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Climate change: policy makers decide on the basis of unreadable summaries of IPCC reports

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A new study published Oct. 12 in the journal Nature Climate Change by an international team of researchers based at KEDGE Business School, University of Leeds, University of Bonn and University of Rome demonstrates that Summaries for Policymakers produced since 1990 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are too difficult to read.

The most accessible and widely read sections of the IPCC Assessment Report — the Summaries for Policymakers – should help governments frame effective laws to counter global warming. However, they continue to score poorly in terms of readability, according to new research published in Nature Climate Change. At the same time, the tone of scientific media and newspaper coverage of the reports has become increasingly negative. “Global action on climate change might be seriously hampered because policymakers would need the equivalent of a PhD in the subject to begin to make full sense of the IPCC reports” declares Ralf Barkemeyer, Associate Professor at KEDGE BS, who led the study.

The IPCC releases an Assessment Report every five years, with an accompanying Summary for Policymakers condensing the key details for a wider audience. In recent years, the IPCC has attempted to improve its communication strategies to overcome miscommunication of these high-profile reports. According to Ralf Barkemeyer, “if governments are not able to understand the scientific facts presented to them, how can they hope to reach consensus or joint decision?” Suraje Dessai, Professor at the University of Leeds, co-author of the study, added: “The IPCC was established to provide information on the global climate policy, but clearly he does not fulfill its mission when its summaries for policymakers are so illegible. It is failing in its task. “

The study produced a linguistic analysis summaries of IPCC Reports by applying readability metrics and comparing media coverage received by these reports in several tabloid (Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Sun) and quality newspapers (New York Times Washington Post, The Independent and The Times). The results show that as far as the information published by the IPCC in its summaries lost in readability, media representation that was made public by the press became more and more pessimistic, beyond that contained IPCC reports themselves, increasing the gap between scientists and non-scientists in their understanding of climate issues.

IPCC summaries are so difficult to understand that they can give rise to many different interpretations on the same point. They can easily be misinterpreted by climate change skeptics, for example. If these summaries were simpler and more accessible, the public could turn directly benefit to these documents and discover the true nature of the challenges”, concludes Ralf Barkemeyer.

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