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Discouraging climate action through implicit argumentation: An analysis of linguistic polyphony in the Summary for Policymakers by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


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In this paper, we study on the ways the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) communicates scientific knowledge on climate change to policymakers in the Summary for Policymakers of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5); the most recent Assessment Report issued by the IPCC. We investigate implicit argumentation with a special focus on the ways the summary may direct the orientation of the discourse towards the evasion of climate action while appearing to be pro-action on the surface. The results of a systematic analysis of polyphonic constructions in the language of the text indicate that implicit argumentation represents climate action inevitably subordinate to economic goals. In a number of constructions, the discourse reconstructs pro-economic-growth-based frames in contrast to prioritising environmental values when encouraging political action in the context of climate change. Through such language use, the discourses mediated by an institution of such high societal importance and authority as the IPCC arguably have a considerable impact in maintaining conservative climate policies and delaying, even hindering, a transition into a carbon-neutral society. Thus, we conclude that even the most authoritative climate-science-policy institutions should reconsider their use of linguistic representations in terms of implicit argumentation in their communication in order to encourage climate action in a more straightforward manner. As long as the most authoritative actors in science-policy discourse on climate change continue to reinforce cognitive frames evading urgent action to mitigate climate change, it is questionable whether we can expect the policymakers to have the courage to take ambitious action even if the figures in the natural-scientific evidence sections of the reports were demonstrating clear worsening trends.
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DOI: 10.1177/17504813211026512
Discouraging climate
action through implicit
argumentation: An analysis
of linguistic polyphony in the
Summary for Policymakers by
the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change
Julia Kanerva and Attila Krizsán
University of Turku, Finland
In this paper, we study on the ways the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
communicates scientific knowledge on climate change to policymakers in the Summary for
Policymakers of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5); the most recent Assessment Report
issued by the IPCC. We investigate implicit argumentation with a special focus on the ways
the summary may direct the orientation of the discourse towards the evasion of climate
action while appearing to be pro-action on the surface. The results of a systematic analysis
of polyphonic constructions in the language of the text indicate that implicit argumentation
represents climate action inevitably subordinate to economic goals. In a number of
constructions, the discourse reconstructs pro-economic-growth-based frames in contrast
to prioritising environmental values when encouraging political action in the context of
climate change. Through such language use, the discourses mediated by an institution
of such high societal importance and authority as the IPCC arguably have a considerable
impact in maintaining conservative climate policies and delaying, even hindering, a transition
into a carbon-neutral society. Thus, we conclude that even the most authoritative climate-
science-policy institutions should reconsider their use of linguistic representations in terms
of implicit argumentation in their communication in order to encourage climate action in
a more straightforward manner. As long as the most authoritative actors in science-policy
discourse on climate change continue to reinforce cognitive frames evading urgent action to
Corresponding author:
Attila Krizsán, English Department, University of Turku, Koskenniemenkatu 4 (Rosetta), Turku 20014,
1026512DCM0010.1177/17504813211026512Discourse & CommunicationKanerva and Krizsán
2 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
mitigate climate change, it is questionable whether we can expect the policymakers to have
the courage to take ambitious action even if the figures in the natural-scientific evidence
sections of the reports were demonstrating clear worsening trends.
Argumentation, climate action, climate change, critical discourse analysis, ecolinguistics,
institutional communication, language and ideology, linguistic polyphony, policy discourse
Introduction: Beyond denial
While there is a widespread scientific agreement on most aspects of climate change,
climate policy remains a debated topic due to the influence of dominant political and
economic interests. The need for consistency in the advocacy for climate action is
particularly important as several interest groups deliberately aim to keep climate
change off the political agenda. The role of language as a medium for constructing
social and political realities is key in this process of evasion as linguistic representa-
tions in fact construe frames (i.e. culturally embedded cognitive models on perceptions
of reality – cf. Goffman, 1974; Lakoff, 2004; Tannen, 1993; Tversky and Kahneman,
1986) of climate change. In contexts of policy formation, frames of climate change
become institutionalised, and they serve as cornerstones of the ways climate change is
politicised. Thus, through the maintenance and creation of frames, linguistic structures
in institutional discourses on climate change have an essential role in changing or
maintaining the ways social and political actors operate regarding this issue in terms
of, for example, the related social responsibility, the need for action and the access to
social, political and economic resources. Due to the abovementioned role of language,
the discourse of climate change functions as a (public) sphere that provides a platform
for competing discourses on the subject by representatives of various political and
economic interests. The existence of such competing discourses is well-reflected in the
mismatch between the scientific understanding of climate change and the ways it is
often communicated to various audiences. Such a mismatch provides good grounds for
climate change sceptics to frame scientific knowledge on climate change as self-con-
tradictory, even unreliable. There have been several wide disinformation projects on
climate science involving conservative think tank associates, public relations profes-
sionals and fossil fuel lobbyists (see e.g. Dunlap and Jacques, 2013; Dunlap and
McCright, 2011; Michaels, 2008). The key discursive strategy in these projects is
based on manufacturing uncertainty (vs direct denial) through producing claims on
scientific evidence being insufficient to support policy regulations (Oreskes and
Conway, 2010). To counter these anti-climate movements with strong lobbying power
and vast economic resources, climate science needs to communicate in a way that is
both unambiguous and convincing. This is even more important in messages aimed at
policymakers as the communicative strategies concerning the issue of climate change
play a crucial role in determining the degree to which policy experts succeed in chal-
lenging the groups of political denial, that is, succeed in facing the issue of climate
change and mitigating action towards it.
Kanerva and Krizsán 3
Previous research has shown that communicating on climate change is a challenging
endeavour (e.g. Antilla, 2005; Boykoff, 2007a; Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004). Past experi-
ences have manifested various ways in which the communication efforts can fail to
deliver the message needed for ambitious climate action. While earlier findings show
that complete climate science denial has had access to major discourses in the past, cur-
rently the challenge in communicating climate change is shifting from having to face
sheer denial to the avoidance of responsibility. In practice, this has been realised in more
subtle differences of opinion having become the dominant factor of slowing down miti-
gation efforts making direct climate science denial play a rather marginal role. Therefore,
we argue that research on climate communication should adjust to this new situation by
focusing on those discursive constructions that contribute to conservative climate action
through dispersion (vs denial). We maintain that an essential target of such research is to
investigate the ways in which ambiguous argumentation plays a key role in slowing
down mitigation efforts. Discursive techniques utilising ambivalence, such as the ones
that operate with possible ambiguous interpretations of debated topics (cf. Wodak, 2003),
in our view, are harmful both when contributing to delayed climate action without the
author’s intention, and also, when used deliberately to legitimate delayed action. Hence,
we should set out to tackle discouragement of climate action beyond direct denial and
implicit argumentation rather than having a focus solely on explicit statements. This
approach presumes that discourses of pro-science and also of pro- climate action voices
should be subjected to scholarly investigation as they can just as well contribute to the
discouragement of climate action via ambiguous argumentation.
Arguably the most reclaimed authority of climate change science is the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Several experts consider the panel
an objective authority with the best practices in climate change communication (e.g.
Gasper et al., 2013). We share the view that the IPCC’s work on communicating scien-
tific knowledge and especially informing wider audiences on the human-induced nature
of climate change has been invaluable. However, it has also been argued that even the
IPCC cannot avoid subjectivity, stance-taking and the influence of values on its work
(e.g. Boykoff, 2007a). Furthermore, formal knowledge-based discourse in general is
nowadays considered an intersubjective and persuasive venture (Hyland, 2005: 175). As
the construction and presentation of facts is also partly argumentative, the present study
takes a critical stance on the complete objectivity of the panel and we aim to investigate
the way in which the communication by the IPCC goes beyond scientific reporting of
facts, and how the IPCC simultaneously engages in an argumentative endeavour reflected
in its language use. More importantly, this paper sets out to explore whether the panel
communicates in a way that efficiently encourages readers to take action required on the
basis of current climate science.
The IPCC publication we focus on is the Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis
Report belonging to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5); the most recent Assessment
Report issued by the IPCC. It is a condensed, integrated version of the full reports by the
three working groups of AR5, which is primarily targeted at decision makers. The name
of the document addresses the decision makers of the world to familiarise with its con-
tents in order to learn the most important aspects of the scientific information compiled
by the IPCC. Due to its title and its brevity compared to the full assessment reports, it is
4 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
more accessible to policymakers who wish to get a thorough overview of the information
when preparing for negotiations, conferences or meetings. This implies that the Summary
has a more direct influence on decision making than the full report, since negotiations,
conferences and meetings are among the key social practices of formulating climate
policy. They represent events where climate decision making is done, where treaties are
made and agreements are signed. The Summary provides an overview of the latest sci-
ence to policymakers preparing for these social practices of climate decision making, and
is thus also one of the major sources contributing to the ways in which they interpret the
current climate knowledge. Therefore, the language of the Summary for Policymakers
not only plays an important role in shaping the outcomes of the social practices of local,
national and international climate decision making but is also a vehicle for social main-
tenance and change.
In contrast to the general belief, the IPCC Summaries for Policymakers are subject to
political influence during the process of their production. Indeed, representatives of
member countries are invited to the Plenary Sessions in which the final content of the
Summary for Policymakers document is decided. Moreover, each report is formally
accepted by government representatives. Beyond this direct participation of govern-
ments, consensual procedures of the IPCC have been argued to cause conservative bias
in the reports (Brysse et al., 2013; Hansen, 2007). Biases influencing the production of
the report could have an impact at the processes of reception of the Summary as well by
(re)producing particular frames of climate change in the readers of the Summary as the
valid ones. By targeting decision makers, this influence is directly linked to policy for-
mation and climate action. Building on these claims, our goal is to assess how biases may
be reconstructed via language through means of implicit argumentation in the Summary
for Policymakers. Due to the technical language of the report, the potential bias in the
Summary could not be analysed by using similar methods as for analysing bias in media
discourse, for instance. Moreover, the IPCC aims at a consensual message without
explicit argumentation and evaluative language, which necessitates that we use special
methodology targeted at implicit argumentation. Thus, the approach chosen for the pre-
sent study is designed to first expose implicit argumentation in the data to then assess its
effect on the overall argumentative orientation of the document. The methodology used
for exposing implicit argumentation has its theoretical basis in the notion of linguistic
polyphony (depicting the capacity of the linguistic form to incorporate several view-
points in a single utterance), which will be discussed in more detail below.
The more specific research questions for the present study are as follows:
1. Can implicit argumentation between contrasted points of view be detected in the
Summary for Policymakers, and if yes, what kind of points of view are contrasted
through implicit polyphony? What themes are they concerned with?
2. How do the implicit points of view orient the discourse argumentatively in rela-
tion to the core themes of climate change science and climate decision making?
Do they emphasise aspects supporting or undermining commitments to climate
3. On the one hand, how may the practices of report production explain the absence/
presence and argumentative orientation of implicit argumentation, and, on the
Kanerva and Krizsán 5
other hand, what implications may this potential implicit argumentation in the
data have on the reception of the discourse by the target audience, and conse-
quently on the social and political processes of climate decision-making and soci-
etal change?
Climate change discourse and the institutional context of
the summary for policymakers
The following section will provide an overview of research previously conducted on
climate change discourse in the media as well as in policy reports. This is followed by a
synopsis of the institutional context of the production of the IPCC reports in order to
highlight the importance of the impact of the production of the report and the communi-
cative practices of the IPCC on patterns of implicit argumentation.
Climate change discourse and the communicative practices of the IPCC
Climate change communication has been studied since the 1990s (Fløttum, 2016: 2) and
research has addressed the various challenges in effectively communicating on this
global issue (Nerlich et al., 2010: 2). Several studies have demonstrated the media’s
tendency to highlight uncertainties relating to the scientific knowledge on climate change
rather than reporting on the clear consensus about the needed mitigation efforts (e.g.
Antilla, 2005: 350; Boykoff, 2007a: 481; Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004: 125). Hence, it has
been argued that the bias in the media coverage on the issue has led to a remarkable
divergence between climate change science and the public understanding of the phenom-
enon (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004).
In contrast to these earlier findings, diachronic studies comparing current discourse to
that of previous years highlight the increasing accuracy in the representation of the sci-
entific certainty of anthropogenic climate change in the media (Boykoff, 2007b; Schmid-
Petri et al., 2015). Indeed, Boykoff (2007b) found an evolutionary shift in the press
coverage of anthropogenic climate change in the United States from 2003 to 2006. Other
studies have also demonstrated evolutionary aspects in the way in which media reports
on climate change. In their quantitative content analysis of US print media, Schmid-Petri
et al. (2015) found a change in the form of scepticism compared to the findings of previ-
ous studies. There was no longer fundamental scepticism, that is, denial of the existence
of climate change or its human-induced nature. In contrast, there was an increase in
impact scepticism, which involves arguments for avoiding binding policy regulations
through reference to adverse effects of climate policy, such as harmful implications for
the economy, and positive effects of climate change (Schmid-Petri et al., 2015: 9). These
findings inspired the research design of the present study in which we are focusing on
more subtle forms of argumentation which may discourage further action to combat cli-
mate change.
As stated above, climate change communication by the IPCC has been criticised for vari-
ous reasons. At the same time, a number of scholars refer to the IPCC as the highest scien-
tific authority in the field (Fløttum, 2013: 282) and as a model example of how to
communicate on climate change science (e.g. Gasper et al., 2013: 38). Due to the IPCC’s
6 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
authoritative role in the discourse around the topic, several studies focused on the effective-
ness of the language use in IPCC reports (e.g. Barkemeyer et al., 2015; Bell, 1994; Bowman
et al., 2009; Hulme, 2009). The IPCC’s use of formal likelihood scales to communicate vari-
ous levels of uncertainty have been a particularly debated topic. The likelihood scale con-
sists of ten verbal expressions: virtually certain, extremely likely, very likely, likely, more
likely than not, about as likely as not, unlikely, very unlikely, exceptionally unlikely and
extremely unlikely. Research points to the direction that non-scientific audiences interpret
these statements as conveying more uncertainty. For instance, Budescu et al. (2009) have
found that people’s interpretations of these scalar terms have varied individually and lead to
a higher level of imprecision in the interpretations than what had been meant by the IPCC.
These studies on the communicative challenges related to the formal scalar system for
indicating uncertainty used by the IPCC are crucial in order to suggest better ways to
communicate to audiences in future reports. However, we argue that concentrating
merely on the formal scalar expressions does not provide a thorough enough an idea on
the level of uncertainty conveyed to the readers. A systematic analysis of implicit argu-
mentation and the level of consistency within this argumentation – as targeted by the
present paper – is equally important. Moreover, it is possible to read the report without
paying much attention to the scalar expressions of which many are in brackets in the end
of a claim. Therefore, the actual content of the claims and argumentation between them
may even play a more integral role in the message conveyed to the readers.
Besides research on the effectiveness of communication in IPCC reports, another focus of
studies on the matter investigated various aspects of communicative practices of the IPCC
(e.g. Barkemeyer et al., 2015; Fløttum, 2013; Fløttum and Dahl, 2014). In a more recent
article, Fløttum et al. (2016) analyse topics, emphases, frames and absences in all four
Summaries for Policymakers of the Fifth Assessment Report, including the Summary for
Policymakers of the Synthesis Report that is the primary data of the present study. They apply
various tools of lexical and discourse analysis, focusing on quantitative investigation of word
frequencies and statistical measures combined with qualitative contextual analysis, followed
by identification of main topics and frames in the data. Their findings demonstrate differences
between the three Working Group Summaries for Policymakers in terms of main topics,
while the Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report integrates different topics.
Moreover, they find linguistic means in the Synthesis summary which they claim
strengthen the message on the dangerous consequences of climate change. In this con-
text, they refer, on an individual basis, to a polyphonic construction with but in which
emphasis is on the warning of risks related to climate change (Fløttum et al., 2016: 127).
However, they do not systematically analyse how the emphasis works for argumentation
in other polyphonic constructions in the Summary for Policymakers. The present study
continues where Fløttum, Gasper and St. Clair left off and provides more information on
the effect of polyphonic constructions for the overall argumentation in the Summary for
Policymakers of the Synthesis Report.
The institutional context of the summary for policymakers
The IPCC defines itself as ‘the international body for assessing the science related to climate
change’ and it has played a crucial role in the emergence of global awareness of climate
Kanerva and Krizsán 7
change (IPCC, 2013). To be exact, instead of a purely scientific body, the panel should rather
be characterised as a hybrid organisation, as it operates on the boundaries of science, politics
and the public (Hulme, 2009: 96). The IPCC reports are some of the most-cited documents
for natural-scientific insights into climate change and the panel has been characterised as
‘the most important scientific actor in the climate debate’ (Fløttum, 2013: 282). However, a
certain degree of uncertainty remains concerning the status of the panel’s publications.
Indeed, according to Hulme (2009: 92) ‘[y]et exactly what the IPCC is, how it is governed,
what sort of knowledge it produces, and with what authority its knowledge is endowed are
all matters of some ambiguity’. And while the IPCC has received a great deal of criticism
(cf. Bjurström and Polk, 2011; Broome, 2014; Godal, 2003; Grundmann and Krishnamurthy,
2010; Hiramatsu et al., 2008; Yearley, 2009), little of it has dealt with the language of the
reports. This may, to a great extent, be explained by the fact that there is little proof of value
statements, explicit bias, or argumentation that would be easily distinguishable from the
reporting of scientific facts. On the surface, the IPCC seems to be restricted by the genre to
an extent which, at the first glance, does not allow much linguistic choice. Hyland (2005:
175) claims that the genres of journalism and politics ‘tend to offer writers far more freedom
to position themselves interpersonally than academic genres’. While not an academic text,
the IPCC texts can be characterised as a written knowledge-based discourse similar to aca-
demic texts. However, we adopt the view that no text is neutral, unbiased or free from argu-
mentation. This view is similar to that of Hyland (2005: 173) who states that even academic
discourse previously considered as objective and impersonal, is now perceived as ‘a persua-
sive endeavour involving interaction between writers and readers’.
Hulme (2009: 97) argues that ‘limitations to consensus knowledge must be openly
acknowledged’, including the fact that consensus is not the ultimate truth, and that it tends
to produce conservative outcomes. Brysse et al. (2013: 332) further argue that external
pressures for avoiding extreme statements guide scientists towards the same direction as
the internal rules of science, by which they mean the interpretation of objectivity as down-
playing dramatic findings. Therefore, both external pressures from, for example govern-
ments and industries and the scientific code of conduct may cause further bias in the IPCC
texts. The IPCC authors are much more under pressure from external sources than authors
of purely scientific publications such as research articles due to the quasi-political nature of
the panel and the involvement of governments in the process. We therefore argue that it is
even more challenging, but also even more important to gain more scholarly knowledge on
the communicative practices of the panel. Thus, the present study will aim to shed light on
the argumentation in the language use of the IPCC. In particular, we set out to provide
insights into whether external pressures are reflected at the level of argumentation in the
IPCC report by discussing the findings in relation to the influence of the above-mentioned
factors: limitations of consensus and external as well as internal pressures.
Methods: Linguistic polyphony as a tool for uncovering
implicit argumentation
The data of the present study does not contain explicit argumentation or stance-taking,
neither does it include direct quotations or even indirect reporting. Rather, it is character-
ised by an impression of neutrality due to its technical style, lack of evaluative expressions
8 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
and the likelihood scale applied in the text. Therefore, to access the negotiation between
different viewpoints behind the text, it is necessary to be able to identify the implicit
voices. We are aware that multiple viewpoints are involved in the process of production
of the IPCC reports and that climate change debate in general is characterised by a great
number of stakeholders with differing, often contrasting, interests. In practical terms, the
Summary for Policymakers is based on thousands of scientific research articles assessed
by the IPCC, which already implies incorporation of multiple viewpoints. The present
study will apply a theory of linguistic polyphony in order to analyse the implicit traces of
the multiple voices participating in the discussion. The analysis of polyphony will allow a
critical investigation of the perspectives included and the effect which their inclusion has
on the overall argumentative orientation of the Summary for Policymakers.
The Scandinavian Theory of Linguistic Polyphony, (La théorie scandinave de poly-
phonie linguistique) is a theoretical framework originating from the idea of a fundamen-
tally dialogic nature of language (Fløttum and Dahl, 2011: 215; Nølke et al., 2004).
While we agree with Ducrot (2004: 4) that not all constructions of linguistic argumenta-
tion present direct evidence of rhetoric argumentation, that is, they do not necessarily
indicate an intention to persuade, constructions of linguistic polyphony have the capacity
to contribute to a particular argumentative orientation of the text. In other words, poly-
phonic constructions demonstrate the intrinsic argumentativity of language. Therefore,
polyphony, intersubjectivity and argumentativity can be seen as parallel phenomena, in
which many of the notions are essentially the same fundamental insights described in
different terms.
Nølke et al. (2004) formalise the polyphonic construction with but as p but q, where
p represents the concession and q the argument that the speaker identifies with. The
propositions p and q are viewed as points of view (pov). Each concessive construction of
the form p but q can be linguistically analysed through the presentation of four points of
view. Adapted from Fløttum and Dahl (2011: 216), these four points of view are illus-
trated below:
pov1: proposition p
pov2: pov1 is an argument in favour of the conclusion r1
pov3: proposition q
pov4: pov3 is an argument in favour of the conclusion non-r
Thus, polyphonic constructions include four points of view, of which two (pov1 and
pov3) represent what is expressed in the language, that is, the so called propositional
content (a statement proposed based on a claim considered true by the authors) of the
clauses p and q. The meaning of the other two points of view (pov2 and pov4) is codified
in the concessive but connecting two clauses into one unit of meaning. This implies that,
by the usage of the conjunction but in a concessive role, the propositional contents of the
two clauses lead to contrastive conclusions (r and non-r). The following example from
the IPCC Summary for Policymakers illustrates this model: ‘Aggregate economic losses
accelerate with increasing temperature (limited evidence, high agreement), but global
Kanerva and Krizsán 9
economic impacts from climate change are currently difficult to estimate’. In this con-
struction, the polyphonic configuration could be illustrated as below:
pov1 (clause 1): ‘aggregate economic losses accelerate with increasing temperature
(limited evidence, high agreement)’
pov2 (triggered by the use of but subsequent to clause 1): pov1 is an argument in
favour of the conclusion r
pov3 (clause 2): ‘global economic impacts from climate change are currently difficult
to estimate’
pov4 (triggered by the use of but prior to clause 2): pov3 is an argument in favour of
the conclusion non-r
Following Fløttum and Dahl (2011: 216), informal translation of this analysis could be
that the writer admits that increased temperature is bad for the economy, which orients
the discourse towards a conclusion (r) that economic arguments can be used to motivate
climate action. In contrast, the connective but puts the emphasis on the claim that the
economic impacts of climate change cannot be accurately estimated, with an implicit
conclusion (non-r) that economic arguments cannot be credibly used to inspire audiences
to take climate action and that, from the economic points of view, the need for climate
action is unclear.
Fløttum and Dahl (2011) argue that in a construction such as this, the speaker identi-
fies and is more concerned with the proposition introduced by but, that is, pov 3. This
principle of the Scandinavian Theory of Linguistic Polyphony corresponds to the general
pragmatic view of but. Pragmatically speaking, p (pov 1) is functionally subordinate to q
(pov 3), even if this subordination is not reflected structurally in the grammar (NB but is
viewed as a coordinative conjunction in grammar). In other words, ‘[p]ragmatically, the
truth of q overrides, or plays down, the relevance of a true p’ (Fretheim and Vaskó, 2004:
1). This pragmatic view corresponds to the view of the function of but in the Scandinavian
Theory of Linguistic Polyphony. Nevertheless, we suggest that it is important to avoid
too strict an interpretation concerning the supremacy of q (i.e. pov 3), as p (pov 1) has an
important role in contextualising q. Therefore, we take the contextual role of proposition
p into consideration as well. In addition, we combine Fløttum and Dahl’s framework
with a critical discourse analytic approach in order to uncover ideological meanings
expressed implicitly through polyphonic constructions. To do so, we trace the combined
meanings of implicit argumentative structures between the different points of view in
polyphonic constructions. For this purpose, our methodology is developed and systema-
tised through the application of thematic categories and classes of argumentative orienta-
tions applied systematically for all polyphonic constructions analysed.
The present study focused on the Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report, a
30-page document summarising the thousands of pages in the most recent IPCC Assessment
Reports. In this data, we found 23 instances of constructions with the polyphonic marker
but. Rather than conducting a quantitative assessment, our qualitative analysis focused on
the capacity of each of these instances to (mis)inform the political action on climate change
10 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
in irreversible ways. Considering the authoritative status of the text among climate decision
makers as well as among wider audiences in democratic societies, the text may be argued
to have an important discursive role in the decision making processes. It is debatable
whether it is possible to remain neutral when using concessive structures in a context where
the assessments are oriented towards political choices. Each occurrence of but in the report
was investigated in terms of (the) polyphonic constructions that they were traces of (cf.
Dahl and Fløttum, 2014: 406). As such, the existence of polyphonic constructions in a text
is not a demonstration of bias, but rather the detailed analysis of these constructions can
reveal the ways in which different propositions are contrasted in favour of values that either
encourage or discourage climate action.
The second step in the analysis was the identification of main thematic categories
based on the close-reading of all the 23 instances of contrastive polyphonic constructions
with but, in order to facilitate the interpretation process and enable a more structured
discussion of the findings. A more specific theme was assigned to each of the polyphonic
constructions on the basis of their textual contents. The themes that appeared in these
constructions were (a) discussion of the different methods and tools available for climate
change mitigation and adaptation (b) urgency of climate action in the light of current
scientific knowledge, and (c) discussion of potential adverse effects of climate change
mitigation to society or specific sectors of society.
All of the 23 polyphonic constructions were focused on one of these three broad themes.
The most frequent theme in the polyphonic constructions was ability to respond with
twelve instances (12). This theme includes statements related to the assessment of the
methods and tools available to take climate action (i.e. broad theme a). Negotiating
urgency was the second most common theme with nine (9) instances. Naturally, this
theme includes all examples evaluating the severity of climate change and the need for
ambitious action (i.e. broad theme b). Finally, the two (2) instances that could be classi-
fied as relating to neither of these two themes were associated with the potential adverse
effects of mitigation (i.e. broad theme c). These examples do not take a stance on the
urgency of climate change, neither are they concerned with the ability to take climate
action, but they rather present counter-arguments to action in the first place.
In the following, we illustrate each thematic category with examples of polyphonic
constructions from the data. The example below belonging to the category of ability to
respond concerns different methods to assist decision-making:
(1) Methods of valuation from economic, social and ethical analysis are available to assist
decision-making. These methods can take account of a wide range of possible impacts,
including low-probability outcomes with large consequences. But they cannot identify a
single best balance between mitigation, adaptation and residual climate impacts. (p. 17)
Conclusion r: We can make well-informed policies based on the methods available.
Conclusion non-r: We cannot make well-informed policies based on the methods
Kanerva and Krizsán 11
Here, the connective but, interestingly, starts a new phrase. Contextual analysis demon-
strates that the sentence boundary is between p and q to indicate that p extends over two
phrases instead of one. Nevertheless, the sentence boundary does not affect the argumen-
tative function of but, that is, assuming contrastive implicit conclusions for the two parts
p and q and highlighting the relevance of the latter. In terms of their content, the former
may be described as a positive characterisation of the methods available, whereas the
latter is rather a negative characterisation of them. The negative characterisation follow-
ing but is represented as more relevant due to its placement. Therefore, the linguistic
choices of structuring information in this polyphonic construction orient the discourse
towards lack of knowledge by emphasising the implicit conclusion non-r over conclu-
sion r. In the light of the proposed implicit conclusions, we argue that, via the emphasis
on lack of knowledge, the construction orients towards inaction.
The following example is another instance of a polyphonic construction in which our
ability to respond is negotiated, with a conclusion non-r that orients the discourse towards
(2) Increasing efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change imply an increasing complexity
of interactions, particularly at the intersections among water, energy, land use and
biodiversity, but tools to understand and manage these interactions remain limited. (p. 20)
Conclusion r: Policy planning can be enhanced by the current understanding of the
complexity of intersections.
Conclusion non-r: Our current understanding of the complexity of intersections is
inadequate to properly support policy planning.
In this example, the two voices orient the discourse towards different conclusions about
the current knowledge and its usefulness for the policy planning process. With the poly-
phonic marker but, the statement concerning lack of knowledge is marked as the more
relevant claim in this context. This can be understood as discouraging immediate action,
especially in the light of policy-makers as the target audience.
Adding to the complexity, the following construction with but indicates differences
between regions and sectors:
(3) Adaptation options exist in all sectors, but their context for implementation and potential
to reduce climate-related risks differs across sectors and regions. (p. 26)
Conclusion r: Planning of adaptation policy is simple regardless of the sector.
Conclusion non-r: Planning adaptation policy is complicated and sector-specific chal-
lenges exist.
The theme of ability to respond is first described in positive terms of availability of options,
thus encouraging engagement in adaptation measures, and then in more complex terms of
sectoral and regional differences, thus placing emphasis on the difficulty of planning
12 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
adaptation policy. As with the preceding example, the conclusion non-r can be described as
a negative characterisation of the potential of adaptation options. Contextualised by con-
clusion r, the outcome is a representation that emphasises the limitations of ability to
respond. Hence, example (3) is more positive than example (1) and (2). In example (1)
implicit argumentation discourages action as conclusion non-r implies that well-informed
policies are not possible to make. By communicating our current understanding of prob-
lems through conclusion non-r, example (2) discourages immediate action (NB. the phrase
‘remain limited’ in the data). In contrast to this, example (3), q (pov 3) does not centre that
much on indicating the lack of knowledge, but rather it is targeted at contextual differences
between sectors. Therefore example (3) operates by leaving space for more optimism for
future understanding and hence efficient response than the two previous examples. Thus,
despite their differences in terms of the possibility of future action, both example (1) and
(2) communicate that the current understanding of the problems do not make an immediate
efficient response available. In contrast to this, example (3) keeps the possibility open for
immediate response as the limitations it poses via conclusion non-r only concern a unified,
that is, sector independent solution. However, by emphasising ability to respond as being
limited, example (3) is all in all still stronger oriented towards discouraging climate action
than encouraging it. Not least because, as we will discuss in the conclusion section, policy-
makers tend to take action at the stage when there are clear, unambiguous recommendation
and knowledge to guide the implementation of the policies.
There were also two instances in the category of ability to respond classified as hav-
ing a positive, encouraging orientation in terms of climate action. Both instances are
concerned with international cooperation in relation to adaptation to climate change. In
one of these two instances, (4) exemplified below, the latter clause clearly implies a posi-
tive and encouraging attitude towards climate action, in arguing for the benefits of inter-
national cooperation. The emphasis is on the ability of current methods to support
efficient action and, therefore, orients the argumentation towards encouragement for cli-
mate action.
(4) International cooperation for supporting adaptation planning and implementation has
received less attention historically than mitigation but [it] is increasing and has assisted
in the creation of adaptation strategies, plans and actions at the national, sub-national and
local level (high confidence). (p. 29)
Conclusion r: Adaptation planning is restricted to the local and national levels.
Conclusion non-r: Adaptation planning is not restricted to the local and national lev-
els but can be enhanced through international cooperation.
Having discussed the category of ability to respond above, the category of urgency is
exemplified in the construction below in which the proposition expressing uncertainty is
given an emphasis by placing it in the but-clause.
(5) Abrupt and irreversible ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet is possible, but current
evidence and understanding is insufficient to make a quantitative assessment. (p. 16)
Kanerva and Krizsán 13
Conclusion r: We have evidence that climate action can be motivated by saving the
Antarctic ice sheet.
Conclusion non-r: The evidence on the ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet is insuf-
ficient to be a motivation to take climate action.
The contrastive argumentative orientation of these implicit conclusions is clear: the for-
mer illustrates one of the large-scale consequences of climate change, thus contributing
to the expression of urgency, while the latter questions the current evidence on these
consequences. The uncertainty is expressed by the proposition q. In addition, the propo-
sition p already establishes a context of vagueness by including an indicator of uncer-
tainty, a modal expression, the adjective possible, and this uncertainty then is further
emphasised in the proposition q. As uncertainty is expressed in this construction, the
argumentation orients the discourse towards inaction.
The following example from the category of urgency concerns the economic impacts
of climate change:
(6) Aggregate economic losses accelerate with increasing temperature (limited evidence,
high agreement), but global economic impacts from climate change are currently difficult
to estimate. (p. 16)
Conclusion r: From the economic perspective, it is clear that we should act on climate
Conclusion non-r: From the economic perspective, it is unclear whether we should act
on climate change.
In this case, the negotiation of potential impacts is done with reference to economic factors.
The proposition p already includes a formal scalar expression ‘limited evidence, high agree-
ment’, which indicates the level of uncertainty associated with the contents of the proposi-
tion. However, the uncertainty is given further emphasis as the proposition q is marked as
more important. Thus, conclusion non-r orients the discourse towards uncertainty.
In contrast, in the following example the concession expresses complexity, while the
latter proposition orients the discourse towards support for urgent action.
(7) Mitigation involves some level of co-benefits and of risks due to adverse side effects, but
these risks do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread and irreversible
impacts as risks from climate change, increasing the benefits from near-term mitigation
efforts. (p. 17, 19)
Conclusion r: We should be careful with committing to mitigation efforts.
Conclusion non-r: We should commit to mitigation efforts without hesitation.
Two instances were categorised in the third thematic category, the category of adverse
effects of mitigation. The following example was classified into this category, as it is
concerned with the costs of mitigation.
14 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
(8) Estimates of the aggregate economic costs of mitigation vary widely depending on
methodologies and assumption, but [they] increase with the stringency of mitigation.
(p. 24)
Conclusion r: Economic arguments cannot be used to discourage mitigation.
Conclusion non-r: Economic arguments can be used to discourage mitigation.
The uncertainty or variation in terms of estimates of the costs of mitigation is expressed
in the concession, the proposition p, while the proposition q states directly and without
hedging that stringent mitigation is associated with increased costs. The author marks the
statement on correlation between mitigation and increased costs as more important in the
context. Therefore, this example contributes to the discouragement, based on its focus on
adverse effects of mitigation.
Table 1 summarises the basic meanings or ideas expressed by the conclusions non-r,
demonstrating the way in which the meanings lead instances to be classified into encour-
agement or discouragement categories.
As demonstrated in Table 1 below, constructions in the thematic category of urgency
categorised as contributing to encouragement were those that placed emphasis on the
claim communicating urgency. In contrast, implicit conclusions non-r associated with
uncertainty in the climate science or downplaying of urgency were considered as con-
tributing to the discouragement of urgent action.
Table 1. Meanings associated with encouragement and discouragement.
Thematic category Encouragement Discouragement
Urgency Urgency Uncertainty, downplaying of urgency
Ability to respond Ability, availability Inability, unavailability, inadequacy,
lack of knowledge, lack of experience,
difficulty, variation, unreliability
Adverse effects of mitigation Focus on adverse effects
In the thematic category of ability to respond, optimistic evaluations of the tools and
methods available for the planning and realisation of climate policy were considered as
encouraging factors in the argumentation. These included the meanings of ability and
availability. Pessimistic accounts, instead, were considered as contributing to discour-
agement. It was found that encouraging can-do messages in this category could be under-
mined by several meanings in the implicit conclusion non-r, including unavailability,
inadequacy or unreliability of appropriate methods, inability of available methods to
reach the expected impacts or difficulty of applying them, lack of knowledge or experi-
ence, or variation in the applicability of methods.
Finally, floor given to the discussion of the potential adverse effects of mitigation can
be considered as discouragement of action, as it justifies arguments to postpone mitiga-
tion. Neither of the examples in these categories denied or undermined the relevance of
these adverse effects for policymaking in the emphasised but-clause. Instead, one of the
Kanerva and Krizsán 15
examples reinforced the message of potential negative effects in the emphasised clause,
and it was therefore characterised with the label focus on adverse effects (of mitigation),
whereas the other example in this category hesitated on the generalizability of this state-
ment. The latter was therefore technically characterised as belonging to neither encour-
agement nor discouragement categories.
Table 2 below summarises the findings with an indication of number of occurrences
in each thematic category as well as their argumentative orientation.
To summarise the findings, the instances demonstrate a rather inconsistent application
of emphasis in the implicit contrastive argumentation in the Summary for Policymakers.
Firstly, 10 out of 12 instances concerning our ability to respond to climate change place
emphasis on the pessimistic view of the methods and tools available for climate action.
Therefore, the majority of examples in this thematic category can be seen as orienting the
argumentation towards discouragement for the policymakers to commit to climate action.
Similarly, contrastive polyphonic constructions with the polyphonic marker but do not
contribute to a consistent message on the urgency of climate change. While five out of
nine instances emphasise a conclusion associated with encouragement for climate action,
three instances still place focus on the uncertainties in the current knowledge concerning
the urgency of climate change or on the sufficiency of current level of ambition. Thus,
they discourage more ambitious climate action. In the latter examples, the but-clause can-
cels or limits the argumentative force of the statement of urgency in the preceding clause.
Therefore, the urgency is debated through polyphonic constructions with a subtle domi-
nance of the constructions with an emphasis on the urgency of climate action. Nevertheless,
almost as frequent are constructions in which an orientation towards uncertainties over-
rides the messages of urgency. Therefore, there is a lack of unanimous and clear emphasis
on the urgency of climate change among these polyphonic constructions.
Similarly, the third thematic category of adverse effects of mitigation with two instances
is divided between an instance with emphasis on the argument for the adverse effects of
mitigation and an instance in which the emphasis is on the clause indicating uncertainty
or variation in the negative impacts of mitigation. The findings will be discussed in more
detail and in terms of their causes and consequences in the following section.
Concluding Discussion
The findings were interpreted in terms of their explanations and potential implications
for future climate action. Possible explanations for the findings include the pursuit of
external consensus, the pressures to maintain political credibility and the overarching
Table 2. Argumentative orientation of instances – in numbers.
Thematic category Encouragement Discouragement Neither All
Urgency 5 3 1 9
Ability to respond 2 10 0 12
Adverse effects of mitigation 0 1 1 2
All 7 14 2 23
16 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
influence of economic interest and pro-growth frames. Consensus approaches tend to
lead to conservative outcomes (e.g. Hulme, 2009: 97) and the IPCC Summaries for
Policymakers are produced under the influence of government representatives. Moreover,
the overarching influence of growth economics may explain why uncertainties in the
current knowledge, economic consequences and risks of mitigation receive the emphasis
in many polyphonic constructions.
Regarding the implications of the findings, the argumentative structure of the poly-
phonic constructions may further contribute to impact scepticism (cf. Schmid-Petriet al.,
2015) and offer policymakers strategies for avoidance of responsibility and delaying
action. The communication of uncertainty in science advice may be used for political
manipulation (cf. Stirling, 2010: 1029). This may be especially effective in supporting
some of the discursive strategies used by populist parties – for example, Wodak (2003:
142) has introduced the term calculated ambivalence to describe the populist discursive
strategy of discussing debated topics ‘in a way that allows for possible ambiguous inter-
pretations and is open for at least two opposite meanings’. For such strategies, ambiguity
in policy advice could be used as a resource. Furthermore, the inconsistency of the poly-
phonic argumentation has potential implications to both the credibility of the IPCC as an
institution (ethos) and the rational part of its argument (logos).
The argumentative orientation of the majority of the polyphonic constructions to dis-
couragement is likely to decrease the strength of message conveyed to policymakers
concerning the precautionary principle and the need for urgent action. Furthermore, as
policymakers are known to be biased towards avoidance of binding regulations prior to
reading the Summary for Policymakers, the constructions are likely to assist in justifying
this avoidance. Moreover, the polyphonic constructions can be demonstrated to legiti-
mise the pursuit of infinite economic growth, and the associated prioritisation of eco-
nomic goals over precautionary action to mitigate climate change. Claims about
uncertainties in the current knowledge concerning the needed level of climate action are
relevant arguments against precautionary mitigation efforts only if one evaluates the
need for climate action on the basis of its costs. Thus, emphasis on the uncertainties over
urgency helps to legitimate delays in action on the basis of economic arguments and
therefore reinforces pro-growth frames on climate change as the socially valid ones.
IPCC’s discourse may, thus, be contributing to the maintaining of impact scepticism. In
the end, it seems that the bias and excessive attention given to the uncertainties in the media
and public discourse, demonstrated by previous research, may very well derive from the
procedures and communicative practices of the knowledge assessment organisations such
as the IPCC. Indeed, the findings of the present study correlate with the phenomena earlier
detected in newspaper discourse and lobbyist campaigns, such as emphasising the conclu-
sions based on the uncertainties and negative consequences of climate action (cf. Antilla,
2005; Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004; Oreskes and Conway, 2010).
One of the main conclusions of the discussion is that it is impossible for a text to be
completely based on an objective presentation of facts. This is in line with Fiske (1994) and
the main tenets in functional linguistics (e.g. Halliday and Matthiessen, 2014) and critical
linguistics (e.g. van Dijk, 2015) on any instance of language not being neutral, thus lan-
guage use always being political. In other words, regardless of the medium and the genre,
the review procedures and consensual practices, there is always a level of subjectivity in
Kanerva and Krizsán 17
play in any text. What is more, this subjectivity does reflect and reconstruct various types
of interests being at play at the production (and consumption) of any text. For the analyst,
such subjectivity can reveal values and ideological influences in the production stage of the
text such as economic interests in the present case. The subjectivity of the IPCC report is
partly due to the nature of the task it was produced for since whether we should invest in
climate action based on uncertain future risks is a decision always subject to value judge-
ment. From a critical discourse analytic point of view, every act of implying that we should
not invest in climate action is denying future generations the opportunities to live rich and
fulfilling lives in order to benefit those who are currently in power. Thus, implying that not
investing would be the relevant argument for valid action in this context supports the cur-
rent status quo and helps to benefit hegemonic groups who gain advantage of overproduc-
tion, overconsumption and global capitalism. Therefore, emphasising points of view
undermining implicit conclusions of encouragement for action are inherently based on
values of political and economic elites even though such discouragement is implicit and the
values are not perhaps internalised explicitly by the IPCC.
In order to gain an even more thorough understanding of the way in which argumen-
tativity in language contributes to the strength of the message in explicitly consensual
reports and the reception of this message by policymakers, we suggest that future studies
include multidisciplinary approaches combining linguistics, social sciences and psychol-
ogy. The aspect of reception particularly requires contribution from psychological sci-
ences. The present study has provided a starting point for such a multidisciplinary
investigation by demonstrating the relationship between the linguistic marker but, its
effect on the hierarchy of claims, as well as the themes and specific types of meaning
communicated by these claims.
While there has clearly been progress in terms of communicating information about
climate change to the publics, the present study has shown that orientation towards
uncertainties in constructions of implicit polyphony in reporting about climate change
continues to affect the argumentation of the most important authority delivering guid-
ance to policymakers on the climate change issue. While the IPCC has historically had a
major positive influence on the admittance of the anthropogenic character of climate
change by decision makers and the publics around the world, its communication is still
constrained by its dependency on governments’ recognition and cooperation. This influ-
ence will continue to be necessary in order to maintain the authority in the eyes of the
policymakers. Nevertheless, increased disciplinary balance of the assessments, transpar-
ency of communicative practices, and acknowledgement of conservative bias can narrow
the gap between the constrained, conventional and political role of the IPCC and its
perceived status as a neutral, purely scientific and value-free organisation in the future.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
18 Discourse & Communication 00(0)
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Author biographies
Julia Kanerva MA, is a PhD candidate at the University of Turku, Finland. Her research interests
are in language and ideology, the discursive manifestation of social and environmental issues, and
the critical study of discourses on climate change. Her fields of research are in critical discourse
analysis and ecolinguistics. She has worked in these fields for more than five years and interned in
the unit for international environmental policy at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland where
she got involved in national policy work in sustainable development and climate policy. In her
position at the UN in Brussels, her tasks included monitoring the media representation of interna-
tional climate negotiations. She is a member of the International Sociological Association.
Attila Krizsán, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the English Department of the University of Turku,
Finland. His research interests are in the relationship of language and politics, language and iden-
tity and discourses of sustainability. His fields of research are in (critical) discourse analysis, func-
tional linguistics and ecolinguistics. He has published on identification patterns in European politi-
cal discourse; Viktor Orbán’s discourse strategies; Europeanism and nationalism among EU civil
servants; Europeanisation of public education systems; opinion formation in digital media and
politics in science production. He is a member of the International Sociological Association and
the International Ecolinguistics Association.
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Skepticism toward climate change has a long tradition in the United States. We focus on mass media as the conveyors of the image of climate change and ask: Is climate change skepticism still a characteristic of US print media coverage? If so, to what degree and in what form? And which factors might pave the way for skeptics entering mass media debates? We conducted a quantitative content analysis of US print media during one year (1 June 2012 to 31 May 2013). Our results show that the debate has changed: fundamental forms of climate change skepticism (such as denial of anthropogenic causes) have been abandoned in the coverage, being replaced by more subtle forms (such as the goal to avoid binding regulations). We find no evidence for the norm of journalistic balance, nor do our data support the idea that it is the conservative press that boosts skepticism.
The scientific knowledge associated with the phenomenon of climate change is presented and circulated in a variety of text and talk aimed at audiences with different knowledge backgrounds and agendas. Language is crucial in the presentation of scientific issues, but to date few climate change studies have taken a point of departure in linguistics. This paper explores some linguistic and discursive features of a text from the IPCC, the Summary for Policymakers of the Fourth Assessment's Synthesis Report (2007). This document is based on scientific papers but addressed to policymakers, something which we argue makes it an example of knowledge asymmetry. It represents the formally agreed statement of the IPCC concerning key findings and uncertainties regarding climate change. We consider how this discourse is constructed, being situated somewhere between scientific and political discourse. We focus specifically on two features: the nature of knowledge claims and the use of polyphonic (multivoiced) constructions. Climate change knowledge is characterised by complexity and uncertainty. The discussion of knowledge claims takes its point of departure in these characteristics and focuses primarily on how the uncertainty aspect is mediated to a non-scientific audience. In the polyphonic analysis, we explore to what extent the linguistic form is multi-voiced, which voices are included, and to what extent the sources of the voices are made explicit. The purpose is to explain how claims and voices orient the discursive argumentation in climate communication.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Summary for Policymakers (SPM) is the most widely read section of IPCC reports and the main springboard for the communication of its assessment reports. Previous studies have shown that communicating IPCC findings to a variety of scientific and non-scientific audiences presents significant challenges to both the IPCC and the mass media. Here, we employ widely established sentiment analysis tools and readability metrics to explore the extent to which information published by the IPCC differs from the presentation of respective findings in the popular and scientific media between 1990 and 2014. IPCC SPMs clearly stand out in terms of lowreadability, which has remained relatively constant despite the IPCC’s efforts to consolidate and readjust its communications policy. In contrast, scientific and quality newspaper coverage has become increasingly readable and emotive. Our findings reveal easy gains that could be achieved in making SPMs more accessible for non-scientific audiences.