‘Hours on a footnote’: Scientists felt joy and frustration when reporting on climate


After spending hundreds of hours in virtual meetings to wrap up this week’s main UN climate report, scientists Piers Forster and Joeri Rogelj celebrated in a way their peers couldn’t: by kissing .

Britain-based Forster was tired of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic and invited his co-author to work alongside him in his Harrogate kitchen as they worked with other scientists around the world entire team to draft the final report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Being together for the latter part of a three-year effort “made it more fun,” said Forster, a climate physicist at the University of Leeds.

“My neighbors must have thought us crazy when they heard” Thank you, Madam Co-President “, in response to questions from Saint Kitts, India or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at 4 a.m.”

When the more than 700 scientists and government delegates finally approved the last part of their 3,949-page report over the weekend, they all burst out in joy – each separate in their own little frame, except Forster. and Rogelj.

A Zoom screenshot shows the two smiling faces in the same box.

This year’s landmark report, warning that the world is accelerating dangerously towards uncontrollable climate change, took years of relentless effort to pull itself together.

Specialist scientists, including 234 working for free, reviewed more than 14,000 scientific studies published since 2013 to write the latest version of what has now become established science on climate change, before meeting – virtually – for two. weeks of final checks and negotiations.

Despite travel restrictions and national lockdowns that delayed the report’s completion by several months, organizers say they succeeded in their effort without any noticeable technical issues meeting their revised deadline.

For many scientists, the effort came at a personal cost. “You put a lot of yourself into it,” said ETH Zurich climatologist Sonia Seneviratne, who had to skip a family vacation to help complete the report.

While scientists praised the inclusion of colleagues from 65 countries around the world, some said the resulting time zone challenges were bad for their sleep.

“We couldn’t find a time slot that was not two in the morning for someone,” said Michael Wehner, climatologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “I’m a night owl, but I’m not that much,” he joked.

Completing the politically sensitive “Summary for Policymakers” section, which 195 governments must approve by consensus, presented a particular challenge. Every word in every sentence had to be scrutinized and debated.

To ease the effort, organizers posted each sentence in yellow on a split screen until it was approved, after which it appeared in green. If rejected, it would turn blue, indicating that a revision was needed. Disputes were then to be resolved in virtual small group sessions.

“We sometimes spent hours on a footnote,” said co-chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte, climatologist at the University of Paris-Saclay, who called the work on the report a “marathon”.

A scientist in India even called by phone to attend a meeting as a tropical cyclone howled outside her window, having already cut her power and the internet, she recalls.

But Masson-Delmotte also said that the chance to work on pioneering climate research with so many scientists from all over the world was “one of the greatest joys of my professional life.”

She would walk in a flowery park to relax between sessions.

Others said they bonded while getting to know each other’s pets and children, who frequently appeared in the background during video calls.

But for some, the loneliness was overwhelming at times. Rogelj, a climatologist at Imperial College London, said it was helpful to be able to work alongside Forster over the past two weeks – just to exchange ideas or to let off steam.

“You can do anything that makes us human, which you can’t do through a screen,” he said. “If I had been alone in my room, it would have been much more difficult to achieve this.”

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