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Einstein easier to understand than IPCC's climate-change report: Study

‘Bad language’ in the UN-sponsored group’s summary reports hinders global efforts to fight climate change, European academics say.

A recent study warns that “bad language” in the IPCC's reports is hampering global policy-making efforts to combat climate change.

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A recent study warns that “bad language” in the IPCC's reports is hampering global policy-making efforts to combat climate change.

Unless you have a PhD or the equivalent, you likely can’t understand what the world’s leading body on climate change is saying.

In fact, the language used by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is harder to comprehend than Albert Einstein’s text, says a quirky study by a group of European academics. This study also warns that “bad language” is hampering global efforts on what has repeatedly been called the biggest threat facing mankind.

“The IPCC was established to inform global climate policy, but clearly it’s not doing this when its summaries for policy-makers are so unreadable,” said Ralf Barkemeyer, one of the authors of the study and a professor at KEDGE Business School in Bordeaux, France.

“It’s failing in its task,” he said.

The IPCC releases an assessment report every five years or so, with a summary for policy-makers synthesizing the key details for a wider audience. Compiled by hundreds of scientists worldwide, it is considered the authoritative assessment of global climate risks.

The first report came out in 1990.

In this study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, academics did a linguistic analysis of the summaries of the five IPCC reports. They applied readability metrics to the summaries and compared them to the coverage in newspapers. The IPCC summaries, the study found, has become less readable over time even as readability of news and scientific coverage of these reports has improved.

That creates a lot of problems.

“If governments can’t even fathom the scientific facts presented to them, how can they begin to reach consensus or a joint legal wording,” said Suraje Dessai of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics & Policy at the University of Leeds.

The other problem is that because the summaries are so hard to understand, they can have several interpretations and they can be deliberately misconstrued by climate skeptics, pointed out Barkemeyer.

The study also found an unusual pattern: readability got harder when political tensions and disagreements were high.

The final plenary — meeting of government representatives — has to agree on every single sentence of the summary. So when there are disagreements, a compromise has to be found, which has resulted in more complex and harder-to-understand language, said the study.

“We started looking into this because we had the feeling that IPCC summaries for policy-makers are quite simply difficult to read and understand,” said Barkemeyer, adding that because IPCC had been aware of the problem, he and others expected to see improvements in the panel’s communication skills.

There were none.

But Tom Pedersen, director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions in Victoria, gives a high readability score to the IPCC summaries. The summaries are not tough to understand for anyone with a basic background in science, he said. “Or someone who understands that science is a perpetual search of answers as to how things works.”

The topics are quite complex as is the process to get to the summary, said Jim Bruce, a former senior official with Environment Canada.

After the first draft is written by scientists, it has to be reviewed and approved by over 100 government representatives. It is a “minor miracle that the SPMs emerge in a reasonably readable form,” he said.

Out of curiosity, Barkemeyer and other researchers went through some seminal papers by physicists Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

They all received much higher readability scores than any of the IPCC summaries.

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