Red Lines & Hockey Sticks : A discourse analysis of the IPCC’s visual cultureand climate science (mis)communication

University essay from Uppsala universitet/Institutionen för ABM

Abstract: Within the climate science research community there exists an overwhelming consensus on the question of climate change. The scientific literature supports the broad conclusion that the Earth’s climate is changing, that this change is driven by human factors (anthropogenic), and that the environmental consequences could be severe. While a strong consensus exists in the climate science community, this is not reflected in the wider public or among policymakers, where sceptical attitudes towards anthropogenic climate change is much more prevalent. This discrepancy in the perception of the urgency of the problem of climate change is an alarming trend and likely a result of a failure of science communication, which is the topic of this thesis. This paper analyses the visual culture of climate change, with specific focus on the data visualisations comprised within the IPCC assessment reports. The visual aspects of the reports were chosen because of the prioritisation images often receive within scientific communication and for their quality as immutable mobiles that can transition between different media more easily than text. The IPCC is the central institutional authority in the climate science visual discourse, and its assessment reports, therefore, are the site of this discourse analysis. The analysis tracks the development and variations in the IPCC’s visual culture, investigates in detail the use of colour and the visual form of the “Hockey Stick” graph. This work is undertaken to better understand the state of the art of climate science data visualisation, in an effort to suggest the best way forward to bridge the knowledge gap between the scientific community and the public on this important issue. The thesis concludes that a greater emphasis on the information aesthetics of their data visualisations could benefit the IPCC’s pedagogical reach, but that it may also be argued that it is not the IPCC’s role in climate change discourse to produce the most visually persuasive images. That they exist as a tone-setting institution that provides authority to entities that are better geared towards wider communication, such as journalism and activism.

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