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How to communicate effectively about climate change uncertainty

By Adam Corner on July 5, 2015

Have 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 the new ‘Uncertainty Handbook’ – a collaboration between the University of Bristol and Climate Outreach  – is for you.

The handbook was authored by Dr. Adam Corner (Climate Outreach), Professor Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Bristol), Dr Mary Phillips (University of Bristol) and Olga Roberts (Climate Outreach). All have expertise relating to the role of uncertainty in climate change or how best to communicate it.

 The Handbook distills the most important research findings and expert advice on communicating uncertainty into a few pages of practical, easy-to-apply techniques, providing scientists, policymakers and campaigners with the tools they need to communicate more effectively around climate change. Download the handbook here, and check out our 12 principles for more effectively communicating climate change uncertainty:

1. Manage your audience’s expectations

People expect science to provide definite ‘answers’, whereas in reality it is a method for asking questions about the world. So manage people’s expectations, and use plenty of analogies from ‘everyday life’ so people can see that uncertainties are everywhere – not just in climate science.

2. Start with what you know, not what you don’t know

Too often, communicators give the caveats before the take-home message. On many fundamental questions — such as ‘are humans causing climate change?’ and ‘will we cause unprecedented changes to our climate if we don’t reduce the amount of carbon that we burn?’— the science is effectively settled.

3. Be clear about the scientific consensus

Having a clear and consistent message about the scientific consensus is important as it influences whether people see climate change as a problem that requires an urgent societal response. Use clear graphics like a pie-chart, use a ‘messenger’ who is trustworthy to communicate the consensus, and try to find the closest match between the values of your audience and those of the person communicating the consensus message.

4. Shift from ‘uncertainty’ to ‘risk’

Most people are used to dealing with the idea of ‘risk’. It is the
language of the insurance, health and national security sectors. So for many audiences — politicians, business leaders, or the military — talking about the
risks of climate change is likely to be more effective than talking about the uncertainties.

5. Be clear about the type of uncertainty you are talking about

A common strategy of sceptics is to intentionally confuse and conflate different types of uncertainty. So, it’s critical to be clear what type of uncertainty you’re talking about – causes, impacts, policies or solutions – and adopt appropriate language for each.

6. Understand what is driving people’s views about climate change

Uncertainty about climate change is higher among people with right-leaning political values. However, a growing body of research points to ways of communicating
about climate change that do not threaten conservative belief systems, or which use language that better resonates with the values of the centre-right.

7. The most important question for climate impacts is ‘when’, not ‘if’

Climate change predictions are usually communicated using a standard ‘uncertain outcome’ format. So a statement might say that sea levels will rise by “between 25 and 68cm, with 50cm being the average projection, by 2072”. But flip the statement around — using an ‘uncertain time’ framing — and suddenly it is clear that the
question is when not if sea levels will rise by 50cm: “Sea levels will rise by at least 50 cm, and this will occur at some time between 2060 and 2093”.

8. Communicate through images and stories
Most people understand the world through stories and images, not lists of numbers, probability statements or technical graphs, and so finding ways of translating and interpreting the technical language found in scientific reports into something more engaging is crucial. A visual artist can capture the concept of sea-level rise better than any graph, and still be factually accurate if they use scientific projections to inform their work.

9. Highlight the ‘positives’ of uncertainty

Research has found that uncertainty is not an inevitable barrier to action, provided communicators frame climate change messages in ways that trigger caution in the face of uncertainty. A ‘positive’ framing of uncertain information would indicate that losses might not happen if preventative action was taken.

10. Communicate effectively about climate impacts

The question ‘is this weather event caused by climate change?’ is misplaced. When someone has a weak immune system, they are more susceptible to a range of diseases, and no one asks whether each illness was ‘caused’ by a weak immune system. The same logic applies to climate change and some extreme weather events: they are made more likely, and more severe, by climate change.
11. Have a conversation, not an argument

Despite the disproportionate media attention given to ‘sceptics’, most people simply don’t talk or think about climate change all that much. This means that the very act of having a conversation about climate change — not an argument or repeating a ‘one-shot’ slogan — can be a powerful method of public engagement.

12. Tell a human story not a scientific one

The amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted over the next 50 years will determine the extent to which our climate changes. 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.

By Dr Adam Corner

After studying the psychology of how people reason about new evidence, and why they do or don’t change their beliefs, Adam worked in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University, researching public attitudes towards climate change. Adam joined Climate Outreach as a Researcher when the organisation was still young, helping to grow the Research team and build long standing relationships with academic partners, including the CAST centre (Climate Change & Social Transformations).

As the organisation has grown, Adam’s role as Programmes & Research Director now includes working with academic partners, campaign strategists and funders to ensure that Climate Outreach delivers on its mission of building the social mandate around climate change.  An accomplished and widely-published author, Adam wrote Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement, with Jamie Clarke, and his research and writing has appeared in academic journals, reports and briefings, and international media commentary. Adam also writes about music – including the increasing connections between music and climate change – for UK media, and can occasionally be found lurking behind the decks at pubs and parties in Bristol.

One response to How to communicate effectively about climate change uncertainty

  1. Announcing the Uncertainty Handbook | Enjeux énergies et environnement says:

    July 6, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    […] article was first published by the Climate Outreach and Information Network […]

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