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Guidebook aims to slay climate science’s uncertainty problem

By Adam Corner on July 9, 2015

With crucial climate talks approaching, finding the right language for climate predictions is vital to counter those belittling the science, says the author of a new book designed to help.

Somali men look out across Mogadishu's fishing harbour

Like most areas of complex research, predictions of how climate will change as greenhouse gases accumulate in Earth’s atmosphere aren’t free of uncertainties. But unlike economic forecasts – which are often taken at face value by the public despite proving wildly inaccurate most of the time – climate predictions are criticised for having error bars. They have become a stick with which to beat climate science and delay political action.

Lobbyists ideologically opposed to the regulation of industry continue to manufacture distrust around climate research. They exaggerate areas of uncertainty while dismissing those of strong consensus and agreement – just as their predecessors once did for the links between tobacco and lung cancer.

As a result, climate researchers spend a lot of time apologising for what they don’t know, rather than confidently stating what they do. Even without these distorting influences, the communication of uncertainty is still a big challenge. With crucial climate talks due in Paris later this year, the need to address this is urgent. That’s why a new guide which I co-authored and which is published this week, The Uncertainty Handbook, is timely.

It urges scientists and other communicators not to downplay uncertainties in climate models and projections, but to get smarter about how they communicate them.

For starters, outside the lab the word “uncertainty” is loaded with negative connotations: most people expect certainty from science, and get frustrated when it doesn’t deliver it – so managing expectations is crucial.

Research suggests that talking about “risks” rather than “uncertainties” could help: it is part of the language of the insurance, health and national security that people are familiar with.

A focus on uncertainty is more common among those on the right of politics, so finding ways of talking that resonate across the political spectrum is essential. One suggestion is to focus on issues of resilience and security, which conservatives tend to prioritise.

Emphasising the scientific consensus on climate change is also important – as well as the social consensus in support of a transition to low-carbon energy. And, most crucially, we must remember that this is a human story as well as a scientific one.

The amount of carbon dioxide emitted over the next 50 years will determine how much our climate shifts. But burning just half of known fossil fuel reserves, possible if current trends continue, will unleash unprecedented change, even on the most optimistic assessment. So what we choose to do – and how quickly we can muster the collective will power to do it – is one uncertainty that dwarfs all others.

The Uncertainty Handbook: A practical guide for climate change communicators is a collaboration between the University of Bristol, UK, and Climate Outreach , a UK-based charity

Previously posted in New Scientist.

The guidebook was authored by Dr Adam Corner, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Dr Mary Phillips and Olga Roberts.

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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