Journalism Network
- More fires and floods in a hotter world yet slim hope persists – Earth Journalism Network
- Three hopeful takeaways from the UN’s climate change report – National Public Radio
- What does the IPCC’s report mean for Australia and what we can expect in the future – The Guardian
- Humans have caused unprecedented and irreversible change to climate, scientists warn – The Guardian
- IPCC report warning: 4.5°C rise in Kolkata by century-end, rise in cyclones, sea level – Down to Earth
- Climate change: IPCC report is 'code red for humanity’ – BBC
- Hindukush Himalayas warming faster, says IPCC report – Greater Kashmir
- A global climate tipping point? Understanding the U.N. IPCC report – WBUR
- The language of climate change just changed in a major way – TIME Magazine
- A climate scientist’s top 5 takeaways from the latest IPCC climate report – Environmental Defense Fund
- Five things to watch for in the latest IPCC report on climate science – Inter Press Service