How to communicate effectively about climate change uncertainty

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 its Cabot Institute and the Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN) – is for you.

The handbook was authored by Dr. Adam Corner (COIN), Professor Stephan Lewandowsky (Cabot Institute, University of Bristol), Dr Mary Phillips (University of Bristol) and Olga Roberts (COIN). 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 report 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.


This blog was written by Adam Corner and reproduced with kind permission from Adam and COIN.  View the original blog.

Dr Adam Corner is COIN’s Research Director, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University. Adam manages COIN’s research portfolio, oversees the ‘Talking Climate’ project website, and directs COIN’s collaborations with academic partners. He writes regularly for the national media, including The Guardian and New Scientist magazine.

The great climate communication clash

Cultural cognition vs. consensus messaging:

Challenges of climate communication in a polarized world

If anyone attending the Cabot Institute debate between science communication researchers Dan Kahan and Stephan Lewandowsky last Wednesday was hoping for a relaxing, passive glance into the word of climate communication then they were in for a shock.Attending the event, which was moderated by Climate Outreach director Dr Adam Corner, was like being thrown into a politically-fuelled hurricane of communication and miscommunication. The mildly terrifying, albeit engaging, debating style of Dan Kahan meant there was never a dull moment as the two world-leading cognitive scientists locked horns over their opinions on how science should communicate climate change to the public.

The evening was kicked off by Kahan, whose invasive debating style saw him thundering into the audience to deliver his messages, a style which certainly drew attention if not support. The greatest focus of his message seemed to be in addressing the motivations of climate sceptics. Kahan claimed that the climate change consensus delivered by the scientific community is polarising opinion; those who are sceptics are not misinformed, their scepticism is fuelled by how they identify themselves. To put simply, the side of the climate change war they fight is supported more by culture than learning.

If this is the case, then increasing the budget powering the scientific consensus won’t help. Indeed, as Kahan expressed, the expensive climate change communication campaign in the U.S. hasn’t made any difference to the opinions of the public. His message? Stop trying to change who we are and do something proactive with the budget instead.

Next Lewandowsky stepped up to the floor. His argument is pro-consensus, defining the consensus as a few simple facts; that climate change is happening, is caused by humans and is problematic.  His theory is that people respond to education and change their opinions based on the information available to them. This, he claims, is based on testing trials performed in Australia where participants found themselves more concerned about climate change after being exposed to the general consensus. In Lewandowsky’s words “consensus is the gateway to belief’.

Underpinning his argument is the relationship between the layman and the expert. Lewandosky claims that in times of uncertainty, people defer to the expert; “If 97% of engineers delivered a consensus that the bridge was unsafe to cross, would you cross the bridge?”. 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is an issue, so we submit to the opinion of the expert. The idea works in theory but, according to Kahan we aren’t submitting to the expert, in fact, public opinion is unchanged.

So where does the answer lie? Despite lengthy discussions on the climate consensus, no communication consensus was reached. After the discussion was opened up to the audience, the complexities of the task at hand became apparent: while the ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ controversy is clearly polarised, audience members suggested there are degrees of ‘yes’. Is climate change part man made and part natural? Should we be spending more money on adaption rather than mitigation as Kahan suggested? To what extent is politics contributing to the miscommunication; how can we disentangle the issue of left-wing environmentalism as an opponent of capitalism? The list goes on.

My opinion of the outcome was that the path forwards was a hybrid of the opinions present. Yes, we shouldn’t focus on ‘converting’ the minority of sceptics. The consensus should focus on revaluating the options and behaviour of the supporters. How can we make reducing climate change an economic option for free market capitalism, rather than just trying to close it down. Maybe, as Kahan suggests, instead of aggressive PR campaigns that polarise opinion, we should be working on strengthening the knowledge of the ‘believers’. Indeed making the outcome of the consensus more attractive to those who are in support of climate change, to me, seems like a more progressive step forward.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Further reading

Dan Kahan’s blog from this event: Against consensus messaging
Read about Steve Lewandowsky’s paper on how climate science denial affects the scientific community.