Uncertainty & the IPCC
The well-respected and prominent journal Climatic Change released a special issue on communicating uncertainty in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.
This is a timely publication: the IPCC has come in for significant criticism for the way in which it has communicated the complex uncertainties inherent in climate science. Some of the papers in this special edition are oriented very specifically at the IPCC itself. Others discuss theoretical notions of ‘uncertainty’, ‘consensus’, or ‘ignorance’ in a lot of technical detail. But some are of wider interest for those involved in communicating uncertainty in climate science beyond the processes of the IPCC.
Baruch Fischhoff – a senior social scientist and risk researcher from the US – argues that without institutional links between climate scientists, social scientists and policy makers, the communication of climate change is unlikely to improve. There is now a great deal of research on climate change communication, and risk perception research on other topics that is highly relevant. But it is only ever bolted on at the end of the communication process. Fischhoff suggests that it must be embedded much more deeply within the production of climate change knowledge. There should be a continuous chain of research and engagement from climate science through to public consumption of that knowledge, and social scientists must be involved at every stage. Fischhoff also echoes a call he made with Nick Pidgeon in an earlier publication in Nature Climate Change for an assessment of the needs of policy-makers who use climate science to be conducted (Fischhoff & Pidgeon, 2011). Otherwise, while communication may be improved, there is always the question of what exactly is being communicated.
Fischhoff’s central theme is that the science of communication needs to be applied to the communication of science in a more systematic way. And another paper in the Special Issue – by John Sterman – explains some of the ways in which people’s ‘mental models’ (the ways in which people interpret and structure information about the world) might hinder the communication of complex scientific information. This means that public engagement with climate change will not be improved by simply providing more information about climate change: it requires different modes of communication, including ‘experiential’ learning environments such as interactive simulations where people can ‘see’ for themselves what happens when (for example) levels of carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere. Sterman argues that without this kind of interactive learning about climate science – letting ordinary people ‘experiment’ with different aspects of the climate system in simulations – understanding of climate change risks will never improve.
Brenda Ekwurzel and her colleagues suggest that the immense collective effort put into producing the IPCC assessment reports is typically not matched with public communication and outreach efforts. This means that less authoritative sources fill the vacuum, and much of the good scientific work contained in the assessment reports is undermined. The IPCC reports are major opportunities for building understanding and confidence in climate science and debating the policy implications – but instead, most media attention has focused on the small number of errors that these reports have been found to (regrettably, but perhaps inevitably) contain.
Citing previous research showing that people systematically misinterpret the probability terms the IPCC use to describe their findings (Budescu et al, 2009), Ekwurzel and her colleagues argue that if verbal probability labels are used in communication strategies, they should be accompanied by actual numbers too. Otherwise, the danger is that very strong statements such as ‘it is very likely that human activities are causing climate change’ will be interpreted as ‘we are not sure if human activities are causing climate change’. They also suggest that the uncertainty generated by human actions (i.e. behavioural choices, policy responses etc) needs to be much more effectively distinguished from the types of uncertainty that relate to the science itself. This is an important point for communicators to bear in mind – the single biggest source of uncertainty in attempts to model the future climate are the choices that human societies make.
A small number of the articles from this special issue are available for free, including the Ekwurzel paper discussed above, but most require a subscription to the journal. The alternative is to contact the lead author of the paper you’re interested in, and request an earlier version of the paper that they might be willing to share with you. They will often have one that is barely any different to the published version, but that does not mean infringing on the copyright agreement they have with the journal.
Budescu, D. V., Broomell, S., & Por, H. (2009). Improving communication of uncertainty in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Psychological Science 20, 299–308.
Ekwurzel, B., Frumhoff, P.C. & McCarthy, J.J. (2011). Climate uncertainties and their discontents: increasing the impact of assessments on public understanding of climate risks and choices. Climatic Change 108, 791–802.
Fischhoff, B. (2011). Applying the science of communication to the communication of science. Climatic Change 108, 701–705.
Sterman, J.D. (2011). Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world. Climatic Change 108, 811–826.
Pidgeon, N.F and Fischhoff, B. (2011) The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature Climate Change. 1, 35–41.
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- Communicating climate change
- Communicating climate science
- Encouraging sustainable behaviour
- Visual communication of climate change
- Making climate science simple & understandable
- Communicating uncertainty in climate science
- Why are people still sceptical about climate change?
- Social norms & social networks
- Using scare tactics: does it work?
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- Breaking bad habits & creating good ones
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- Language: words & phrases
- Values & frames
- Uncertainty & the IPCC
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- Climate change scepticism and the media