Once more with feeling: why has the IPCC Sixth Assessment report resonated more deeply this time?

By Chris Bowman, content & strategy director at Aspectus

It’s been seven years since the IPCC published the Fifth Assessment Report. Memory fades of course, but it really does feel like there has been a far more pronounced impact on the public mood this time around – and a more agreeable one too.

An IPCC assessment report is big news on any day, but it was bigger news this time around. In the first two days of publication for the Fifth Assessment, the Guardian covered the report in four different stories, the New York Times once, and the WSJ not at all. This time around, those numbers are seven, one and two respectively – suggesting an uptick in top tier interest. 

This chimes with anecdotal evidence: the report has been live barely two days at the time of writing, but is animating the social feeds of those rarely engaged with climate or environment issues. One member of our team reported hearing a parent talking about climate issues and ‘doing their bit’ for the first time in the wake of the report – a sign that the message is getting cut-through with audiences that have proved difficult to reach with climate messages in the past.

Why might that be? A big part of it is surely contextual. The report was published in the wake of devasting wildfires tearing through communities around the globe, from Canada to California, Greece to Italy. It may also be relevant that we’re still suffering the tail end (hopefully) of a global pandemic that has left more than 4 million dead and wreaked havoc on economies. It’s hard to give credence to the old dismissals of climate ‘doom mongering’ when the world is actually on fire. 

On the more positive contextual side, here in the UK we have the upcoming COP 26 in Glasgow emphasising the importance of climate change for the domestic audience, and perhaps we can look at the slow but steady progress of technologies such as domestic solar and electric vehicles giving related topics more visibility to the public.

Intuitively, all those things ring true. However, it’s not fair to put the report’s impact purely down to context. If we ask ourselves: would the effect have been the same without the first-to-fifth assessment reports? – then the answer is probably ‘no’. From a comms perspective, this is an illustrative example of the importance of repetition of key messages. Repetition sounds bad and dull – the opposite of what professionals concerned with engagement should strive for – and it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Repeating key messages, underlining them in new ways, supporting them with new arguments and data – all of it adds cumulative weight to a message like a snowball rolling downhill. 

We shouldn’t think of the IPCC as somehow having cracked the secret recipe this time around, but rather that it has diligently, patiently and successfully kept at its work until its message took on too much weight to push back against. As a comms professional, it’s a heartening example of the craft done right. As a regular person, it hopefully continues to resonate with public and policymakers and inspire real progress. 

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