This month’s GeoPolicy post is an interview with the newly-appointed co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 1 (WG1): Valérie Masson-Delmotte. Valérie is also a Principle Investigator at the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Paris. In this interview she discusses how she balances her two roles, what the IPCC has planned over the next few years, and what advice she has for Early Career Scientists (ECS) wanting to get involved. The interview was conducted during the European Geosciences Union General Assembly (17-22 April 2016) and the interviewer was EGU’s Science Policy Fellow, Sarah Connors.
Background, career path and newly appointed role
SC: Hello Valérie, thank you for meeting with me. Could you first start by introducing your professional background?
VMD: Of course. I was trained in fluid physics (undergraduate). I did a PhD thesis on past climate modelling. I had a very easy career path – I was very lucky. I was hired just one day after my PhD thesis, where I worked in an emerging laboratory (the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement). I stayed there but I changed my collaborations and research topics throughout the years. I switched to providing new information on past climate using ice core drilling. I have also been working on present day monitoring, with a particular interest in water molecules, using the same techniques we use to look at ice cores.
I have changed my daily work a lot. Always working with international collaborations – immediately starting with European-scale projects at a time when there was a drive to strengthen international collaborations. That’s a big characteristic [of my research]. Usually the people who work closely in my field are not found in my institution! They are spread all around.
SC: You have now been appointed Co-Chair of the IPCC WG1. How does taking on this new responsibility change your day to day working life?
VMD: I am currently doing two jobs at the same time. My main issue is stopping what I have been doing previously but still keeping a ‘foot’ within research myself. I am supervising students and I have a research project that started last January – so I will continue to be part of that. It can be hard.
I have urgent commitments coming as a result of my role in the IPCC, especially at the start of this process. But I am very keen to not completely leave my research activity totally, because that is ‘myself’.
SC: Have you been involved with any previous IPCC reports?
VMD: I discovered the 2nd IPCC report when I was a PhD student and I found it so interesting and useful for broadening my views. I used the third one for my teaching and I was a leader for the 4th one and a co-lead author for the 5th. I am very familiar with the inside process of producing the scientific part of these reports. I was very unfamiliar with the other side of the work: the science policy interface. So that is what I am learning now.
SC: Are there any striking differences with how you communicate science between your role at the IPCC compared to your academic work?
I have to be a scientist within this new role. I was elected to be a representative of the scientific community along with my co-chair Panmao Zhai, and we really share 50:50 the responsibilities. We are supported by vice-chairs from various countries. It is very important to have a broad, global coverage [of scientists] and not be biased towards EU geography. We collectively feel we represent the scientific community.
When [policy] decisions are to be taken, they are taken by the panel*. We do not tell them what to do of course, we just put the scientific facts on the table: our emerging results, our scientific analysis and we stop there.
*appointed and elected representatives from 195 countries
SC: So you don’t extend into advocacy?
VMD: I would not do that.
The next steps for the IPCC
SC: What’s next for the IPCC?
VMD: Last week, the panel has decided to organise three special reports. One on the value of 1.5 degrees warming, as a result of the Paris agreement in the UNFCCC. This will be done for September 2018. The schedule is extremely tight, we will have a scoping meeting this summer and we are preparing everything related to that meeting now.
It is a real mix of opportunities and challenges.
The two other reports are on climate change and the oceans and cryosphere, and one on a number of land-surface issues, which is a high interest assessment in the policy world as it will cover issues like sustainable land management and food security. It will also consider both adaptation and mitigation – some of these issues are quite politically sensitive. The ocean and cryosphere report is not just assessing the physical sciences, it will cover sustainability in the oceans and acting to preserve ocean ecosystems.
SC: Are the three special reports going to be published before the main assessment report?
VMD: Probably – certainly the first one. The other two will be done in parallel, which is a very heavy work load! Especially for the Technical Support Unit that we have just started to set up. Maybe people are not aware but all the facilities for the IPCC rely on only a few persons. There is the IPCC secretariat in Geneva within the World Meteorological Organisation and co-sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme. It’s a small structure facilitating and organising all the processes with the panel. Then for the working groups, each Government from the elected co-chairs sponsors a technical support unit, which is made up of 5-10 people. It’s a very small number for supporting the work of hundreds of authors and thousands of reviewers.
We still have open calls for some positions now, and other position will be advertised next year. So check the IPCC website.
SC: You mentioned an upcoming ‘scoping’ meeting, what exactly does this mean?
VMD: A scoping meeting involves 70-120 appointed scientists who have been selected for this committee through an open call process. Scientists are selected so that we have the right range of expertise, renewal, experience and regional representatives. The outcome of this scoping meeting will be to define an outline for these special reports. This means a structure for each chapter and the key items to be considered. This is then presented to the panel for approval, where they can suggestion changes. This is how the science-policy process is organised at the beginning of the cycle. We have to do that for each special reports as well as the main assessment report.
For the main assessment report, work starting next year. We will probably organise consultations as a pre-scoping pathway to understand what end-users, the scientific community, and what all the stakeholders expect, as a way of engaging early-on in the process. This is to make sure that the topics assessed are what everyone wants to know about. Taking this into account is important so that it addresses the concerns of end users and policy makers, not just what scientists think are important. Then we will follow up with a scoping meeting and nomination for authors.
SC: What’s your biggest hope to be achieved from the next assessment report?
VMD: I have several. Firstly, it has to be rock solid: no mistakes – that’s a challenge to achieve given the workload. Additionally, the report must focus more on the regional aspect: looking at scales from global to regional and what emerging factors are found. Also, we may try to engage with social scientists, making the WG1 report more interdisciplinary. There could be a number of issues where their input would be valuable. I also want to increase the number of authors from developing countries – that is also a strong priority. Finally, we are considering changing the structure of the reports. The previous reports were organised by observations, process studies and observations. We may consider organising it by processes rather than a more separatist method. Most climate science research is not limited to just one area (e.g. just observations) there is normally both observations and simulations are all used to try to answer a question. These are ongoing considerations at the moment.
I hope that world renowned scientists will be eager to join and partake in this process.
The report has only the quality of the assessments done by the authors, which is then improved thanks to the review process That is really a strong improvement. It’s like shaping something – you know when you do sculpture? You have the first draft but the review really gives it a nice shape!
Advice to Early Career Scientists (ECS)
SC: If you had to give some tips to ECS on how to better communicate their research to policy workers?
VMD: I would suggest to train with teenagers.
My own experience is that if you are able to explain your research to high school students then you are able to explain it to everyone.
You have to keep in mind that policy workers are not scientists. Many of them do not have a science background, some do and many of the advisors do, but policy makers usually don’t. So it is really important to practice and when you do practise with teenagers, when they don’t understand you, you get very quick feedback! It means no judgement on high school students or policy makers but that would be my advice.
SC: Do you have anything you’d like to say to the ECS who read this interview?
VMD: I would encourage them to join the IPCC process. There are many ways they can do this:
- Write excellent papers that we have to cite as we only rely on published peer-review literature. New papers, new ideas, new methods, that’s critical! And these come from the ECS usually.
- We are now considering having chapter scientists to support on technical aspects like managing references, figures etc. This happened in 2nd and 3rd assessment reports but it’s complicated as it is unpaid. I have a mind of making these a duet – one from a developed country and one from a developing country. Maybe this could be an interesting option but it’s not decided yet.
- Become a contributing author. Each assessment must change two-thirds of the authors so there are opportunities for bright young scientists.
- And finally reviewing the report! It’s more work for us but it’s a way to be involved and it’s a critical step in the process.
This interview was recorded during the 2016 European Geosciences Union General Assembly, where Valérie was an invited speaker for a session on the science policy interface. More information on this session can be found here.
For more information on the IPCC then check out their website.