Readability Analysis Disses IPCC Policy Summaries

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A report published today casts some doubt on the efficacy of current United Nations efforts toward worldwide climate change mitigation and adaptation. The reputed journal Nature Climate Change published the investigation. In it, an international team of researchers at KEDGE Business School (a French school of management), the University of Leeds, University of Bonn, and University of Rome postulates that the Summaries for Policymakers produced since 1990 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are too difficult to read.

Readability indices (cogitoergosum.net)
Some standard readability indices (cogitoergosum.net)

Says Ralf Barkemeyer, Associate Professor at KEDGE:

”IPCC summaries are so difficult to understand that they can give rise to many different interpretations on the same point. They can easily be misinterpreted by climate change skeptics, for example. If these summaries were simpler and more accessible, the public could [directly benefit from] these documents and discover the true nature of the challenges.”

The researchers analyzed the linguistics of these IPCC policy summaries by applying standard readability metrics. They also compared media coverage of the reports in several tabloids (Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Sun) and quality newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, The Independent, and The Times).

The research showed an apparent correlation between the unreadability of the IPCC summaries and the tone of media representation. The press appeared to become more and more pessimistic because of obscure phrasing in the reports, even if their import was actually more sanguine. Although they did not prove a direct causative relationship, Barkemeyer and his associates concluded that the results have actually increased the gap in understanding between scientists and ordinary people.

Our own analysis points to another crucial factor that underlies the complexity of the readability issue, perhaps to a more critical degree than simple indices or algorithms can calculate. The notion of presenting ideas in any single language, even English, the most widely used world tongue, presents certain basic challenges to world groups like the UN.

Although the organization simultaneously translates proceedings into five or six languages, English is the UN’s standard speech. Technically speaking, it has been England’s native language (as Middle English and as Modern English, its close relative) for over a thousand years. But English contains a bewildering number of contradictions, as we’ll see when this series continues.


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