In a period troubled by COVID, the already difficult task of assembling a mammoth climate change report was made much harder.
The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released later today, is the product of more than four years’ work from hundreds of scientists and bureaucrats. Assembling a report like this is ordinarily no small undertaking, but during COVID lockdowns, it’s a labour borne of late-night Zoom calls and painstaking revision.
The latest report pulls together more than 34,000 recent scientific studies on climate change, reviews them, assesses their scientific merit, and draws conclusions about where we are, and where we are heading as climate change continues. It’s the sixth assessment report and this particular release is from Working Group II. The collection of 270 scientists and government delegations from around the world has provided their analysis of the “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” to climate change.
Initially, the government delegations nominate which topics they would like to see covered in the report and a skeleton outline of the report is assembled by consensus. From there, authors are recruited to the task. In assembling the authorship group, the IPCC considers representation of men, women, geographical spread, and expertise. A country that is a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is permitted to provide experts to contribute to a given chapter. Scientists self-nominate or are selected because of their experience. It is a prestigious role, and one with great responsibility. But one with huge demands.
The “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” report consists of 18 chapters. The specialist authors assigned to a chapter coordinate their smaller group to assess the science and produce the text. Within each chapter group, a few people are assigned to check in with other chapter groups to make sure their section does not overlap, and complements the other chapters. There are usually two ‘coordinating lead authors’ who take a leadership role in the process, while ‘lead authors’ do the bulk of the writing. ‘Contributing authors’ are called upon as necessary. They’re people with specific technical expertise who write a section on their area. Contributing authors don’t see the entire chapter, they just provide their input as requested.
The authors are heavily engaged on the project for the full four-plus years it takes to produce the report. COVID-19 has provided some extra challenges in the preparation of this report. Ordinarily, the authors meet in person several times to work on the report and overcome any sticking points. Working Group II did meet in Durban, South Africa, Faro, Portugal and Kathmandu, Nepal, but in the final two years of the assessment cycle, international travel has not been possible for many countries. Instead, the group, like so many other industries, has had to learn to work remotely.
The final step in the assembly of the report is the hardest. The thousands of pages of the report are condensed into a summary for policymakers (SPM). The summary is created with the expectation that policymakers might not have a chance to read the full report, so it needs to be an accurate reflection of the underlying report. It also needs a clear connection — ‘line of sight’ — to the full report, so that policymakers can delve deeper into a topic if they need to.
Around 50 scientists from the initial group are co-opted to the summary group. Then, in an online meeting of authors and government delegations lasting two weeks, each sentence of the Summary for Policymakers is read out and agreed to by consensus. When consensus is reached, the chair bangs a gavel and the sentence is turned green to signify its acceptance. Recreating the process of a live plenary over Zoom has significant challenges. There might be a split second between someone raising their hand for an objection and the gavel coming down. The split second might be a result of computer lag and so an IPCC legal officer needs to adjudicate on whether to hear the objection.
COVID has also made production of the report more difficult in the same way that COVID has challenged everyone. People becoming unwell, juggling caring responsibilities, or even professionals being pulled into COVID response teams has pulled focus from production of the report.
Even through the ravages of COVID, climate change remains a growing problem, and the report team remained committed to the task. The process is a co-production between a large group of government and scientific experts. Through many rounds of iterations, the report has been questioned, commented on, reviewed and refined. More than 62,000 review comments were received, with a single chapter receiving as many as 8,000 comments in a review round, each of which must be addressed.
Working Group I released its contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report on 9 August 2021. It assessed the scientific evidence for whether climate change is caused by humans (it is). Working Group III, looking at ways to prevent climate change from becoming worse, will release its report at the beginning of April.
The reports build upon previous versions. Over time, the message remains the same, but with increased certainty and urgency: climate change is an immediate threat to our planet, and our health. Preventing climate change from reaching 1.5°C is our best chance of staying safe. But with climate change already well advanced, learning to adapt to a climate changed world is becoming increasingly important.
Kathryn Bowen is Professor – Climate, Environment and Global Health, and deputy director, Melbourne Climate Futures at University of Melbourne. She is a lead author on chapter seven of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (Human health, wellbeing, and the changing structure of communities) and a lead author on the Summary for Policymakers.