Photo: Bernt Eide

Elisabeth_Eide. Foto Bernt Eide

By Elisabeth Eide / Professor of Journalism in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Oslo and Akershus University College

What can be expected from the Paris Summit in December this year?

A large international science conference, “Our common future” took place in Paris in July this year with almost 2000 participants – mostly climate scientists – from approximately 100 countries. The scientists voiced the view that world politicians are now better informed than ever before – and thus (tacitly understood) should be able to act.

The timing was not randomly selected, but may be seen as a strong emphasis on the findings in the IPCC Assessment report 5 (AR5) report published in 2013-2014. And although the role of the IPCC scientists is to be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive, it is hard not to interpret the conference as an appeal directed to the global leaders who will meet in Paris in a little more than two months.

Among the conclusions from the conference press release were these:

To limit global warming to less than 2 centigrades, emissions must be zero or even negative by the end of the century and reducing emissions of green house gases by 40-70 per cent by 2050.

Furthermore: 2015 is a critical year for progress. The window for economic feasible solutions with a reasonable prospect of holding warming to 2 centigrades is rapidly closing.

Carbon pricing was mentioned by several researchers as a central element to mitigation, and investment required for transition to clean energy seen as an important contributor.

One of the major challenges in previous COP negotiations has been the claims for climate justice put forward by political leaders from the “Global South” who have highlighted the historic responsibility for GHG emissions, while leaders of rich countries not readily accepting to shoulder this historic responsibility. Below you find short excerpts from interviews with leading climate scientists, most of whom participated and spoke in Paris.

Ambassadors for science

Chris Field, co-chair of Working group II, AR5 and one of the candidates to replace Rajendra Pachauri, who has lead the IPCC since 2007, says that justice is an indisputable part of the landscape, and that “green growth” by many countries is viewed as a form of cultural imperialism. – The UNFCCC is distorted by the discussion of compensation for past losses. This has been a waste of time, says Field. – But yes, the responsibilities are differentiated. Not everybody plays at the same pace, some countries invest more than others. The world lacks a compelling vision. The concept of differential responsibility is difficult, and the UN needs to do something about it.

According to Field and other colleagues there is not much of a role for the scientists at the summits (the COPs). The scientists have presented their findings, facts and scenarios, and if they do not have any new (newsworthy) reports, their voices will not be dominant. The Paris COP, as the previous COPs, is the arena of politicians and their aides.

However, the scientific reports represent a foundation for the Paris summit. Another contender for the IPCC lead position, Thomas Stocker (co-chair of Working Group I), expresses his happiness about the high level of agreement reached in AR5; i.e. that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”. “Extremely likely” translates in numbers to 95 per cent scientific certainty, and the result was up from 90 per cent in the previous report from IPCC (Assessment Report 4, published 2007). – Never have the policy makers been so well-informed, says Stocker. – We have completed our work. And obviously, all the scientists who have participated in this effort, are the best ambassadors of the results of these findings.

Things people love and subjective ways of communicating

The scientist role as policy relevant, not policy prescriptive may at times be equalled to walking a tightrope, as journalists will invariably ask them questions related to future climate politics. Norwegian IPCC author Eystein Jansen says that during lectures or media interviews it is “difficult not to have a more personal and subjective way of communicating. When you emphasize the dangers and the negative consequences, it should be okay to express a hope that negotiations will lead to some positive results.”

One of the central organizers behind “Our common future”, French climatologist and author of the AR5,Working Group II report Hervé le Treut, adds that there is “a great deal of discussion about what we should say or not.” He mentions an initiative from Toulouse, which will start a ‘climate train’ from city to city ahead of the Paris COP. – I have accepted the offer to join, but there is still a discussion of what we should say, for example about the consequences of a temperature rise of more than two degrees by mid-century. We do not know all, but some. Should we not comment?

Le Treut IMG_5071

Hervé le Treut / Photo by Elisabeth Eide

Le Treut says a reason why he accepted joining the ‘climate train’ is that he has “spent so much time on this research; it is a pleasure to be out among people.” His experiences from interactions with people – experts and lay people – in the South-West region of France is that there was a huge interest and participation in local climate-related events, also among media institutions. – I found that people were interested since it was about things they love; the sea, the mountains, etc. They were worried that climate change would change the places they love.

This underlines the challenge of communicating the ‘abstract science’ to all kinds of people, and connect the science to their everyday experiences. Le Treut’s experiences resonate with IPCC author (Working Group II) Karen O’Brien from the University of Oslo. – We need to get out of our boxes, out of our own identities as experts to be able to deliver the science to people. Media also needs to help people connect the dots, for example relating the current drought in California to climate change.

O’Brien adds that the bad news on climate change have been there for a long time, and she recommends a more “positive spin”. – In social media you find many positive stories, they receive a lot of response and sharing. I think there is an appetite for positive news.

Whether this appetite will be satisfied by the outcomes from the Paris COP21, is still surrounded by uncertainty.