The Uncertainty Handbook

This new collaboration between COIN and the University of Bristol is a practical guide for climate change communicator on this most tricky of topics.

UHB-Cover-200-280Have you ever struggled with the communication of climate change uncertainties? Are you frustrated by climate sceptics using uncertainty – inherent in any area of complex science – as a justification for delaying policy responses? Then our new handbook (a collaboration between Dr Adam Corner, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Dr Mary Philips and Olga Roberts) is for you.

Download the handbook to learn more about 12 practical and easy-to apply principles for smarter communication about climate change uncertainties. And sign up for the webinar taking you through the key findings here.



Time to stop obsessing about scientific uncertainty?

Human behaviour is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others

For fans of probability, confidence intervals and margins of error, climate change is a dream come true. For everyone else, the fact that uncertainty (inherent in any complex area of science) has gradually become one of climate change’s defining features is a constant headache. Because uncertainty – real or manufactured – is a well-rehearsed reason for inaction.

What proportion of scientists agree that human activity is changing the climate? How sensitive is the climate to carbon emissions? Is it very likely or merely likely that flooding will increase? And what does likely mean anyway?

Questions such as these have become a stick with which to beat climate models. Scientists (naturally reticent in their communicative style) feel obliged to reel off lists of things they don’t know, and forget to re-emphasise the (remarkably certain) link between human behaviour and climate change.

The precautionary principle (slippery concept that it is), rests on the idea that less-than-complete knowledge is no reason for inaction. But spreading doubt, playing down the scientific consensus, and focusing obsessively on uncertainties has been the central strategy of climate sceptics, following the helpful example of the tobacco industry before them.

Clearly, there is much that could be done to improve the communication of uncertainty. Scientists could focus on the knowns before the unknowns. Communicators could re-frame the issue as one of risk, a concept familiar from the insurance industry, rather than uncertainty. Verbal statements of uncertainty could be accompanied by numerical figures, to overcome individual and cultural biases in their interpretation.

But there is also only so much that refining our communication of uncertainty will achieve. Because while we obsess over solar flares and natural cycles, we overlook the single biggest uncertainty in the climate system: us.

Fundamentally, the amount of carbon dioxide that we emit over the next 50 years will determine the extent to which the climate changes. Unlikely as it is, the climate may yet reveal itself to be relatively insensitive to the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases that we have pumped into it.

But even on the lowest credible estimates of climate sensitivity, burning half of our known reserves of fossil fuels will unleash unprecedented changes in the chemistry of our planet. So what we choose to do – and how quickly we can muster the collective willpower to do it – is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others.

The conclusion that it is us – rather than the climate – that is the most intractable source of uncertainty is the central theme in a new paper by Antony Patt and Elke Weber. They argue that our tendency to prioritise daily personal experiences over statistical learning, and our existing political views have a far greater influence on people’s views about climate change than than the error bars on scientists’ graphs.

Both the authors have spent a great deal of time analysing ways of improving the communication of uncertainty within climate science. So it is all the more intriguing that they write:

“Perceptions about the existence and extent of climate change may vary less as a result of how climate risks are communicated, and more as a result of whether solutions are portrayed as possible … (F)or people to support these policies in the first place, it is not sufficient and may not even be necessary for them to perceive climate change as a problem.”

In other words, uncertainty about the science is likely to dissipate in the face of meaningful engagement with effective climate solutions. When people feel inspired by the answers to climate change, they no longer see uncertainty about future predictions as the central question. But the longer the climate discourse is mired in the intricacies of uncertainty, the less likely it is that this kind of transformation will take place.

It is a difficult message for scientists to take on board – the careful communication of uncertainty is a central plank of their training. But the evidence continues to grow that the barriers preventing effective climate policies reside primarily with us (rather than the uncertain predictions of climate science). And the focus on finding the perfect method of communicating uncertainty may in fact be simply reinforcing the sceptics’ framing of the problem.

First published by Guardian Sustainable Business on 31.01.14

Risk & ideology in the reporting of the IPCC

James Painter argues that a focus on risk, rather than uncertainty, could help bridge the partisan divide in reporting on climate change.

In this guest blog, James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, points to the partisan reporting of the latest IPCC report in UK media and asks whether greater deployment of risk (as opposed to uncertainty) language might help to bridge the political divide…

The first of the IPCC blockbuster reports is now out, and media organisations around the world have been carefully pouring over the latest findings.

Or have they?  A preliminary look at the coverage by UK newspapers suggests that all too often what matters is not the science, but the dominant political leaning of the owner or editors.

For example, an editorial in the (left-leaning) Guardian highlighted the credibility of the report, emphasising the 95% probability that carbon emissions account for at least half of the observed increase in global warming since 1951.

In contrast, the (right-leaning) Daily Mail focused on what it called the ‘extraordinary admission’ by the IPCC that temperatures have barely risen since 1998.  It called for a similar 15 year pause in paying what it called ‘ludicrous green taxes’.

Carbon Brief has already done some interesting initial analysis of UK newspaper headlines.  Using a similar typology to the one we used in a 2011 study on climate scepticism around the world, Carbon Brief found that the right-leaning Mail, Times and Telegraphs exhibited a mixture of ‘impact scepticism’ (climate change is caused by humans but we don’t know how severe the impacts will be) and ‘attribution scepticism’ (we don’t yet know that it is mostly anthropogenic).

In contrast, the left-leaning Guardian, Observer and Independent showed no such scepticism, mostly stressing the severity of climate change and the need for action.

A not dissimilar left-right split can be seen in the US and Australian media too.  A study by Media Matters of the IPCC report found that although many of the major US news outlets included attribution sceptics, the right-leaning Fox News and Wall Street Journal had by far the highest percentage of ‘doubters’.

For example, 69% of the guests on Fox News were sceptics.

All of this is distressing for those scientists who want to see a sober assessment of the science, without it being interpreted through the prism of political preferences.

It also leads to the obvious question of why climate scepticism is largely a right-wing phenomenon in the press.  In our study we argued that the main drivers were the presence of politicians espousing some variation of climate scepticism, the existence of organised interests that informs sceptical coverage, and partisan media receptive to this message.

But of course it is also, to a certain extent, about newspapers reflecting the political, cultural and social values of their readers.

And here we move into territory analysed by many communication scholars who argue that concern about climate change is not only, or even mostly, a product of how much people know about the science.  Values or pre-existing beliefs come first, acting as a filter for the facts.  

Climate sceptics in the media often focus on the uncertainties around the climate science.  These are inevitable given the hugely complex climate system and the difficulties of making accurate projections of likely scenarios.

In a book we published in September, we found that journalists follow prompts from the scientists in reporting all the uncertainties.  Around 80% of the articles contained some sort of uncertainty.  And around half contained a quote from a scientist indicating some uncertain aspect of the science.

But one of the problems with uncertainty is that many people probably don’t understand fully that it is a key element of many areas of research science.  They often think scientists should be certain about things, and confuse their uncertainty with ignorance.

Several experts have suggested that risk language and concepts may be a more helpful way of presenting the information, particularly to policy makers who are very aware of weighing up the costs and benefits of different actions (including doing nothing).

The classic example of this is from the insurance world.  Most people take out house insurance against low probability, high risk events like their house burning down.

Investors constantly use the language of risk, and one top UK banker at HSBC reacted to the latest IPCC report by describing climate change as essentially an ‘issue of strategic risk management’.

Lord Stern, author of the famous 2006 report on the economics of climate change, is an admirer of risk language.   He likes to ask whether the world wants to play Russian roulette with one bullet or two.

And he argues that sceptics have to show they have high confidence the planet is going to experience only the lower end of possible temperature increases for them to make their case that it is not necessary to take action to minimise climate risks.

Risk language is not a panacea – but it may help. After all, climate models can now evaluate how much man-made climate change may have made an extreme weather event like a severe flood more likely.

Such risk assessments usually include probability levels, and what degree of confidence scientists have in their findings.   It would help if we were better at understanding them – but maybe our values will still get in the way….

Communicating risk & uncertainty

A short report of a workshop at Oxford University on communicating uncertainty and risk.

How can the risks and uncertainty of climate change be better communicated? This question – regularly posed, but seldom answered – was the central issue addressed at a workshop held at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, on 15th November.

Chaired and convened by James Painter, the author of ‘Poles Apart’ (a report that analysed the prevalence of sceptical climate voices in the media), the opening address was given by David Spiegelhalter, a specialist on risk perceptions based at Cambridge University. Spiegelhalter argued that inaccurate reporting of risk in the media was primarily caused by the poor press releases issued by journals and university press offices – although speaking later in the day, Emily Shuckburgh (also from Cambridge University, and one of the authors of recent report ‘Climate Science & the Media’) suggested that the language scientists use in newspaper quotes is often misleading.

Based on her recent investigation into public views on climate change, Shuckburgh reported that phrases like ‘loading the dice’ (often recommended as a communicative tool to describe the way that climate change influences the chance of extreme weather events) actually led people to infer that climate scientists were ‘loading the dice’ in terms of the underlying science, attempting to unduly influence the outcome of their research.

Nick Pidgeon – Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University – pointed out that no recommendations for improving the communication of climate change will ever amount to much if it is not properly funded. Pidgeon argued that there is an urgent need for a communications infrastructure to be built into the funding of climate research, such that dissemination and public engagement is considered the norm.

Echoing Pidgeon’s comments, Chris Rapley (ex Director of the Science Museum) proposed that climate scientists need to have the confidence to take more active roles in debates about climate change, raising the intriguing possibility that models of science communication – currently construed – are simply not fit for purpose.

In a sentiment that seemed to be widely shared by the climate scientists present, Myles Allen argued that the forthcoming 5th Assessment Report should be the IPCC’s last. Allen’s view was that a monolithic statement of climate science knowledge every five years was no longer the most helpful way to communicate climate change. Instead, smaller, more focused reports aimed at specific target audiences would make not only a more useful statement of current knowledge, but a less vulnerable target for climate sceptic attacks. One mistake in the entire document can currently provide a reason for some to doubt the veracity of the whole cannon of climate knowledge. If it were not designed to be one, single, definitive statement, this situation could be avoided.

Speaking from the audience, the IPCC’s communications director, Jonathan Lynn, defended the structure of the organisation, and argued against more participative forms of engagement like blogging. The mood of the room, however, suggested this attitude was out of step with the way that most people viewed the future of climate change communication.

Completing the day, a panel of journalists chaired by Tom Sheldon from the Science Media Centre put their perspective on communicating risk and uncertainty across. Fiona Harvey, the Guardian’s well-regarded Environment correspondent, was unambiguous about where she thought most biases and inaccuracies in science reporting came from: the lobby reporters at the House of Commons, fed political ‘leaks’ and ‘spin’ from Ministers and their Special Advisors. Although the source of most science ‘news’ is not politicians, it seems a little bit of ‘In the thick of it’ spirit is reserved for science communication.