Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Transformational Climate Science – meeting report


On 15-16 May 2014, the University of Exeter hosted an impressive array of climate change researchers from across the world. It was a medium-sized conference discussing the state of climate change research across all three working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with goals and challenges for the future.

I found the meeting absolutely fascinating for all manner of reasons, most of which I hope to cover in two following blog posts. This post is something of an introduction.

Conference attendees gathering in the University of Exeter’s Forum. Credit: University of Exeter via Flickr.

One of the most obvious draws for me was that it brought together people from all three IPCC working groups. As a physical scientist I am familiar with the workings and results presented by the first working group, but the other two are rather more mysterious to me. This meeting served as a great summary. In case you’re not aware, the IPCC reports are produced by three separate groups:

These working groups operate rather separately. Once they have all released their reports they are combined in a synthesis report. The synthesis report for the Fifth Assessment goes to governments in October 2014. So, where next?

In the next two blog posts I’m going to discuss two themes which I felt ran through the conference.

The first is: how should we approach climate change? What kind of discussions should we be having, and how should they work? How should decisions be made?

The second is: what is the future of climate research? What information do we need and how can we get that information?

These questions are clearly inter-related. The first question is more of a political one, but the second one is clearly also politically relevant, as ultimately the choice of what information we need lies with policymakers and the public. This is one of the over-arching topics which transcended both of the themes: that climate research and policymaking is a mixture of facts and values. In simple terms: it is a fact that the planet has warmed, will continue to warm to a greater or lesser degree, and that this warming will have impacts. However, what we do about it (or indeed whether we do anything about it) is a question of values. It is a normative question in which there is no single right answer.

Even though facts might be seen as ‘valueless’, many of the speakers at the meeting argued there was no such thing. Asuncion St Clair quoted Bruno Latour: ‘no knowledge is neutral’. The way facts are presented requires the imposition of some kind of value system. Ottmar Edendorfer said at the conference that he sees the role of the IPCC as akin to that of a map-maker. The map-maker doesn’t tell the user which route to take. The map-maker examines the landscape and maps out the features, obstacles and characteristics of all paths. And yet the map-maker can’t just present the ‘facts’. The choice of what goes on the map depends on what the map-maker thinks the user needs. Take, for example, the difference between political and topographic maps. One presents largely artificial boundaries between nation-states; the other presents details of the landscape. Which one you choose would depend on your needs.

Even though it’s not possible to be completely neutral, then, perhaps the IPCC could try to address this problem by providing as much information as possible. Of course, this doesn’t make it very readable and that’s why there are two summaries that attempt to make the make points easier to grasp: the Summary for Policymakers (the content of which has to be agreed to by governments) and a Technical Summary (which doesn’t). But the choice of what goes in there might also be normative.

Given its stated goal to be ‘policy relevant, not policy prescriptive’, and the enormous complexity of its subject matter, the IPCC often makes very careful statements emphasising precisely what we do and do not know. Chris Field pointed out that this leads to something of a problem. He said that some of the statements turned out so vague that they were open to almost any interpretation. Different media outlets could make very different readings of the report and come to sometimes diametrically opposed conclusions!

This raises the issue of framings. ‘Framing is everything in this debate’ said Georgina Mace. What this means is that, given a more-or-less neutral presentation of information there is no single implication that naturally comes out. The implications of the findings of the IPCC depend on how one views the world. At the meeting Saffron O’Neill presented the results of some of her work on media framing of AR5. Common frames included: ‘settled science’, ‘unsettled science’, ‘security’ and ‘morality and ethics’. She pointed out that different frames implied very different policy options.

In the coming blog posts I hope to draw out some more detail on the two main areas of the conference: how should we approach climate change and what is the future of climate research? After all that talk of framings it’s important to say that these are my personal impressions, and not an objective report. If you want to find out exactly what went on at the meeting, you can catch up on the presentations and panel discussions on the website.

Other coverage:


Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

12 thoughts on “Transformational Climate Science – meeting report

  1. Hi Angus,

    Thanks for this update on how the Transformational Climate Science conference looked from the perspective of a physical scientist. Here are my initial thoughts from the perspective of a smart grid consultant (and eco blogger!)

    I too will be writing further articles, but you will note that in this instance I have been following Dame Julia Slingo’s exhortation to communicate using “Storytelling, the creative arts, music and poetry”. What did you make of that element in the “communications equation”?

    • Humans communicate through stories. It would be foolish to deny this. The problem is that the more of a ‘story’ one tries to tell, the more the facts are mingled with subjective values. This is essentially how media reports are able to report the same facts with vastly different framings.

      If I were going to attempt to tell a story about climate or climate change, I would therefore try to make instances of framing explicit by providing contrasting perspectives. Media reports often make a feeble attempt at this by throwing in a contradictory quote at the end of their article. Such opposing viewpoints are often not given much emphasis. On the other hand, when the media want to construct conflict out of nothing they are perfectly capable of doing so. This appears to be especially the case in discussion over the physical science of climate change.

      I think the best thing we can hope for is that, where there are legitimate value-based conflicts, they are reported as such, rather than as a right-or-wrong conflict as they are traditionally reported.

      • “When the media want to construct conflict out of nothing they are perfectly capable of doing so”

        That touches on another one of the bees in my bonnet. I now have an entire web site devoted to mass media misrepresentation of the Arctic sea ice story, which has at least had some success in obtaining modest retractions of some of the most egregious excesses:

        Getting back to telling true tales rather than porky pies, you don’t sound awfully keen on the new “emotional/artistic” direction suggested by Julia Slingo amongst others last week. Or have I misunderstood your comments in some way? Alternatively have I completely misunderstood Julia?!

        • I think it’s a very powerful approach to communication, but there’s clearly a tension between factual accuracy and engaging communication. There always has been, and I’m fine with exploring ’emotional/artistic’ directions. Potentially, discussions between different groups of people over how to represent scientific facts through art might lead to a greater appreciation of both art and science. But I’m a little out of my depth here – it’s getting a bit abstract for me!

  2. Pingback: Transformational Climate Science – approaching the problem of climate change | Angus Ferraro

  3. Our thread seems to have run out of memory?

    “It’s getting a bit abstract for me!”

    Is it possible to embed images in comments here, or can you do the honours behind the scenes? What do you make of this image from local (sometimes surreal and/or abstract) artist Kasia B. Turajczyk for example?

    In the Bloodshot Eye of the Beholder

    “In the Bloodshot Eye of the Beholder”

    [Embedded image using HTML tag – Angus]

    • I’ve now tweaked the comment nesting settings up to the maximum of 10.

      On immediate viewing I don’t draw climate-y conclusions from it, but I’m not sure that’s the intention. It’s an arresting image, that’s for certain, and vaguely unsettling, which I think is the intention. It seems natural that art related to climate issues would be produced. Art is fired by things that are of concern to humans, and climate change is clearly one of them.

  4. Pingback: Transformational Climate Science – the future of climate research | Angus Ferraro

  5. Artists have always appreciated science from the early beginning of what we call civilisation.
    Since the XV century scientific subject matters had been of interest of many great names in art.
    Just a view names: Brunelleschi, Leonardo, Cigoli, Fabritis, van Hoogstraten, Albrecht Dürer, Vermeer, Turner, Picasso or the Italian Futurists.

    Can art influent science? I am not sure about that. Science and art see the truth in totally different way. Science is about progress, art is about changes. This quote describes very correctly both of them: “Science is a cumulative quest for the objective description of the way the world really is, with each stab towards the truth subject to rigorous scrutiny, logic, and possible repeatability. Art is a stab in the dark, a quest to make a strong statement, to feel ‘true’ in the gut by doing something polished and complete enough to cause an instant stir in the heart”. *

    And now for something completely different. The normative issue. “Normative” refers to whatever is actually right or wrong, which may be independent of the values of societies, individuals, preferences of politicians or scientists. I don’t expect independent and normative answers from the policy makers but I do expect it from the scientists.

  6. Hello again Angus,

    The videos of the conference are out now! Here’s my own hasty initial report, over on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum:,865.msg27043.html#msg27043

    I see Kasia’s been providing some artistic input, and you’ve written a couple more blog posts about the conference. More blog posts from me in due course also, but what strikes me at this juncture is that you haven’t mentioned the contributions of Catherine Mitchell or Dame Julia Slingo at all, whereas for me they were the highlights of the whole event!

    That must prove something, but I’m not sure what. Kasia asks “Can art influence science”. Perhaps more to the point is “Can art and/or science influence politics”?

    • Hi there – you’re right, neither Catherine Mitchell nor Julia Slingo made it into my highlights. I guess it depends on your perspective on this. For what it’s worth, I agreed with much of Mitchell’s comments, but I don’t think they have a natural home on my blog. Her work on energy policy isn’t something I feel very qualified to comment on!

  7. Pingback: IPCC: Millions of words on climate change are not enough | Simple Climate

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