Communicating uncertainty

Uncertainty is very ordinary. We all navigate uncertainties in our everyday life: the weather, when we might get sick, who’ll win an election, whether the bus will be on time or get stuck in traffic.

We often see arguments for inaction on climate change based on uncertainty – if we don’t know for sure how can we act – but uncertainty is not an enemy of climate change action. Indeed, there are several established ways we can be confident when communicating uncertainty in and around climate change.

One important strategy is to change the way science is understood and represented. Science is often represented as a set of stable, fixed and certain facts, and these notions are taught in early schooling and reinforced in media representations of science. In reality, science is constantly being refined and updated. We shouldn’t be surprised when this happens or let it be seen as some sort of failure. It is important that communicators work to help us shift public discourse from an idea of science as the facts and more towards an appreciation of science as a debate.

Secondly, communicators should lead with what they know, rather than apologising for what they don’t know. Climate messages should start with areas of well-established, broad agreement, before moving on to the uncertainties and intricacies. Communication should make clear the scientific consensus – which is often underestimated, and possibly a gateway belief to further engagement with climate change.

Thirdly, uncertainty is not bad. The presence of uncertainty allows us to learn more, to have discoveries, to be creative, to be curious, and to have hope. Highlighting positive framings of uncertainty can be more productive than the negative. For instance, consider the positive frame: “if we act now, the chance of destructive winter floods occurring is 20%” rather than the negative: “if we fail to act, the chance of destructive winter floods occurring is 80%”. The positive message was linked to stronger intentions to act pro-environmentally, and can focus attention on hope and efficacy of action.

Uncertainty is also an easily misunderstood term. Where it might be used to mean probability, or ambiguity, it is often confused with error or inaccuracy. One way to avoid this is to shift from “uncertainty” to the more well-understood term “risk”. For instance, climate change increases the risk of extreme weather events, just like a weakened immune system increases the risk of contracting illnesses. For some audiences (such as politicians, business leaders, the military, and conservatives), risk may be more effective. Risk has greater resonance with conservative values, such as a desire to preserve and conserve, to be pragmatic. It is a commonly used in terms of national security, health, insurance, and lends itself well to practical examples of climate risk (e.g. the risk of a village flooding, or crops being destroyed, or coastal buildings falling into the ocean). Managing risk leads people to weigh up the costs and benefits of inaction, which moves them beyond the mind-set of “waiting until the science is settled”.

Ultimately, most people do not think about the world in probabilities and charts, we think of the world through images, stories, experiences. If you want to start a conversation and connect with someone – as opposed to, for example, draft a briefing for a politician – work around a story rather than a set of data. Research shows that people are unreliable at estimating the meaning of probability statements such as “very likely” or “very unlikely”, and while scientific charts can visually enhance the message, communicators shouldn’t assume their audience will necessarily read them in the same way a trained scientist would do.

Burning questions

There are active efforts by interest groups and some political administrations to emphasise uncertainties in climate science. Sometimes engaging with these efforts can contribute to a sense of uncertainty.

What is the best way for communicators to respond?

How can we navigate uncertainties about the effectiveness of various climate actions?

By Adam Corner & Susie Wang

Adam is the Research Director for Climate Outreach. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners, and leads the Climate Visuals programme.

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