What is the IPCC? A simple overview of everything you need to know

What is the IPCC? What does it actually do? And is it an effective force for tackling the climate crisis? Let’s find out.

Tabitha Whiting
4 min readMar 19



It’s one of many acronyms in the world of climate change — and it’s a heavily referenced one.

In fact, you’ll likely see the term ‘IPCC’ pop up all over the news and social media feeds in the coming week, as they prepare for the release of their next report. But more on that later.

First things first: what actually is the IPCC? And what is its role in tackling the climate change?

Let’s break it down.

What is the IPCC?

The International Panel on Climate Change — commonly referred to as IPCC — was set up by the United Nations in 1988 to be the world’s authority on climate change.

At its core, the IPCC is a group of scientists who regularly assess the latest research on climate change — the research behind what’s causing it, the impacts and risks for people and ecosystems worldwide, opportunities to mitigate climate change, and so on.

The IPCC then synthesise the findings from this research into objective and impartial reports of the latest climate knowledge.

These reports are primarily written for policy makers — aiming to guide the climate policies and decisions of governments across the globe with science-based evidence on the best actions to take.

What reports does the IPCC publish?

There are two main types of reports that the IPCC publish:

  1. Assessment Reports (with an accompanying Synthesis Report)
  2. Special Reports

The IPCC assessment reports

Assessment reports are the core publication of the IPCC, assessing the latest climate research that has been published since the previous reporting cycle.

Since 1988 there have been six ‘assessment cycles’ of the IPCC. Each cycle results in at least one assessment report on the group’s findings, and often there are multiple reports on different topics.

So for instance, in the current sixth assessment cycle have been three assessment reports published about the latest research on:

  • The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change (published August 2021)
  • Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (published February 2022)
  • Mitigation of Climate Change (published March 2022)

Each assessment cycle ends with the release of a ‘synthesis report’, which breaks down the most important findings from the main reports — the synthesis report is the document then used as a textbook to shape climate policy and action.

The synthesis report for the sixth assessment cycle is currently in progress, due to be published next week, on Monday 20 March 2023, marking the end of this sixth assessment cycle, and providing policymakers with updated advice and guidance on the pathway to a safe future for all.

The IPCC Special Reports

Alongside the core assessment reports, the IPCC has published one ‘special report’, outside of the normal assessment cycles of the group — titled ‘Global Warming of 1.5 degrees’.

This special report came about after the Paris Agreement was adopted, making it an official target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The IPCC was invited to publish a report on this topic, giving the scientific consensus and authority on how humanity can limit warming to this level.

The published report demonstrated that it did remain possible to keep warming below 1.5 degrees, but that to achieve this would policymakers to put systems in place to require deep decarbonisation and emissions reductions quickly and across all parts of society, as well as implementing projects and technology to remove existing carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

Is the IPCC effective?

At the core of it, the goal of the IPCC is to assess all the latest climate research and synthesis this information into science-based advice and guidance for policymakers.

It is achieving that aim — publishing regular, in-depth reports on the latest science and what that means for the best pathways forward.

However, many have questioned whether the information is presented and communicated in the best way, to inspire action from policymakers and actually catalyse change.

Even though the IPCC specifically exists to translate scientific research into accessible summaries for policymakers, the reports are still very dense and difficult to understand for most people outside of the scientific space.

On top of that, the IPCC reports rarely receive the attention that they deserve, given the urgency of the problem we face. For reports of this importance, you’d expect to see them plastered all over every news and media site in the world, front and centre. Unfortunately, as with all climate-related news, that just isn’t the case.

And the information the IPCC is gathering is not truly accessible or even visible, then the IPCC cannot be said to be doing its role effectively.

Ultimately, since the IPCC was set up in 1988 carbon emissions have continued to rise at an alarming rate.

Of course, we can’t place the blame for that on the IPCC.

But, it’s clear that even with the existence and work of the IPCC, there remains a huge gap between the research and facts on climate change and how to address it, and real-world action to do this — and that’s a problem for all of us.



Tabitha Whiting

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis 🌱