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Projections aren't predictions. But climate media doesn't always capture the difference.


Projections aren’t predictions. But climate media doesn’t always capture the difference.

The IPCC—and climate scientists in general—need to do a lot more work explaining the concept of scenarios
June 25, 2024

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Media coverage of climate change gives short shrift to the range of climate futures that are still open to humanity, according to a new analysis. The findings suggest that both climate scientists and journalists need to do more to communicate how population trends, technological advances, economic growth, and climate policy could interact to shape future carbon emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) currently uses a set of five scenarios known as Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) to convey various combinations of societal trends and policy choices that can affect climate change.

The scenarios “are complex and difficult to communicate,” researchers acknowledge in a paper published in the journal Climatic Change. But members of the public and policymakers get a lot of their information about climate change from mainstream media, so it matters how the media covers the SSPs.

For this reason, researchers analyzed the text of 252 media articles covering IPCC Working Group reports released in 2021 and 2022. The articles came from the five most popular online news sites in the UK, USA, and India, respectively; English-language media from various African countries; and the Reuters News agency.

Media coverage of the Working Group reports does regularly use the word “scenario” and the concept of scenarios, the researchers report. But articles rarely used the term “Shared Socioeconomic Pathway” and generally did not describe the five scenarios nor how they were developed. This information sometimes appeared in figures accompanying articles, or in more specialized reporting.


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“The SSPs are narratives of possible future worlds that include demographics, human development, economy and lifestyle, policies and institutions, technology, and environment and natural resources,” the researchers write.

Crucially, these scenarios are projections of what could occur under different conditions—not predictions of what will occur no matter what. But media coverage didn’t always capture this difference. The articles often used words like “projections,” “futures,” and “pathways” when talking about the scenarios, but sometimes used terms like “predictions” or “forecasts.”

“The IPCC—nd climate scientists in general—need to do a lot of outreach work in explaining the concept of scenarios, and how predictions differ from projections,” says study team member James Painter, a research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in the UK.

The study turned up some heartening trends, too. A 2018 IPCC publication, known as the 1.5 report, garnered a lot of coverage that made reference to a hard deadline for climate action, framing a failure to cut emissions by 2030 as dooming the world to certain disaster. (In fact, while earlier and deeper emissions cuts are better in terms of limiting warming and ensuring climate stability, all climate action at any point matters.) But in coverage of the 2021-22 Working Group reports, less than 10 percent of articles included this binary, hard-deadline framing.

“It was surprising that the doomsday narrative, very common in the reporting of the IPCC 1.5 report (remember ‘twelve years before the end of the world’), was largely absent,” says Painter.

Previous research has shown that journalists often hew closely to IPCC press materials and statements of IPCC representatives in their coverage. The 2021-22 Working Group reports featured the SSPs prominently, but the accompanying media materials did not emphasize scenarios, projections, or SSPs, the researchers found. This suggests there is an opportunity to design future media materials to shed greater light on these concepts, the researchers say.

A more global analysis of media coverage would also be useful, Painter says. “We looked at a relatively limited number of countries, and only English-language reporting, so widening the study to other regions, and also including social media would be helpful,” he says. “The key challenge is to test how these scenarios are understood and applied by different types of policy makers, and we are hoping to do that work.”

Source: Painter J. et al.Communicating climate futures: a multi-country study of how the media portray the IPCC scenarios in the 2021/2 Working Group reports.” Climatic Change 2024.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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