Constructing the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Today (November 2 2014), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the Synthesis Report, which is the final installment of the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC. The Synthesis Report was adopted after an extensive review process, which culminated in a plenary session that took place in Copenhagen from October 26 to November 1 2014 (see photo above). The outcome is a concise overview of the causes and impacts of climate change, as well as possibilities for adaptation and mitigation. Please refer to the IPCC website for a PDF of the Synthesis Report.

The review and adoption of the Synthesis Report took place during the aforementioned plenary session in Copenhagen, which was attended by scientists and government representatives from 115 countries, as well as authors and supporting staff of the IPCC. The aim of IPCC plenaries is to review and adopt IPCC reports in a transparent manner, e.g. by providing opportunities for governments to give feedback on drafts of reports. The intended outcome is a policy-relevant document that addresses climate change in a topical manner, is adopted by all countries involved, and acts as an international benchmark for subsequent research on climate change and climate-related policymaking.

In practice, this means that agreements are established through negotiations where diverging interest meet and agreements can be produced, often in the form of compromises. In the following, I give an example of such a process of negotiation that features diverging perspectives and extensive use of information graphics. What partially compatible interests did these negotiations feature, and how did the parties involved reach an agreement? I address these questions by drawing on personal experiences as a member of the delegation that represented the Netherlands during the plenary session. The following expresses my personal views and is not meant to be representative of the view of the Dutch government.

Representing the global impacts of climate change

Synthesis Report figure SPM.4 original

During the plenary session, the figure above was presented for consideration to the countries present. The figure locates observed impacts of climate change on geographical locations. The impacts in question can be attributed to climate change with varying levels of confidence (see the explanation of attribution in the lower-left corner). Attribution turned out to be the subject of much debate. Impacts that cannot be attributed to climate change in a ‘scientifically acceptable’ manner (i.e. being up to par with the scientific standards upheld by the IPCC) are not included in the figure. Several countries from Africa, Latin America and South America proposed to customize and even remove the figure, since they observed large gaps between the figure and ‘reality’. One delegation remarked that the figure is also representative of differences in the availability of funds for scientific research: since developed countries have more resources to do research on the extent to which impacts can be attributed to climate change, this also leads to a higher chance of successful attributions of impacts to climate change and a larger number of attributed impacts included on the figure.

These concerns are understandable because the figure represents an extremely important aspect of climate governance, namely the extent to which climate change already had a negative impact. Although attribution is addressed in the caption of the figure, it is conceivable that a figure like this takes on a life of its own. It will probably be widely shared, and attribution might not be taken into account when the figure is shared. Rather, the figure is likely to act as an exhaustive representation, due to the perceived authority of the IPCC. Attribution of observed impacts is based on available scientific literature, which is evaluated on the basis of scientific criteria upheld by the IPCC. The authors of the figure stress that their work had already been approved during the 38th plenary session of the IPCC in Yokohama in March 2014. According to its authors, the figure is a “major advancement”, and is representative of global impacts that can be reliably attributed to climate change. This is meant to provide a scientific basis to advocate for adaptation and mitigation. What is more, the figure can also provide insight into topics that need to be studied more extensively, and the geographical areas where more work on the impact of climate change needs to be done. In other words, the figure has an illustrative role, but also an epistemic one as an articulation of knowledge gaps.

One delegation proposed to update the caption of the figure by adding a sentence stating that an impact missing on the map does not mean that this impact in question has nothing to do with climate change. After more negotiations, the following caption is proposed:

Figure SPM.4: Widespread impacts in a changing climate: Based on studies since the AR4, global patterns of impacts in recent decades attributed to climate change. Symbols indicate categories of attributed impacts, the relative contribution of climate change (major or minor) to the observed impact, and confidence in attribution. Locations without symbols may be affected by climate change impacts that have not yet been detected and attributed to climate change. See WGII SPM Table SPM.A1 for descriptions of the impacts.

Still, the aforementioned explanation and proposed caption do not really advance the discussion. One group of delegations emphasizes the importance of displaying impacts that can be legitimately attributed to climate change. Others stress that the average policymaker will literally see the figure as a representation of impacts of climate change. In short, one group emphasizes the quality of the scientific process that led to the figure, the other group reasons from the perspective of policymakers, and how the latter will approach the figure. Once again, the authors emphasize the importance of the scientific process underlying the figure, which is able to convey the fact that there are indeed global impacts that can be attributed to climate change, and that climate change is no longer a hypothetical problem.

Synthesis Report figure SPM.4 revised

The day after the foregoing events transpired, an agreement has been reached in the form of a new figure (see above). Due to the political sensitivity of the figure and the resistance encountered by its authors, a different design was chosen as an alternative. The map no longer actually functions as a map, but rather a collection of icons that represent observed impacts, which are displayed in a box that has the continent in question as a backdrop. However, the actual location of the observed impacts is now no longer represented. The new design couples observed impacts to entire continents, causing the observed impacts to lose geographic specificity. In other words, whereas the previous figure allowed the coupling of an observed impact to a specific region, the current figure is more like a list. The graphical representation of the continents has become a background, and now only provides general information about the location of observed impacts. Thus, content present in the previous version of the figure – the explicit information about the geographic specificity of observed impacts – is now (literally) wiped off the map. That said, the new figure includes a hint towards the process of attribution that was not included in the previous version: the numbers at the bottom of the boxes of each continent indicate the number of references on which the attribution of observed impacts for that continent is based.

The boundaries of paper

The figures discussed above feature information about attribution and information about impacts. The density of information appears to be rather large. The borders of the paper format have been reached. The figure concerns information that can be represented more appropriately in another form. A digital and interactive map that allows users to zoom in and out seems an option worth investigating. Such a digital maps could also feature multiple layers of information: the data of the IPCC on observed impacts could be one layer, similar data from other parties (such as national governments and NGOs) could be used to construct another layer. Such a digital map could be a future product of the IPCC, since it allows data related to observed impacts to be explored in a manner that does not easily reach the boundaries of the paper format. When both data and methods are made transparent, this can foster acceptance and lead to insight into the areas where additional research needs to be done.