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Guidebook aims to slay climate science’s uncertainty problem

By Adam Corner on July 9, 2015

Somali men look out across Mogadishu's fishing harbour

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.

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.

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By Dr Adam Corner

Adam led Climate Outreach’s research work for almost 10 years, growing the Research team and building long standing relationships with academic partners, including the CAST Centre (Climate Change & Social Transformations). He stepped down in early 2021 to start a new adventure in freelance work, which includes a role as a Climate Outreach Associate.  

Before Climate Outreach, Adam worked in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University, researching public attitudes towards 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.

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