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IPCC reports are hailed as objective, empirical evidence. But the social life of their production and circulation has much to do with conflicting politics, values, and choices.

In early fall of 2019, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg made a well-publicized tour of the United States, including a stop in Washington, DC, to appear before Congress. The usually staid hearing room filled with young people who had come to hear her, and reporters crowded in for a photo of the diminutive teenager. Yet in lieu of presenting written testimony, as most star witnesses do, Thunberg instead submitted for the congressional record a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In doing so, she told the politicians gathered on the dais in front of her, “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists. And I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action.”

The report that Thunberg submitted, and which she says stirred her to found the Fridays for the Future school climate strike movement, was Global Warming of 1.5°C, a 562-page report written by nearly 100 scientists and released in 2018. The IPCC proudly points to these periodic reports as “the world’s most authoritative scientific assessments” of climate science. Yet examining how these reports are generated shows that their epistemic authority is not a given. Instead, much of the success of these reports is based on ensuring buy-in from scientific networks and member countries through modes of diverse authorship and coproduction of findings. At the same time, declarations of authoritative evidence hide very real questions and conflicts over the quality and presentation of data. As one of a growing number of anthropologists to help craft IPCC reports, I have an interest in examining the “social lives” of these documents (see Hull 2012). In looking at how the reports issued by the IPCC come to be, we can learn important lessons about how to better present consensus knowledge while yet acknowledging uncertainty, how to summarize global problems and still include diverse local voices, and how to balance scientific “objectivity” with policy relevance (see for example, Pearce, Mahoney, and Raman 2017).

Credit: IISD/Mike Muzurakis
Photo of people standing around a table talking.
Working through SRCCL report text at the IPCC plenary in Geneva, August 2019 (author second fourth from right).

Producing knowledge in the IPCC

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with a mandate to regularly assess climate change based on the most recent and best available science (Vardy et al. 2017). The IPCC works through multi-year cycles, and is currently in the Sixth Assessment cycle that will eventually produce the Sixth Assessment Report (known as AR6) in 2021–22. Assessment cycles sometimes also produce “special reports” that are championed by member governments on particular topics. The current cycle has produced three such reports, including Global Warming of 1.5°C (also known as SR15), the Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL), and the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC), both adopted in late summer 2019.

In addition to studying the IPCC as an ethnographic subject, an increasing number of anthropologists are helping to write IPCC reports, providing an insider’s view of how climate scientists grapple with questions of authority and consensus. I am one such anthropologist, and for three years I served as a lead author for the SRCCL report, joining more than 80 other experts from around the world. I participated both in the writing of the main report, where I was a contributor to chapter six on “Interlinkages between Desertification, Land Degradation, Food Security and GHG Fluxes: Synergies, Trade-offs and Integrated Response Options” as well as the Summary for Policymakers (SPM), the abbreviated summation of the entire report that must be approved by consensus of all member states to the IPCC.

Creating reports

Lead authors for IPCC reports are nominated by member governments and observer organizations, and then selected by the IPCC bureau, which aims to achieve a balance of disciplinary expertise, age, gender, and nationality. Many have called for more geographic diversity in the IPCC lead author selection, as earlier report teams were overrepresented by physical and biological scientists from the Global North (Corbera et al. 2016). I worked on the first report to have a majority of scientists from developing countries, more than 30 years after the IPCC was first founded. Selecting authors hailing from a wide range of states is a key strategy used by IPCC to represent national interests during writing, as well as to smooth the later approval process, especially when author-scientists are well-connected to policymakers in their home countries.

One of the most fraught areas was how to represent uncertainties about risk in a way that reflected the underlying evidence and scientists’ expert judgments.

Increased epistemic diversity among authors has also been important in expanding the audience for these reports (Beck and Mahoney 2018). Social scientists are increasingly in demand, but problematically, this role is often filled by economists, especially in modelling future impacts and responses (Roscoe 2016). Anthropologists have been included in recent assessment cycles, primarily in reports and chapters focusing on impacts and vulnerabilities, but we are found in far fewer numbers in the other working groups focused on the state of climate science and on mitigation options. There were only two anthropologists on the SRCCL report (myself and John Morton from the University of Greenwich) out of 84 total authors, even though the report was about how land use both drives and is impacted by climate change, a topic with which anthropologists have extensive experience. In fact, there were more authors (3) specializing in the chemistry of atmospheric aerosols than those of us with expertise on the 7.5 billion people on the planet. One possible reason for the continuing low participation of anthropologists is perceptions among other scientists that our work is anecdotal and not rigorous or generalizable. As a lead author from Australia said when asking me what my background was, “So, social science—that’s like touchy-feely stuff, right?”

Such misunderstanding of the work of anthropologists seemed particularly misplaced as I became familiar with what did pass for rigor and authority in IPCC reports, namely the increasing reliance on Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) to project social and economic changes in the future in response to climate and other impacts. IAMs have strongly influenced some of the headline statements coming out of recent reports, such as the idea that “the world has 12 years to act,” which was a misreading of IAM projections that global carbon emissions must peak in 2030 to have a better than even chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C. Yet in looking under the hood at what goes into these models, most IAMs deal with only the broadest of variables: assumed projections in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), population increases at national and global levels, sources of energy use, supply and demand of agricultural products, and other general factors. Most of the “governance” variables included in the models are only proxies for the diversity of policies that exist in the real world, with a price on carbon being the most often included measure. The IAMs exclude many other policy choices (such as adaptation steps taken as temperatures increase), and particularly cannot model decisions of individuals (such as those choosing low-carbon lifestyles). The models are also not able to represent how different societies process information and react to it. In this case, precision in the models was achieved through the absence of data, a point that anthropologists are uniquely positioned to help highlight.

Visualizing uncertainty

While IPCC reports are aimed at presenting scientific consensus, not all scientists agreed with every statement that ended up in a report. One of the most fraught areas was how to represent uncertainties about risk in a way that reflected the underlying evidence and scientists’ expert judgments. Starting with the Third Assessment cycle, reports have often included a visualization of rising risks (or “reasons for concern”) to different systems as temperatures increase (see Figure 1). Informally known as the “burning embers” diagram (as risks appear “redder” as climate change proceeds), these graphics are usually formulated based on best guesses from the experts as to when changes are likely to be experienced; hence, a range of confidence levels are usually included, a nod to the subjective knowledge of those making the assessment.

Credit: IPCC 2019
Collection of bar graphs illustrating the risks to humans and ecosystems from changes in land-based processes as a result of climate change.
Figure 1. Example of how risks are represented in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports: Figure SPM2 from the Special Report on Climate Change and Land report.

Although these diagrams are in fact based on nonlinear and qualitative assessments, they are usually read by non-specialists as the opposite (Mahoney and Hulme 2012). “It’s better than it used to be, but it’s still a pile of sh*t” one author said to me, expressing concern that the image appeared to present more certainty about thresholds than the evidence supported. For this reason, the diagrams have been altered or even removed from some IPCC reports during approval plenaries (Tschakert 2015). Yet instead of rejecting them outright, having more openness to presenting what is known and what is not in improved lines of “traceability” may be a better option (Mahoney 2015), as such admissions of uncertainty can actually strengthen, not undermine, public confidence in science (Howe et al. 2019).

Beyond the concerns about representing risk quantitatively, the embers diagrams also are not able to show the complexities of vulnerability. This is an area where anthropologists can bring a wealth of regionally and locally specific data to underpin headline numbers. For example, SR15 identified the difference between a 1.5-degree world and a 2.0-degree world as significant for impacts on poverty and vulnerability. Yet no one lives a global average: some places will indeed be much hotter than the median (Alaska, for example, is experiencing warming several degrees Celsius above the US average). This unevenness of risk—the fact that some places will experience more extreme effects of climate change earlier than others (Liverman 2009)—cannot be well represented by a simple degree of temperature change or a general schematic diagram of risk. Anthropologists’ skill with using ethnography, local voices, and modes of storytelling, among other techniques, as a way to convey unique lived experiences can bring useful context into these reports.

Seeking approval

All SPM reports must be “approved” by member states at a plenary session, when representatives of governments and scientist lead authors convene for a week. A plenary resembles a standard United Nations (UN) meeting: all the government representatives arranged row by row in alphabetical order and equipped with headphones to hear translations into the six main UN languages. Report authors and IPCC officials sit on the dais, with a large screen behind them onto which the draft language of the SPM is projected. The presiding IPCC official then goes line by line through the entire text, seeking comments and agreement on the wording. Government officials push a call button when they want to make a comment, and when all comments are made the sentence is “gaveled” down or approved and discussion closed. This painstaking process goes on for days as each sentence is assiduously dissected, discussed, and sometimes discarded. A single paragraph can be debated for hours.

An alternative way of looking at IPCC reports is to see them as devices of translation, which can simultaneously make global knowledges and perform political actions.

Government representatives reflect on the words scientists have written, often inserting their own ideas and revisions, while scientists at the meeting consult as to whether government assertions are scientifically defensible and useful. These push-and-pull negotiations range from basic, as when scientists simply clarify why some conclusions are drawn and written the way they are, to antagonistic, as scientists try to prevent governments from putting things into the SPM that are not supported by the underlying full report. (For example, a representative government [not the United Kingdom] asked me in plenary why I hadn’t consulted the speeches of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in my writing on the impacts of climate change on labor productivity, to which I had to point out that by the IPCC’s own rules, Corbyn’s ideas were not considered peer-reviewed evidence.) Many of the sessions go late into the night, and at one point during a long and unproductive discussion focusing on what seemed like pedantic wordsmithing rather than concerns over the underlying content, a fellow author from the United Kingdom turned to me and sighed, “I’ve lost the will to live.” During the final two days of the Geneva plenary I participated in, negotiations stretched through the night, and by the time the report was finally approved I had been awake for nearly 36 hours.

This process is a fascinating example of scientific coproduction at work, science that is as much the product of politics as of so-called objective research (Miller and Wyborn 2018). The IPCC plenaries strive to achieve a balance between reflecting government concerns and making sure the key facts of interest to policymakers are clear, while yet not folding to overtly political questions such as conflicts between countries over who ought to pay for damages caused by climate change (an important issue but not one for scientists to answer). Examples of such balancing acts occurred in the SRCCL report over language around biofuels, particularly the conclusion that production at large scales could have negative impacts on food security and biodiversity, which several countries felt was a statement that would negatively impact their investments in this field. A small team of authors had to spend days in a basement room with a handful of governments to work out the precise language that could balance confidence in the scientific consensus with the sensitivities expressed by these states. In the end, several of the authors who helped get these sections approved told me that they felt the end result was in fact an improvement on the pre-plenary draft.

Sparking change

How do IPCC reports motivate action or policy change? Previous analysis of IPCC’s role and its political legitimacy focused mostly on linear models of expertise and knowledge production (Beck 2010): just give the most credible information in the form of reports and action by policymakers will follow. Yet this model has been strongly criticized for assuming that a lack of action on climate change is merely caused by a deficit of information. In fact, much of the stalemate on climate policy is not for lack of scientific certainty, but due to conflicting values, political ideologies, and moral judgments (O’Brien and Wolf 2010; Hornsey et al. 2016; Markowitz and Shariff 2012). Simply supplying more information without attempting to determine who is using the information, or how the production of the information is perceived as authoritative or as biased by different audiences, serves little purpose.

An alternative way of looking at IPCC reports is to see them as devices of translation, which can simultaneously make global knowledges and perform political actions (Livingston et al. 2018). Assessments such as the IPCC reports can shift scientific framings, reshaping research interests to align them with the interests of policymakers and other communities (Oppenheimer et al. 2019). Scholars in science and technology studies have emphasized that the power of knowledge itself is often less important than the power of networks to promote new ideas, a process that Michel Callon (1986) first labelled “interessement.” Networked actors are “made interested” in novel concepts, sometimes through simple physical materials like reports, and then potentially become “spokespeople” for the ideas contained within. In this way, IPCC reports can serve as a network device to bind many disparate readers together, and to provide nodes in the network with a chance to become informal spokespeople with their own forms of authority. The emergence of the Fridays for Future movement is an example of such a network, brought into action in part by a single person being inspired by a report.

Yet the IPCC reports do not provide a clear answer as to what we should collectively do in terms of policy; they do not define the “real action” Greta Thunberg wanted US politicians to take. This is because IPCC reports have a mandate to be policy relevant, but they are explicitly barred from being “policy prescriptive”—they cannot specify to member governments what must be done. Avoiding policy prescription is an increasingly difficult path to walk, when people want concrete steps and authoritative action items. The SR15 report presented 90 potential pathways that could keep warming to 1.5 °C, each with a different mix of policies and assumptions. The path we end up taking will ultimately not be about consensus on evidence, but about values and choices and politics. And for that, we continue to need anthropologists to help us find our way.


Pamela D. McElwee

Pamela D. McElwee is an associate professor of human ecology at Rutgers, and studies vulnerability to environmental change in Southeast Asia. She has served as a lead author for both IPCC and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). She holds a PhD in anthropology and forestry from Yale University.

Cite as

McElwee, Pamela D.. 2020. “The Social Lives of Climate Reports.” Anthropology News website, April 22, 2020.