The book Because IPCC was produced to fill a gap. So few people know what the IPCC is even though what they accomplished is one of the greatest scientific achievements ever to influence public policies all over the world. If hardly anyone recognized those four letters IPCC then it’s a good bet even fewer grasped the amazing lengths that IPCC scientists go to, or the unprecedented level of consensus they achieve. IPCC, by the way, stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The Importance of Story
Early in the Because IPCC book project the writers needed to know what was going to be covered. Their assignment was to spin a story that could carry the facts, without being just a dry recounting of the facts.
The story they chose was to set Because IPCC one hundred years in the future and imagine that the climate crisis had been brought under control, which isn’t quite the same as “solved.” This and the school setting had the combined benefits of taking a positive spin on climate change plus allowing the unspooling of all those facts to appear more normal as a classroom lesson.
The challenge of avoiding having almost every frame depict the teacher droning on in a monologue was one thing. Another was the fact that so much of the work of the IPCC is done by individuals sitting at their computers or at plenary meetings of various sizes. None of these images were going to make for very compelling visuals in a graphic novel.
Luckily the scientists who volunteer with the IPCC also lead exciting lives away from their computers and plenary meetings. The book uses a few research locales such as glaciers, forests and coral reefs to liven up the action and scenery as the fictional researchers explain what so few people know about the IPCC process.
With a storyline to carry the facts, we had to boil down the facts. This came down to three broad categories
- A little history on the IPCC,
- A review of the scientific method and peer review, and
- The rigour that each IPCC report goes through
A Brief History of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Explaining some of the history of the IPCC seemed like a prerequisite to the science itself, and the process, because the IPCC didn’t just pop out of nowhere. It has some serious cred and an impressive track record.
For years scientists had been meeting at international scientific conferences and discussing climate change (or in those days also often called “global warming” or “the greenhouse effect”). The conclusions of these conferences were that a human caused changing climate was a real potential threat. When concern and political pressure rose, the international community of governments represented by the UN agreed to form the IPCC in 1988.
It was established with the explicit support of the US. Some say that this was because the Regan administration wanted to ensure that a small group of concerned scientists didn’t steer the agenda.
Scientists and government representatives from countries all over the world were expected to come to consensus. The global scope of the effort was a disadvantage for action in that it was so unwieldy, but because the threat did prove to be real, the resulting global consensus became undeniable.
The whole point of the IPCC was to provide governments with the facts of climate science so those governments could govern responsibly. The IPCC’s role wasn’t necessarily to communicate it’s findings to the general public.
To date, as of 2020, they’ve written five major summary reports and a dozen special reports. The 4th summary report won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007
Their very first report prompted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC) which was agreed to at the 1992 Earth Summit. Very quickly here were 197 “Parties to the Convention,” that is, countries who’d ratified the convention within their own government systems. That’s pretty much every country in the world; that’s more countries than are members of the UN (193).
As the process that the IPCC has used matured over thirty-plus years, it has become more sophisticated. Going beyond atmospheric studies it now incorporates economic, health, agricultural, ecosystem implications and much more.
Each subsequent report has become more certain in its consensus and more dire in its warnings
Scientific Method & Peer Review
The IPCC itself does not do scientific research. Instead it depends on tens of thousands of scientific papers published in scientific journals
In general those published papers are reports of experiments undertaken using the scientific method and it was felt that Because IPCC would be stronger if readers had a good grasp on what that meant.
Under the scientific method a scientist hypothesizes how something might work, then devises an experiment or test to see if the hypothesis is right or wrong. Based on the data they collect they then write up their conclusion and publish it in a scientific journal so that others will know.
Scientists are human so they may or may not interpret the data correctly, or there could be other reasons the conclusion could be wrong. So before a scientific journal will publish their paper it must go through peer review.
Under peer review, the editor of the journal identifies other scientists with expertise in the area of the paper and asks them to anonymously look for flaws. The reviewers write down their questions and the editor passes the questions back to the scientists who authored the paper. Until all those questions are answered satisfactorily the paper won’t be published. There are often multiple rounds of questions.
If a paper does get published, then it stands out there among the scientific literature for years to come and other experts get a chance to consider it’s worth. A measure of that worth comes when other scientists use the paper as a basis of their own research and list it as a citation when they themselves publish subsequent papers.
The Rigorous IPCC Process
Each IPCC report starts with the choosing of authors. Those who nominate, who select and who end up being authors are all involved explicitly to represent various geographies, economies and peoples from around the world. These are the scientists, experts in their field, who volunteer their time to an IPCC report. Thousands of scientists contribute. Expert opinion from all sectors is sought.
The range of ingrained interest in a report’s findings are across the spectrum. Both extremes are represented in numerous ways. Countries whose economies are dominated by the production of fossil fuels like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are involved. Industry associations are involved, like the World Coal Institute and OPEC. Island nations like the Maldives and Marshall Islands that risk disappearing beneath the waves of sea level rise are also involved. Environmental groups like Greenpeace are involved.
The scientists draft a report based on all those published scientific papers and on the input from experts around the world. This draft report is put it out for comment to be sure it reflects the input of all those scientists. Other experts can comment too. The Fifth IPCC Assessment Report received 140,000 comments, suggestions and corrections, every one of which the authors had to respond to.
Groups of scientists and those many official observers gather in groups to approve chapters and sections. The meetings last for days. The text of each chapter is discussed on a line-by-line and word-by-word basis until everyone agrees the wording expresses what is known about the issue.
Climate skeptics can, and do, participate. If they have scientific evidence, their arguments can change the reports.
When all that’s done the resulting scientific reports represent an official world consensus of what is known about climate change.
But that’s not all.
That first word “intergovernmental” is an important one. The process doesn’t end when all the scientists have agreed. For the high-level report called Summary for Policymakers, governments, the “parties”, are brought into the room. Once again, for long, argumentative meetings, the Summary for Policymakers is subjected to line-by-line and word-by-word review.
The final product represents a real scientific consensus officially agreed-to by practically every government in the world. It’s like no other study or paper you’ve ever heard of.
The Book that Resulted
It’s a short, 33 illustrated pages, an upbeat, entertaining story that explains the history and science of the IPCC. The scene is 100 years in the future when the world has “solved” climate change and people are looking back, inspired by the dedication, rigor and achievements of the scientists of today.
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- Virus image beside planet earth is a mashup of photos by CDC and The New York Public Library both on Unsplash
- Boy reading – Photo by Unknown Author, licensed under CC BY-SA