Valerie Masson-Delmotte

Valérie Masson-Delmotte says the scientists behind the IPCC climate assessment are doing their best to maintain momentum. Credit: Laurence Geai for Nature

With science around the world grinding to a halt as a result of efforts to contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is struggling to keep the world’s next big global-warming report on track.

Hundreds of scientists are working with the international panel to assess the science of climate change as well as the efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and prepare for inevitable impacts. The next big report — the IPCC's first in about seven years — is due out next year, and is intended to guide government actions. But that timeline is already under threat due to government lockdowns, travel bans and university closures.

Here, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a climatologist at the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory in Gif-sur-Yvette, France and co-chair of the working group that assesses the physical science of climate change, discusses with Nature how the scientists involved are dealing with the crisis. Regardless of the final schedule and acknowledging the inevitable delays ahead, Masson-Delmotte says she intends to press on with her work. “We want to have a light touch and avoid adding any burden on the shoulders of people who are facing multiple challenges,” she says.

How is the IPCC adapting to problems posed by COVID-19? What is the strategy?

I think there are two dimensions. The first one is to alleviate the stress on everybody contributing to the work of the IPCC. The second is to develop ways to maintain the highest-quality standards for our reports. The two goals are contradictory, in a way.

We have run a survey of the climate-science community and received 351 responses from all continents (see 'How are climate scientists coping?'). Ninety-five percent say that measures in place to address the coronavirus situation are impacting on their work. Many are not able to continue working in the laboratory or do field work. Most meetings are postponed or cancelled. Researchers are dealing with a transition to online teaching and extra administrative issues. They feel committed, but it's such a stress at the moment.

How are climate scientists coping: Shows the results of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change survey of scientists.

Source: IPCC

This month's meeting of the IPCC working group on climate-change mitigation will now take place online. Can the IPCC work virtually?

We will all learn from this experience. For years we have faced a number of challenges in making our physical meetings more participatory and inclusive. Now we need to work to make online meetings as inclusive and as participatory as possible.

We cannot ask people to spend 8 hours in an online meeting when it's the middle of the night on one part of the globe, so we need to make the best use of time when people are connected. It's about unpacking what has to be done during the meeting, and structuring a process that continues in the following weeks. We have some experience with this, but not at the level of what we need.

What about the IPCC plenary session scheduled to begin in Kenya at the end of September?

From my perspective, I don't think a plenary session can easily take place remotely. For the special report on 1.5 °C last year, it was like 100 hours in a single week, working around the clock with huddles and contact groups. There are long, detailed discussions between authors and delegates from governments. It's possible, but it can only work if all government delegates and authors have high-quality internet access. And that’s not yet the case, especially in Africa.

How has the crisis affected your efforts to promote diversity and broaden participation within the IPCC?

This crisis is revealing and exacerbating all sorts of inequalities. It’s an additional burden for scientists with children, and especially the mothers. It's also exacerbating the challenges of working remotely for those in the developing world.

But I think the strongest pressure is on early-career scientists and students. They miss discussion, feedback and teamwork. They don't have established networks. Their financial situation is less secure. PhD students are concerned about graduating and having no job, and post-docs depend on grants from projects that have been delayed. The level of stress is unbelievable.

Given the potential scale of the economic, social and political changes ahead due to COVID-19, will the assessment itself need to be updated?

We have not yet fully touched on that in our discussions, but the elephant in the room is the relevance of the IPCC report to the current situation. For instance, there might be insights with the economic slowdown leading to reductions in emissions of short-lived climate forcers [such as methane, nitrogen dioxide and black carbon]. There is research taking place, but if it is to be part of the assessment we need to have timely publications.

There are cut-off dates for the science that can be included in the climate assessment. Are you worried about scientists getting their work published in time?

Any delay to the IPCC schedule would involve an extension of cut-off dates, giving authors the opportunity to assess very carefully new literature coming out in the pandemic context.

Do you worry about the postponement of the United Nations climate and biodiversity conferences to 2021?

No, they could never have taken place. We need to wait until something like an affordable vaccination is available to get back to normal. I think the postponement also gives more time for people to think very carefully about the type of society we want to build together.

We are trying to keep up the momentum. When we keep these meetings going, I think we create a sort of work bubble where people are comfortable, where they can escape the ambient stress and focus on something we've been working so hard for. So, it's also helpful, in a way, to continue our work.

Are there lessons we can learn from the COVID-19 crisis?

I really hope that the lessons learnt from the lack of strategic planning for this pandemic will push governments and the general public to consider how to better address other, slow-onset crises.

I know it's creating a lot of anxiety, but it's also the right time to consider, very seriously, solidarity among generations — not just protecting those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus today, but also protecting the young generations. What will be the legacy of our actions today? That's the key issue related to climate change and biodiversity.