Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of this century, promising to dramatically affect the lives of all humans on the planet. We are at a critical juncture where a huge, concerted effort is needed to avert considerable damage caused by our negative impact on the world.
At the same time, researchers are publishing more and more research on a gargantuan array of topics, across all subjects imaginable: it’s been estimated that there are now well over 50 million research articles in the public domain. Within the area of climate change research alone there are purported to be more than 220 000 articles. This is clearly too much for one person to read in a lifetime, and I often hear people asking: how can decision-makers can possibly get a sufficient grasp of the evidence?
My answer would be: Conduct a systematic review.
Having worked with systematic review and systematic mapping for seven years now, I know that they are rigorous, standardized techniques for reviewing an evidence base in a reliable and transparent manner. They can collate and synthesise hundreds or even thousands of research results into a digestible description of a body of research literature.
Because of their rigour, systematic reviews and systematic maps can be substantial undertakings. Thankfully, funders, policy-makers and researchers are really starting to recognize the benefits of these approaches, and to commit the resources needed to do them well.
In mid-October this year, I was invited to deliver training in systematic review and mapping at a workshop on the role evidence syntheses in prioritising solutions for climate change. The workshop, hosted by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin, was intended to catalyse evidence synthesis work on climate solutions for the upcoming Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The workshop gave me a chance to help provide around 75 participants with an in-depth understanding of what it takes to conduct a systematic review or map. I was humbled and excited to see other people, from different disciplines and at different stages of their careers, really embracing rigorous evidence synthesis principles, and I was delighted to see many of them heading home with plans to start their own reviews.
But as well as swelling the ranks of potential systematic reviewers, the workshop was also a fascinating opportunity for me to learn more about climate solutions research, and to be immersed into the thought processes of social scientists. Around half of the participants used qualitative research methods in their everyday work. With a background in natural quantitative science, this was an invaluable opportunity for me to learn how they formulated questions and the kinds of answers they wanted to get from a review.
The response since the workshop has been fantastic. We have received over 50 proposals for systematic reviews from workshop participants, many of which will be conducted over the next 12 months as part of a special series of papers for the journal Environmental Research Letters. Members of the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence will mentor the authors of many of these proposals in evidence synthesis methods, and provide editorial support for the special series. The team behind the workshop will be hosting follow-up webinars for the participants, and checking in regularly to see how they are getting on.
I hope that the participants share my positive feelings about the workshop, and that they use systematic review principles in their future work spread the word about rigorous evidence synthesis methods to their colleagues.
As the avalanche of evidence on climate solutions continues to grow, I’m certain that connections between the evidence synthesis and IPCC-related research communities will multiply over the coming years, and that this will be a huge benefit to both!
About the workshop
The three-day workshop Learning on Climate Solutions ran 15–19 October 2018. It was run by Professor Jan Minx of MCC, a former head of the technical support unit of the IPCC working group Mitigation of Climate Change, and Dr Lea Berrang Ford, Chair in Climate and Health at the Priestly Centre for Climate at Leeds University. It was supported by the International Development Research Centre and the University of Leeds.