June 11, 2012, by lgzsem

Representing and communicating uncertainty: climate change and risk

As part of its Science in Culture theme, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has funded an exploratory project at the University of Nottingham called Representing and communicating uncertainty: climate change and risk.  This interdisciplinary project brings together academics from across the University in the Schools of Geography, Sociology and Social policy, Mathematical Sciences and Biosciences.  The project has three main goals:

  • To build understanding of the vocabulary and communication of climate change risks by bringing people from different groups together
  • To focus on extreme climatic events (e.g. floods, droughts), initially in a UK context
  • To build networks that will enable us to develop a vocabulary that is intelligible to different groups to improve communication and understanding.

The first project workshop was held in the School of Geography on 12th April. The aim was to bring together academics from a range of disciplines to explore the ways in which they communicated uncertainty about climate change and its impacts.  A key issue was to identify any barriers to communication between researchers (e.g. subject specific use of vocabulary; use of graphical or verbal material). If researchers were finding it difficult to communicate between themselves, this obviously didn’t bode well for communication to a wider audience! The workshop was attended by 17 people representing engineering, mathematics, sociology and social policy and geography.  Debbie Hill (Nottingham City Council), a member of the project’s steering group, was also able to attend and bring a different perspective to the discussion.  Having started the day with some furniture moving (someone had decided to turn the room into a temporary furniture store!) the rest of the day was structured around three sessions:

Session 1: Climate change and risk: headline issues – This session included three presentations on issues identified by the project team as possible foci: flood risk (Colin Thorne); human health, uncertainty and climate change (Simon Gosling) and drought (Georgina Endfield).

Session 2: Methodological perspectives: establishing ‘internal’ lines of communication – This session included four presentations trying to reflect some of the different disciplinary approaches to the issues of interest.  These were: modelling (Sarah Metcalfe); probability theory (Andrew Cliffe); language (Brigitte Nerlich) and arts and humanities perspectives (Georgina Endfield).

Session 3: Communicating with policy makers and wider publics – People split into three groups to discuss issues of communication in relation to the headline issues of flood risk, drought and human health.  At least one member of the project team was in each breakout group.

The day prompted some lively and useful discussion highlighting issues such as:

  • different types of understanding (e.g. of the science of climate change and the mathematics used to express this; climate vs weather; communicating through  words or images)
  • the importance of scale in space and time (local vs global; policy timescales vs the climate system)
  • the importance of direct experience and how people learn from it (e.g. flooding)
  • the significance of language (e.g. the word ‘uncertainty’ has many meanings) and the need to improve mutual intelligibility
  • the importance of appreciating cultural contexts

It was agreed that the three issues identified by the project team (flood risk, human health and drought) were useful areas around which to focus the study.

Workshop 2 will move away from the academic perspective and aims to bring together people from a range of groups who use or are interested in climate change information (companies, government agencies, NGOs, amateur groups, the media).  This workshop is being held on 12th June.


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