Communicating the findings of IPCC reports

Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Impact and Engagement
22 November 2019

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Association in 1998 and has 195 member countries.

It's tasked with providing policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as putting forward adaptation and mitigation options.

Three special reports have been released by the IPCC over the last year, on Global Warming of 1.5°C (Oct 2018), Climate Change and Land (Aug 2019) and the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (Sept 2019).

Several ANU researchers have IPCC leadership roles and have been instrumental in communicating the reports' findings, including Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute (CCI) and Vice Chair of IPCC Working Group II, Professor Mark Howden, Associate Professor Nerilie Abram and Professor Frank Jotzo. The researchers have been supported by a cross-campus team of staff from ANU Climate Change Institute (CCI) and the University's central communications, media and public affairs team, Strategic Communications and Public Affairs (SCAPA).

The IPCC reports have received significant engagement with the Australian community. In 2019, IPCC reports by ANU commentators have reached more than 5.3 million people through media outlets. The CCI have also hosted/given multiple public lectures, parliamentary briefings and seminars, briefings and roundtable discussions for policymakers.

Professor Howden, team leader of this award and Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, has become a sought-after climate commentator, reaching more than 6 million people since late October 2018. He has also built significant trust with policymakers and industry bodies nationally and internationally, building the national and international profile of ANU expertise in climate science and climate policy.

Prior to the team receiving the award, Professor Howden was sent a series of questions. His responses are below.

Q: Congratulations on being nominated a finalist for the 2019 Vice-Chancellor's Annual Awards. Can you briefly tell us what this honour means to you and your team?

A:  We're absolutely delighted - this award recognises the vital work that ANU is doing with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is arguably the single most influential science-policy entity in history and it's a privilege to be able to contribute to that as an ANU researcher. Secondly, it's great to have the support of such a strong cross-campus ANU team in ensuring that these reports have as much impact as possible in Australia and internationally.

Q: Tell us a little about the behind-the-scenes work involved in the project you worked on. What was a challenging aspect of the work? How did your team overcome this?

A:   Any leadership role with the IPCC requires a vast investment of time on top of a researchers' day job. The approval process for the reports is also exhausting, with negotiations going all night and then a requirement to keep performing the next day. The time difference is particularly challenging, both because of the requirement for phone conferences at all hours of the day in the development stage and also in liaising with media from the approval sessions (particularly from Geneva and Monaco) once the reports were launched. As a team, we did a lot of planning about how to communicate the findings most effectively to different stakeholder groups, developing an integrated communications strategy including media engagement, op eds, social media, parliamentary and industry briefings and public events. We were acutely aware of the narrow window we had as part of the media cycle and ANU researchers worked with ANU Media and CCI staff to make themselves available for interviews at very unsociable hours and after minimal (or no) sleep!  

Q: Can you tell us a little about being team leader? What was your main role in this project?

A:  As both Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute and a Vice Chair of the IPCC Working Group on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, my role has been twofold - I have been steering the direction of all three IPCC Special Reports (on Global Warming of 1.5C, on Climate Change and Land and on the Ocean and Frozen Regions in a Changing Climate) as well as guiding the development of the main IPCC Assessment reports and the Synthesis Report. I've also been leading the ANU team in ensuring that the findings of these reports are communicated effectively to policymakers (politicians and government employees), media, a wide range of industry bodies and associations and the wider community.

Q: Who would you like to recognise for helping you become a finalist for the 2019 Vice-Chancellor's Annual Awards?

A:  Every member of the team has contributed in different ways - this really was a collaborative, cross campus effort with staff and students involved from College of Science, Research School of Earth Sciences, Crawford School of Public Policy, Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, SCAPA, Fenner School of Environment and Society and the ANU Climate Change Institute. 

Q: What makes your team unique?

A:  We've worked closely together and thought long and hard about how to engage diverse stakeholders. Because there have been three IPCC Special Reports released within a year, there has been a sense of continuity in how we have engaged but we've also built on the learnings from each report to ensure that communication for the next report has been as impactful as possible. For example, after the huge response to the IPCC 1.5°C report, we've started livestreaming our public lectures (in larger venues), we've pre-written op eds and used them to lock in media interviews in advance and we've also pre-arranged parliamentary and government briefings. 

Q: Can you tell us a little about why you are so passionate about what you do?

A:   Climate Change is an enormous challenge for society, but it can also provide opportunities as long as we take action with enough urgency. These three IPCC reports have been commissioned by the world's governments and highlight a range of impacts that are stark and deeply worrying. If we can get policymakers and the community to engage with the findings of the reports, then it will have major benefits for our society, our economy, global biodiversity and future generations.