Published on 29 May 2019
Research
Une vingtaine de personnes ont contribué à mettre au point la traduction française du résumé aux décideurs du rapport du GIEC. Shutterstock

Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a climate science researcher at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences (CEA/CNRS/UVSQ), and Youba Sokona, Vice-President of the IPCC and Honorary Professor at University College London, discuss the citizen's initiative to translate the IPCC report into French and the impact of producing adaptations of its assessment reports for all audiences and in different languages.

At a time when thousands of young people are abandoning schools and universities to take to the streets in favour of the climate, citizens are taking ownership of the IPCC's special report of October 2018. The latter focused on the consequences of a global warming of more than 1.5°C by 2100.
 
Published on Wikisource on March 2, the report's citizen translation into French was widely reported. Launched by amateur translators on their personal pages, shared by many Internet users, relayed by social and traditional media, it is now circulating among the French-speaking public in Europe, Africa and Quebec.
 
As the unofficial little sister of an official document for the world's decision-makers, it is addressed to politicians as much as to citizens, making intelligible to them a document written in English, supposedly known to everyone, but read by very few.
 

A political observation

This initiative was born from the observation of Brice Montagne, a French citizen committed to climate action in Europe. On February 5, he publicly questioned the Chamber of Deputies of Luxembourg, his country of residence:
 
"The IPCC report, which was published in autumn 2018, details everything we need to do and everything we are dealing with. I have a question for you: who read this report? »
 
No hands rose in the Chamber. Possible confusion between French GIEC and English IPCC acronyms, this excuse would be invoked later. Beyond the anecdote, the vast majority of politicians seems not to have read the short "summary for decision-makers" of about thirty pages in English.
 
How can the right political decisions be taken without first having taken the scientific facts into account? A question that Valérie Masson-Delmotte asked herself in October 2018 during her hearing in the Senate.
 
The purpose of this assessment of the state of knowledge by the scientific community is precisely to inform political choices, in a neutral and non-prescriptive way: why, therefore, is a report approved by all countries not systematically discussed in plenary session in parliaments?
 

Language, a major barrier

The IPCC report rigorously sets out, on the basis of global research, possible ways of action, and as many possible solutions for decision-makers. It stresses the urgent needs for "unprecedented historical transitions" in all sectors of activity as well as transformations that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while allowing everyone to live a better and more dignified life.
 
It also highlights the serious consequences of climate risks for people and for the preservation of biodiversity in the event of delay or inaction.
 
How can billions of people be mobilized for a legitimate cause if policies have not integrated it? Opening the way directly to civic consciousness could be an alternative. However, for most people, their native language is an undeniable barrier to the accessibility of the document, which was originally published in English.
 
On the IPCC website, translations into the other UN languages (Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and French) were announced but are still being proofread. This six-month delay between the publication of the report, its media coverage and its accessibility in other languages are major obstacles to the appropriation of the report by non-English-speaking citizens.
 
Steps in preparing an IPCC report.
 
In a cross-border and pan-European approach, Brice Montagne called on an idea from a long-time friend, Eva Girodon. Frédéric Conrotte, a Belgian citizen close to Brice, offered the best collaborative solutions available on the web. A team of motivated people mobilized spontaneously, and its ranks grew as the project spreaded to other languages and other regions.
 
For the French, it is a total of about twenty people who have devoted their entire evenings to read it carefully, like Florence Gavelle, or make sporadic changes. From idea to publication, less than four weeks has passed!
 

A rigorous approach

If the approach was civic and voluntary, credibility could only be achieved at the cost of an almost professional rigour; the choice of words was weighed, translations of previous reports were scrutinized, and discussions were opened between translators from all backgrounds for complex concepts or specific denominations.

The French version was the first to be completed, followed by the Portuguese version. The documents are hosted on the collaborative platform Wikisource, where many important historical documents, including the Galileo trial, are located. This is a powerful symbolism for IPCC reports, which are also part of the history of the essential knowledge that humanity has produced.

From the outset, the approach was intended to be transparent and the IPCC Legal Service was informed even before the English version was initially translated into automatic translation, the only computerized step in an exercise whose subsequent steps would be based on collective human intelligence.
 
Since then, the document in French has been consulted nearly 30,000 times: a real success for the summary of a text that remains highly technical.
 

An echo of the IPCC recommendations

It is not the mandate of the IPCC to produce adaptations of its assessment reports for all audiences. This therefore requires the mobilization of other actors and appropriate communication tools - derivatives in a way - for the dissemination of knowledge to different types of audiences. This was the conclusion of the group of experts convened by the IPCC to discuss communication in February 2016 in Oslo.
 
These "derivatives" are communication tools whose initiative and origin do not come from the Group of Experts, but whose aims and objectives meet its communication needs. National or citizen initiatives, public or private, they are both beneficial and necessary, they testify to the appropriation of scientific messages by each of the actors, whether they are decision-makers or citizens.
 
The innovative aspect of the current citizens' approach is that it opens the door to a careful review by IPCC members of the work provided by these citizens, even if their initiative is not intended to replace an official translation. Youba Sokona and Thelma Krug, Vice-Chairs of the IPCC, have already enthusiastically expressed their benevolent support for this initiative and have read the French and Portuguese versions of it.
 
Publication schedule for the IPCC Assessment Report 6.
 

A snowball effect

The power of a citizens' initiative of this type is to bring together politicians, citizens and experts, transcending the interests of the parties for a common cause - today's res publica and tomorrow's world.
 
Relevant, it infiltrates the political class and opens the debate, placing citizens' concerns on the agenda of decision-makers' discussions. Transparent and innovative, it proposes efficient methods (wiki) for a collegial review, involving citizens or scientists, authors of the report or not.
 
Through its effectiveness, it disrupts the experts' calendar and presents itself as a support. It is through popular language that this message from experts is now making headlines in the mainstream media. Starting from a small country, the cradle of Europe, it quickly spreads beyond borders and continents, and takes off in the spirit of the times.
 
Like climate change, which is not confined by any frontier, the citizen approach is spreading: no language is a priority, no order is stablished, only matters the motivation of the person who speaks the language and acts as a spokesperson for the IPCC's conclusions, without having its approval or validation, but doing legitimately so because it is in line with a structured but open communication strategy, citizen in its essence and scientific in its substance.
 
This citizens' initiative reinforces the one of urban decision-makers, who have also produced an adaptation (in English only) of the summary for report's decision-makers; or the one of the Office for Climate Education, which has produced (in English, French and German) an adaptation of the summary for teachers.
 
Perhaps the first step in adapting "summaries for decision-makers" to "summaries for citizens"?
 

This article was co-authored by Brice Montagne, Frédéric Conrotte and Bénédicte Hennico, citizens who initiated and/or participated in this collective translation initiative.
 
Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Researcher in Climate Sciences, Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, Research Director at CEA (Commissariat à l'énergie atomique), Université Paris-Saclay and Youba Sokona, Vice-President of the IPCC and Honorary Professor, UCL
 
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article in French.