Tracking all the relevant publications on climate change has become impossible. Climate science and policy need a new approach for an age of big literature

When the lines between scientific facts, legitimate disagreements and uncertainties about climate change are being deliberately blurred – not least by world leaders like Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has never been more important. It is the IPCC’s task to make sense of the landscape of scientific findings, where they agree, and why they may differ. The authors of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report – hundreds of scientists across many disciplines – have a massive task on their hands, ahead of its publication in 2021.

When the volume of scientific information continues to grow exponentially, so does the difficulty of maintaining a clear overview. Tracking and reading all of the relevant publications on climate change has become impossible, as more emerge in a single year than was previously the case over an entire, or multiple, assessment periods. Even if there was no further growth over the next three years, the relevant literature to be reviewed for the IPCC’s sixth assessment will be somewhere between 270,000 and 330,000 publications. This is larger than the entire climate change literature before 2014. So conducting a scientific assessment is increasingly a “big literature” challenge.

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