It is now just over a year since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its most recent assessment of the scientific evidence that human activity is changing the climate. As a media event this was a spectacular success, with alarming global warming stories dominating the headlines for many months thereafter. But did the news services and papers report what the scientists actually said, or what the IPCC wanted policy makers and the general public think that they said?

On 2nd Feb 2007, the UN News Service launched the Summary for Policymakers (Working Group 1) of its Fourth Assessment Report with a press release that started like this:

Evidence is now ‘unequivocal’ that humans are causing global warming – UN report

2 February 2007 – Changes in the atmosphere, the oceans and glaciers and ice caps now show unequivocally that the world is warming due to human activities, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in new report released today in Paris.

Note that the headline uses the word unequivocal in quotation marks, indicating a direct reference to what was said in the report, but in fact the word unequivocal is only used once in the report, and not in this context. On page 4, the following paragraph refers to warming of the climate, but not to the cause:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level (see Figure SPM-3). {3.2, 4.2, 5.5}

There are few people who would question the evidence of some warming during recent decades. The climate debate is centred on the cause of this very slight change, and whether it is just natural variation or something far more worrying. Therefor saying that ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal’ is not controversial, but more a matter of stating the obvious. It is not at all newsworthy either. Claiming that there is an unequivocal human component in this warming is a very different matter, but this it is not what the report says. The authors do consider that there may be such a link, and claim that, in their expert opinion, it is ‘very likely’ that they are right, which sounds pretty persuasive, but falls far short of being unequivocal.

Within 24 hours of the report being published, a quick search of Google News produced thousands of hits with headlines like ‘HUMAN CAUSED GLOBAL WARMING UNEQUIVOCAL SAY UN’?

The International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canadian not-for-profit organisation with close links to the UN, published a report on the plenary session in Paris which finalised the text of the report. This says:

Participants discussed whether it would be clearer to state that warming of the climate system is “unequivocal” or “evident.” Participants agreed to state that warming is “unequivocal.”

Unfortunately the IISD does not reveal anything more about this discussion, however it would seem safe to assume that the use of this word, even in the context of recent warming, was controversial. And the issue certainly could not have been one of clarification because these two words have significantly different meanings:

Unequivocal – leaving no doubt; unambiguous
Evident – clearly seen or understood; obvious
(Oxford Dictionary of English)

What is clearly seen or understood and obvious, is not necessarily unambiguous, leaving no doubt. Evident leaves room for argument, and may even invite it; unequivocal does not. There is also a difference in semantic emphasis; ‘UNEQUIVOCAL GLOBAL WARMING’ has impact as a headline, ‘CLIMATE CHANGE EVIDENT’ falls flat.

It would seem that PR plays a very important part in the IPCC’s deliberations. Arguably the report would have been rather short on dramatic impact without this kind of treatment. The press release cynically misrepresents what the report said with the apparent intent of manipulating media coverage. The effect that this has had on public opinion and on the attitude of policy makers is incalculable.

According to the IISD, here’s what the IPCC Chairman told the plenary session in Paris in his opening speech:

Rajendra Pachauri underscored the world’s “appetite” for scientific knowledge on climate change. Noting that the outcome of this meeting represents launching the first of the four products that will constitute the AR4, Pachauri stressed that the WGI report is a significant advance over the Third Assessment Report (TAR).

The IPCC certainly know how to launch a product, but it’s just as well that they aren’t selling washing powder. There are agencies dedicated to protecting customers from unscrupulous soap salesmen, but there seems to be no protection against unscrupulous scientists.

If anyone has more detailed information about discussion of this paragraph at the Paris meeting I would be very interested to hear form them. This is not just a semantic quibble. There is a world of difference between claiming that the slight observed warming of the climate is unequivocal and saying unequivocally that this has been caused by humans. If the IPCC is prepared to indulge in this kind of media manipulation, what trust can we but in the way that their other findings have been publicised?

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