Haiku Illuminate Climate Change Reports From IPCC

Haiku helps us to think about climate change. (Photo Greg Johnson and Sightline Institute)
Dr. Greg Johnson as painted by his daughter. (Image courtesy Lucy Johnson)

I want to share with you one researcher’s bold innovation in communicating results and predictions about climate conditions coming out of almost uncountable hours of work and thousands of pages of reporting.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the global committee studying the phenomenon, faces an audience of reluctant readers when it comes to its huge reports. IPCC publishes major reports compiled by a membership of hundreds of scientists. The subject is so vast and complicated that the June assessment report from its Working Group I (Physical Science Basis) is more than 2200 pages long. The short version, the “Summary for Policymakers” (called a “brochure”), is 27 pages long, including graphics, observations, and conclusions.

One scientist brought a unique perspective to this challenge. Dr. Greg Johnson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who served as a lead author on the IPCC Working Group I report in June, was moved to create beautiful and brief summaries from the report: He wrote 19 haiku and illustrated each one with a watercolor painting. (He also posts on Facebook in haiku.) The entire set is available as “Climate Change Science 2013: Haiku” at the Sightline Institute, as slides, booklet, or video, for non-profit use with permission.

Some IPCC scientists think smaller, more frequent assessments and reports would work better than the current five-year schedule of giant reports. We will have to wait and see if haiku becomes officially sanctioned for shorter reports.

Note that these poems and illustrations are Johnson’s personal work and are not affiliated with the IPCC report officially. But they came about when Johnson was trying to distill the report’s main issues into succinct points. He already knew that haiku was a valuable exercise for constraining words and refining thoughts, so he devoted one poem to each of his target topics. When his daughter, an artist, saw the poems, she suggested that he also create watercolors to go along with the verses.

For some folks it’s enough to simply know whether the climate is half full or half empty, without worrying about the specific measurements; they can get a good dose of climate overview from Johnson’s creative distillation. For those with a more quantitative and analytical bent, this can be a pleasant entrée to one of the more detailed IPCC reports or news presentations.

All images used by permission from Dr. Greg Johnson and Sightline Institute.

If you like this approach of combining science and art, try A + STEM  = STEAM:

STEAM Heroes: 10 Great Minds Who Combine Arts and Sciences

From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand

STEAM Ahead: Merging Arts and Science Education

Kay works with engineers, scientists, and programmers as a writer and editor, which she prefers over working with muggles. When sufficiently caffeinated, she geeks out over words, communication, biology, needlework, and recreational sports. And, of course, chocolate. Her children _may_ have been exposed to D&D at a too-young age, but they continue to play happily to this day.