Last week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) caused significant buzz with the release of the second part of the Fifth Assessment Report. The topline summary of the report, which examines the impact climate change will have on human societies, was nothing groundbreaking for those who understand climate science. It basically reaffirmed and strengthened decades of scientific research showing that weather pattern changes will have profound effects on human activities at a global scale.
Yet, this latest report from the IPCC has been heavily covered by U.S. and international media, and in the major media the story has achieved consistently powerful headlines. Thus, the intensity of the media coverage begs the question – what has changed? Why has this report gained so much traction where previous reports failed?
Of course, one reason is greater acceptance of the existence of climate change among the public. But more importantly, a driving factor of the media buzz generated today is the manner in which the IPCC published this latest series of reports.
Scientists are renowned for excellence in research, but less so for excellence in communications. Long technical terms, an overabundance of caution and watered-down cause and effect claims (the classic correlation v. causation debate) have let the air out of countless climate stories. The impregnability of many previous climate research reports and media outreach has undermined the important findings.
We see this with clients more than you’d think. Where’s the story? Why is it buried or impossible to understand? What’s the lede?
(Lede isn’t a typo – it’s an old reporter term for the introductory part of a story, the part that must grip the reader. In other words, the lead!)
The IPCC scientists are learning. The Fifth Assessment Report is divided into three separate parts: causes, effects and solutions. Instead of releasing each part in full, the IPCC opted to organize the findings into succinct headlines. In comparison with the last report, where the IPCC did not provide any sound bites or other helpful means of directing journalists to the key conclusions, this strategy made it easy for those covering the report to pick out compelling headlines.
This proved to be an extremely successful strategy, as it enabled the IPCC to control the conversation and its tone in top-tier media. Take some of these headlines:
“UN Panel: Warming Worsens Food, Hunger Problems” – Associated Press
Those are not sleepy scientist reports; instead, they’ll entice you to click. We aren’t lost in scientific hemming and hawing; the impact is clear, and hits smack in the forehead. This time around, the IPCC was able to focus sustained top-tier media coverage on the most important findings by positioning this issue as a real, serious threat to global stability that could realistically have an impact on the average person.
As a result, The IPCC achieved the level of coverage this serious issue demands. Notably, there has been minimal credible backlash to the report as in previous years. This is due to many reasons, but leading with an unmistakably clear and powerful story is immensely valuable to deter counterattacks. Further, while some experts may be concerned about the dangers of over-stating the impact of climate change, it’s nonetheless a positive that the issue is being discussed.
This is just the first step towards the committee’s end goal–driving creation of a new global climate change action plan–but by generating easily understandable and powerful headlines, the IPCC succeeded in bringing the topic of climate change to the forefront of international discussions. By seizing attention with a clear, punchy summation of the climate change consequences, policymakers are now primed to kickstart conversations around this issue, potentially resulting in a new and improved post-Kyoto protocol.