27th June 2017

IPCC must address ‘language barrier’ between climate science and sustainability

EXCLUSIVE: The fight against climate change is being hindered by a gap in culture and language between the science and sustainability communities, which is leading to a disengagement over climate action, a leading academic on the subject has told edie.

An IPCC meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, earlier this year. The University of Surrey has been working to empower the organisation to work closer with climate practitioners. Photo: IPCC/Facebook

An IPCC meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, earlier this year. The University of Surrey has been working to empower the organisation to work closer with climate practitioners. Photo: IPCC/Facebook

Dr Candice Howarth, a senior lecturer in sustainability and climate communication at the University of Surrey, is calling for a more joined up approach between fellow academics, policymakers and practitioners such as sustainability consultancies to produce coherent reports that can accelerate progress towards climate adaptation.

“The gap between science and practitioners encompasses a number of issues – more specifically culture, language, communication, process and evidence,” Howarth said. “Language and communication are important issues, particularly in terms of use of scientific jargon or over-simplifications of science at the expense of scientific robustness.

“This often leads to extended scientific explanations of the issue which leads to disengagement. Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, to over-simplifications which can undermine the underlying complexities of responses to climate change leading to potential rebound effects.”

Practical approach

Howarth recently led a research project examining the work of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the world’s leading authority on climate science – to empower it to work closer with the decision-makers who are ‘on the ground’ developing projects to mitigate climate impacts.

The research concluded that IPCC’s outputs, such as its ‘Working Group II’ report on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, should incorporate more practitioners as authors so that scientific studies more accurately reflect the evidence based on climate adaptation on the ground.

“The process of designing, delivering and communicating work on climate responses differs amongst science and practitioner communities, with different outputs produced,” Haworth added. “Scientists rely heavily on methodological development to ensure rigour and a robust approach and are funded to do so as part of longer projects, whereas practitioners will experience higher degrees of pressure to deliver within shorter timescales, which could compromise methodologies which the science community would argue are fundamental to the work.”

The University of Surrey’s research project, which had input of Mott MacDonald, the University of Leeds, University College London and Anglia Ruskin University, is recommending that a new research body is created, attached to the IPCC, to analyse and report on best-practice to tackle climate change.

‘Period of change’

Specifically, Howarth would like to see a practitioner-led IPCC Special Report developed, showcasing real-world examples of business climate action and providing much-needed guidance on best and worst practice when it comes to adapting to the impacts of climate change. “This would enable a more granular and local perspective on responses to climate change, which is currently lacking in the IPCC’s Working Group II report,” she added.

And, given the current uncertainty surrounding the environmental fallout of key political issues such as the US presidency of Donald Trump – who has singled out the IPCC as an organisation from which he wants to cut funding – Horwath is keen for the IPCC to be strengthened to ensure its scientific work is more directly useful to decision-makers working on climate adaptation at the national, regional and local levels.

“The world is currently experiencing a period of change which, if anything is bringing important issues such as climate change to the forefront and reinforcing the widespread, global concern and imperative for action,” she said.

“The IPCC provides a very useful and used mechanism through which evidence is brought together – our paper aims to contribute to the conversation on how the role of the IPCC could be improved going forward to align with the needs of decision-makers on the ground, bearing in mind the continuously evolving political context.”


Sustainability megatrends: Climate change

edie is running a series of thought-leadership pieces that provide an overview of the environmental and social impacts of some of the world’s biggest megatrends; exploring how they are helping to shape the low-carbon, resource-efficient business of the future.

The series, which will be discussed in more detail at edie Live 2017, began with The Climate Group’s Mike Peirce exploring how climate change is radically changing the way we do business. Read the full megatrends series here


Luke Nicholls

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