The facts do NOT speak for themselves. We need a Data Singer.

Updated: Aug 27

By Richard Pooley

You are, I’m sure, a better world citizen than me. As soon as you saw, on 9 August, the words “It is a code red for humanity” uttered by the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, you downloaded the report to which he was referring and began reading it. You know the one (deep breath): The Working Group I (WGI) contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on the physical science basis of climate change, 2021. You didn’t? Perhaps it was too much? Even the report’s publishers, the Cambridge University Press, were not sure how long the 13-chapter, fact-packed tome was: “(1300 pages?)”

Okay then, maybe you opted for the 39-page Summary for Policymakers - https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf I did, at first. After all, its first main factual paragraph was not hard to understand:


A.1.1 Observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by human activities. Since 2011 (measurements reported in AR5), concentrations have continued to increase in the atmosphere, reaching annual averages of 410 ppm for carbon dioxide (CO2), 1866 ppb for methane (CH4), and 332 ppb for nitrous oxide (N2O) in 2019. Land and ocean have taken up a near-constant proportion (globally about 56% per year) of CO2 emissions from human activities over the past six decades, with regional differences (high confidence) 7. {2.2, 5.2, 7.3, TS.2.2, Box TS.5}


But my eyelids soon started to head south as I read on through the Summary’s leaden, fact-filled, Latinate English prose. So, I downloaded the 2-page Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers.

I could grasp this summary of a summary pretty well. Even so, the language still made it difficult for me to remember most of the 14 “headline statements”. Try the last one:


“Scenarios with low or very low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (SSP1-1.9 and SSP1- 2.6) lead within years to discernible effects on greenhouse gas and aerosol concentrations, and air quality, relative to high and very high GHG emissions scenarios (SSP3-7.0 or SSP5-8.5). Under these contrasting scenarios, discernible differences in trends of global surface temperature would begin to emerge from natural variability within around 20 years, and over longer time periods for many other climatic impact-drivers (high confidence).”


What’s an “impact-driver”?

It was only when I turned to the IPCC’s excellent slide-deck, used to brief reporters, that I found any of this stuff stuck in my brain.

Am I complaining about the vast amount of facts in the report? No. It was supposed to be full of facts, which show beyond doubt to those who continue to doubt that we humans have changed the world’s climate. And if we don’t all do something about it, we humans are unlikely to be around for much longer.

Nor am I criticising the United Nations’ IPCC for their use of International English (or, as my old training company dubbed it, Offshore English). This English is not only the language of Science and Engineering, it is considerably more comprehensible to non-native English speakers than the one I normally utilise when writing articles. It mostly consists of abstract nouns and Latin-derived words situated in long sentences, the utilisation of which facilitates translation into other languages. Got that?

It’s the commentators on climate change and the environmental correspondents – the supposedly professional communicators - who piss me off*. It is vital that non-scientists like me understand the key facts in this report. Otherwise we won’t be able to take on board all that advice we are getting on why and how we should change our behaviour. Even more importantly we need to understand if our masters – all those scientifically-ignorant politicians and civil servants – are making the right decisions in dealing with climate change. I have tried hard to find articles in print and online which help me get to grips with what the IPCC scientists are telling us. I have had little luck. I either read commentaries which regurgitate the turgid language of the report itself or I read doom-laden, fact-light reports of raging fires, killer heat-waves, parched land, biblical floods, melting ice, rising seas, all of which are “unprecedented”. Where are the clear, short sentences written in the earthy language which is my mother-tongue? Where are the metaphors, word pictures and clever analogies which make what I read stay in my mind for months, not minutes?

In the Long Ago (the mid-1980s), I ran a series of presentation skills courses for telecoms company Ericsson’s Research & Development engineers at their head office in Stockholm. The brief from Human Resources was clear: "Please make these guys' technical product presentations understandable to the people in International Marketing." One of the R & D engineers on the first course spoke for his colleagues when he rejected my attempts to make his highly technical presentation less brain-numbing: “In Sweden we say the facts speak for themselves. It’s not our job to communicate those facts to our customers. That’s for Marketing. If they don’t understand, they should not be working for us. You are training the wrong people.” He was right.

A few years later another Swede told me how Volvo had used the Swedish version of “The facts speak for themselves” as the heading (or should that be “headline statement”?) in an advertisement in Sweden. Below was a list of the key safety features of the company’s cars, focusing in particular on the width and strength of the steel. All words and numbers. No photos. Sales in Sweden shot up. Volvo decided to launch the same campaign in the UK. It bombed. Their UK ad agency proposed an alternative: a photo of two children in seat belts on the back seat of a Volvo car, with “They are safe with us” above their blond-haired heads. Five words. One photo. Sales in the UK shot up. Sure, what works in one culture does not work in another. But out of the 10 countries on 4 continents in which I sold my old company’s services only one other then Sweden – Japan – would have been persuaded by Volvo’s “The facts speak for themselves” advertisement.

It was yet another Swede, Hans Rosling, who showed me and many others how to communicate facts and ideas in a way which made them memorable and persuasive. Hans was a statistician, medical doctor and professor of global health (and sword swallower) who made it his life’s mission to explain the world with graphics. “In his hands, data sings” was how he was described by TED for whom he gave many highly-successful talks (easy to find online: watch, listen and be inspired). He died in 2017. In his last book – Factfulness - published posthumously, he wrote: “The five global risks that concern me most are the risks of a global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change, and extreme poverty.” He made the data sing on all five subjects. How we need him now**.

If, dear reader, you know of anyone who can make the data on climate change sing, let us know on Only Connect, and we’ll publish their articles. In the meantime, find out your carbon footprint by taking the 5-minute test on https://climatehero.me/ .You’ll then find out what you can do to make your footprint smaller. Hans would have loved it.

*English speakers may think that piss off is a pithy example of Anglo-Saxon. In fact “piss” comes from old French, “off” from old German (Anglo-Saxon), and the verb + preposition structure (what grammarians call a phrasal verb) from those Norse-nattering Vikings.

**Hans was no environmentalist saint though. He once said: “I don’t give a damn about polar bears! I can live without polar bears.”



Coda:

I finished this article on Friday last week. On Saturday the Financial Times’ Life & Arts supplement led with an article by best-selling American science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson. It was entitled “A Way Back for a World in Flames”. If you can’t get behind the FT’s paywall, you can find the same article on http://investorsnewsblog.com/2021/08/20/kim-stanley-robinson-a-climate-plan-for-a-world-in-flames/. In it Robinson takes some terrifying facts from the IPCC report and suggests how we can solve the problems they are causing. He writes in a language which is clear and compelling. It even includes some gallows humour. A writer of science fiction is probably the best person to communicate science fact to the world. His novel on climate change, The Ministry for the Future, will be published in paperback in October. He will also be speaking at the UN’s COP26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow in November. Let’s hope he can make the data on climate change sing.


And no sooner had I finished writing the above than I heard British writer Rebecca Stott, best known for her historical novels, give a talk on BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View, called “The Rhetoric of the Climate Crisis.” She had been asked in 2018 to help climate activists write press releases and speeches about climate change. She had struggled, without much success, to get them to use a style and language which was any different from the scientific reports they were writing about. One of them told Stott that “you can’t write about climate change without using abstract nouns.” Stott has come to realise just how hard it is to communicate facts and complicated scientific arguments in a way which grabs our attention with enough force to make us change our ways. But it must be done.

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