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New voices, new readers: how the IPCC is adapting to the 2020s

The authors of the working group contributing to the upcoming Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on questions of climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability are in Faro, Portugal, this week.

SEI’s Zoha Shawoo gives her impression of how the IPCC is meeting the challenges of the new decade.

Andrea Lindblom / Published on 31 January 2020


Zoha Shawoo
Zoha Shawoo



What is your role at the Faro meeting?

I’m what is called a “chapter scientist” for a chapter on climate-resilient development pathways, or CRDPs, in the report being produced by IPCC Working Group II. Working Group II focuses on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, while Working Groups I and III focus on the physical science and mitigation, respectively.

My role is primarily to provide administrative and technical support to the chapter authors, and to help coordinate with the other chapters and the other working groups.

The other Working Group II chapters are all focused on individual sectors and regions, while our chapter has the difficult task of synthesizing them. We are looking for the combinations of mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development measures that are needed to facilitate transitions to climate-resilient development.

It’s very exciting because the meeting includes authors and experts literally from all over the world – 60 countries are represented at the meeting – and I’ve been able to hear voices and expertise from regions that aren’t always in the room at high-level international meetings on climate change, which are often biased towards the West.

What are some of the key challenges you see influencing the meeting?

I think one of the key challenges is that – with Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement demanding that politicians listen to the scientists – all eyes are now on the IPCC. There’s a whole new audience for IPCC reports and communication that wouldn’t necessarily have engaged with the reports before. In the past it was mainly academics and a few policy-makers reading the reports, but now it’s also the general public, and especially the activists that have been demanding climate action.

I get a feeling that that has increased pressure on the IPCC and the authors here to ensure that the reports both reflect the true urgency that the science demands and are easy to read and understand for a much broader readership. And given that the public has been demanding certain policy decisions from governments, the IPCC needs to try and communicate the results in a way that makes it obvious what policy actions they correspond to.

What is one impression that you think will stay with you after this meeting?

The IPCC is attempting to refine and update its processes based on criticisms about its previous work. For example, it has been criticized for gender imbalance among report authors, and for the majority of their authors coming from the West.

In response to this, there were open discussions at the last meeting about how institutional structures within the IPCC have to change to facilitate greater inclusion of women. One of the things that came up was that it is difficult for female authors to participate in IPCC meetings due to childcare responsibilities. Thus, in Faro a childcare facility has been provided at the venue.

Street scene in Faro, Portugal

A street in Faro city. Photo: Eve Livesey / Getty

Furthermore, the opening plenary of the meeting this time presented statistics on the balance between male and female contributing authors in each chapter, as well as the balance between contributing authors from the developed and developing countries. The IPCC identified the chapters that were particularly imbalanced and encouraged the working groups to invite female and developing country authors.

I also attended a break-out group on the inclusion of Indigenous and local knowledge in the IPCC assessments. The IPCC has previously been criticized for failing to take account of Indigenous knowledge and to include Indigenous authors in the assessment process, particularly as they have valuable information on adaptation to climate change and resilience.

The meeting has explored concrete ways forward for dealing with these gaps and promoting the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge while also ensuring the sovereignty of Indigenous knowledge, respecting intellectual property rights and protecting its authenticity. Some options emerged from this for the near future to ensure that this assessment cycle addresses this gap throughout.

It's been interesting to see how the IPCC addresses power imbalances that may impact the science

So overall, it’s been interesting to see how the IPCC is trying to reform its institutional structures and processes to better deal with these wider power dynamics and imbalances that may be impacting the supposed “neutrality” of the science. Even so, they are still not perfect and a number of challenges remain that they haven’t, in my view, been overcome.

My key takeaway from this is that science can never be neutral – it is shaped by who is in the room and who is involved in the process, which ultimately dictates whose voice matters. That’s why I think it’s very important for scientists, academics and researchers to explore their own biases and to ensure that these power imbalances are not reflected in their work.

The Working Group II meeting in Faro runs from 26 January to 1 February 2020. The meeting is laying the groundwork for the Second Order Draft of the Working Group II report, which is expected to be circulated for government and expert review in August 2020. 

Topics and subtopics
Climate : Climate policy, Mitigation, Adaptation
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