Saturday, February 14, 2015

Communication control

The reports of the IPCC are complex and voluminous; there are three working groups each publishing one report. And on top of this is a synthesis report, 'distilling and integrating' the findings from the three separate reports. How to make sense of this all? And, perhaps more importantly, how to communicate this to the public? Well, one way is to put it out there and see what happens. Commentators from the media, interest groups and politics will pick out their favourite bits and praise or damn the message they think they see. Scientists may enter the discussion, even scientists who have participated in the production of the reports.

Another way of proceeding is trying to control the debate, or at least steer it into a certain direction. The IPCC has partly attempted this through concise summary of all reports, known as summary for policy makers (SPM).  These are aiming at selecting the most important findings to their political masters, as per the IPCC's function: "Because of its scientific and intergovernmental nature, the IPCC embodies a unique opportunity to provide rigorous and balanced scientific information to decision makers. By endorsing the IPCC reports, governments acknowledge the authority of their scientific content. The work of the organization is therefore policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive."

Yet despite the provision of SPMs, there is still a lack of control over the ensuing public debate. The IPCC does not have an information office that would comment in real time, on arguments raised about its reports. This means after the publication of these reports and SPM the reports are out in the wild, so to speak, with little control over the impact of any intended message or meaning (assuming there is one). The IPCC has gone halfway to control the process by using press releases which summarize the SPM still further. However, once in the public all IPCC communications are in the hands of its readers and users. The control of intended meaning fades away. Who would be an uncontested authority to interpret the whole oeuvre?

Leo Hickman has just published a paper in Nature Climate Change addressing this issue (here behind a paywall). He thinks that in an age of internet online communication the IPCC needs to catch up. Its reporting system was fit for purpose until the Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007. But since then the rise of social media have changed the communication environment and the IPCC should take note and immerse itself in it. He lists three ways to do this:

First, the IPCC must be available online 24/7 to respond to queries and rebut misinformation. As the IPCC saw during 2009–2010, with the rumbling affair caused by the theft of private emails between climate scientists from servers at the University of East Anglia, UK, dubbed ‘Climategate’,  (mis)information moves fast in the online world, so immediate and authoritative responses are required. Practically, this could be achieved by developing a rota of IPCC co-chairs and lead authors who take charge of particular social media channels for short periods of time. 

Second, these IPCC representatives must receive social media training. Scientists are not trained communicators, and social media is a different beast from (the perhaps more familiar) legacy media. Nonetheless, some scientists and scientific organizations have proved themselves effective social media communicators, and this expertise is valuable to the scientific community as a whole. 

Third, any IPCC representative must actively engage in dialogue through these Web 2.0 channels. It is not enough to publish IPCC reports online and then sit back and expect the wider world to read them in their entirety. And likewise, although the IPCC Youtube channel and its various social media accounts are welcome developments, they are largely run as passive one-to-many engagement exercises. A fully engaged and active IPCC Communications Strategy would see the IPCC scheduling regular interactive sessions on online platforms such as Google Hangouts, Reddit AMAs (ask me anything) and even its own website in which co-chairs and lead authors are available to field queries. A published calendar of such events could cover a wide range of specialisms and areas within climate science. 

These events should happen throughout the IPCC cycle, not just when a report is released. Last, the IPCC as an institution should re-evaluate its Communication Strategy to fully account for its audiences. It is a mistake to think that the audience is largely limited to policymakers — a cursory glance at both legacy and social media coverage of AR5 indicates that the IPCC engages diverse audiences. 

My take on this ambivalent. On the one hand I applaud attempts to make science more accessible and communicate it in a clearer way, to wider audiences than policy-makers. On the other hand, the dangers of further scientization of the climate debate are clearly visible. Those scientists with an ability to engage in such environment would dominate and there is no accountability. Would thousands of contributing scientists be happy that a small online team operates the front desk, ultimately defining what the IPCC *really* has to say?


Warren Pearce said...

Interesting, thanks. IPCC comms strategy says that communications "should reflect the language that has been subject to the IPCC's review process..."

You say "would thousands of contributing scientists be happy that a small online team operates the front desk". Well, they probably would be up to a point. After all, the massive reports already get boiled down to media-friendly bullet points by the IPCC. Social media probably wouldn't look much different.

BUT the tone/style would be a different matter. We've seen climate scientists get involved in social media debates employing a wide variety of styles...with a wide variety of results (and aims, probably). That's fine for individual scientists, and most of them probably use the IPCC as a reference point at some point. But what would be gained by the IPCC getting involved on that level?

Anonymous said...

I do agree with the comments of Warren, but lack one important aspect - e.g. Michael Oppenheimer has stated, the IPCC would probably better of if the IPCC would NOT communicate with the general public at all. There are various examples of "Fachbehörden" that do work along this line, and they have some advantages in efficency and impact. Regards Friedrich Heckmann