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Science-Policy Interface

ICTP scientist working on IPCC climate change report

Photo by IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis
Photo by IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis

17/11/2017 - Trieste

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met in Montreal, Canada, this past September, attracting government delegates and scientists from around the world. The days were long, sometimes 15 or 16 hours, as outlines for the sixth IPCC Assessment Report (AR6) were painstakingly discussed and approved by delegations from IPCC member countries. This is the start of a long process towards the finished AR6 report, a massive assessment of climate science that will be completed in 2022.

The IPCC reports take years to put together, with hundreds of scientists contributing and reviewing them, on a voluntary basis, before they’re finalized. The reports summarize the state of knowledge about climate change. They include a concise Summary for Policy Makers, which is approved line by line by representatives from the IPCC’s 195 member nations.

Anna Pirani is both a scientific consultant at ICTP and the head of the Technical Support Unit for the IPCC Working Group 1, a title that belies the complexity of the IPCC organization. Building the bridge between science and policy is vital, as the stakes are high. Efforts have seen some success: IPCC's reports provide the basis for international organizations and governments and also civil society to take action.

Assessing knowledge on climate change is the main aim of the IPCC, a hybrid scientific and intergovernmental organization. As an independent body that does not do any of its own research, the organization bridges scientists and governments, with parent organizations in the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program. Set up at the request of member governments, the IPCC has the goal of providing an objective, scientific view of climate change, the physical basis, the impacts and risks, and mitigation and socio-economic aspects. “We have to be policy relevant, while not being policy prescriptive,” says Pirani.

The IPCC’s first report sparked the international community to start the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, an international treaty that has formed the basis of many subsequent environmental conferences centered on the negotiations of greenhouse gas emissions reductions. A second IPCC report gathered diplomats again in Kyoto, Japan, to draw up the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 as international concern about climate change grew. More recently, the AR5 report was released in late 2014, paving the way the Paris Agreement at the UNFCC Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2015.

“The reports include multiple perspectives,” Pirani says. “The assessment needs to be comprehensive, balanced, and rigorous. It has to be transparent and traceable.” As such, the process of writing IPCC reports is a complex one. Pirani works to manage the process of Working Group 1, one of three groups that assemble the reports. Working Group 1 covers the physical science basis of climate change, Working Group 2 takes care of adaptation, impacts, and vulnerability due to climate change, and Working Group 3 examines mitigation.

ICTP climate scientist Fillipo Giorgi has been one of the many scientists volunteering their time to write and edit the IPCC reports. Giorgi served as the vice-chair of Working Group 1 from 2002 to 2008, and was part of the IPCC when it won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its work; he understands the complexity of the process. While Pirani’s colleagues work in Paris, family reasons keep her in Italy, and Giorgi helped work out a way for ICTP to host her in Trieste. “I contribute to the section at ICTP as well, for example by helping design a summer school at ICTP on climate dynamics and bringing theoretical research done at ICTP into the IPCC’s conversations. The regional modeling activities at ICTP are also important; climate change at a regional level is a core topic of the IPCC reports.”

Pirani often works with institutions to ensure the broadest possible international participation. “It’s a lot about listening. We do a lot of consultation with scientists all over the world, and then we work to include multiple perspectives into our reports throughout the process.” Pirani comes from a physical oceanography background; her current role means much more coordination, facilitating collaboration, and making connections across disciplines, including at the interface between policy and science.

The meeting in Montreal came at the beginning of the process for AR6; Pirani and her colleagues from Working Group 1 presented the draft outline for their part of the report. “We decided to change how we organize things a little bit this time, and we were pleasantly surprised at the positive feedback we got from governments,” Pirani says. “Instead of presenting lines of research separately, multiple lines of evidence have been integrated around aspects of the climate system.” Climate modeling of observational data, paleoclimate data, and different analysis methods will be woven together in the 6th IPCC report.

The next step, now that the outlines have been approved, is the global nomination of authors by governments and observing organizations. The authors selected will write a first draft that will then be reviewed by other experts. The second draft will be reviewed by both scientific experts and government representatives. But the work doesn’t stop there. The IPCC is also producing three special reports, including one on the goal of keeping global warming to only 1.5oC of warming.

Communication to the general public, not just policy makers, is also an important part of the work. “Improving climate literacy is key,” Pirani says. “The realization that climate change has many effects, impacting us all, is growing, but clear communication about complicated concepts, not just to IPCC's stakeholders but also the public, is a real challenge for us.”

As we increasingly feel the effects of extreme weather, and climate aberrations start throwing a wrench in economies, safety, and ecological health, policy changes to deal with climate change gain even more importance. The IPCC’s assessment reports take a lot of time, contributions, and reviewing, but the world needs a synthesis of our current knowledge, including where the gaps in our understanding are, to move forward with policies based on sound science.


---- Kelsey Calhoun