June 8, 2015, by Warren Pearce

Improving climate change communications: moving beyond scientific certainty

TPress conference screengrabhis is a co-authored post with Gregory Hollin. It is based upon our new paper in Nature Climate Change, which is the first piece of original research from science and technology studies (STS) published in the journal.

In the last 25 years scientists have become increasingly certain that humans are responsible for changes to the climate. Nonetheless, there is a widespread feeling, memorably summed up in the Kudelka cartoon “None So Deaf”, that this certainty has failed to make climate change meaningful enough to prompt significant personal, political or policy responses. An opportunity to address this problem was presented by the publication of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2013, as leading climate scientists appeared before the world’s media at a Stockholm press conference. The press conference, one would imagine, is an ideal opportunity to make scientific findings intelligible and meaningful to non-scientific audiences and, in a new paper, we examine how scientists utilize this opportunity. What we found is that, in attempting to demonstrate the importance of climate change, scientists actually became inconsistent about ‘what counts’ as scientific evidence and this led to confusion and condemnation in the press.

In this blog post we’ll go through what happened in the press conference by detailing four stages in the intended process of making climate change meaningful. We’ve reproduced some figures for our article here because we think they make it much easier to follow the argument. The matrix for all of these figures places ‘meaning’ on the x-axis and ‘certainty’ on the y-axis. We won’t go into details here but, if you’re interested in the creation of the matrix please look at the method section of the article itself, or leave a comment below. Line numbers refer to a transcript of the press conference which is available in the paper’s supplementary information.

Phase One: Increasing certainty

FEB10 FIG 1 jpg Since the last IPCC report, certainty over the nature of climate change has increased and, unsurprisingly, scientists at the press conference stressed this increase:

…the evidence for human influence has grown since Assessment Report 4, it is now deemed extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming.” (Steiner L153–155).

However, and as noted above, academics from the social sciences and humanities have argued that climate change has yet to attain enough public meaning to prompt significant personal, political and policy responses. Figure 1 thus shows a vertical shift along the y axis, representing increased certainty but also the fact that climate change continues to attract little public meaning.

Phase Two: Making climate change meaningful: the intention

FEB10 FIG 2 jpgWithin the press conference, scientists tried to use the certainty of climate change to demonstrate that it is meaningful and that ‘we’ must take action:

[The] report demonstrates that we must greatly reduce global emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change. (Jarraud L90–92).

In Fig. 2 we represent this move with a horizontal shift along the x axis (to position 3); certainty remains but attached to this certainty is a great deal of public meaning. We argue that this is what the scientists wanted to achieve in the press conference: retaining the certainty of the report while adding meaning.

Phase Three: Making climate change meaningful: the reality

FEB10 FIG 3 jpgThere was, however, an inconsistency in the argument of the scientists. Scientists consistently drew on short-term temperature increases in order to give climate change meaning:

…the decade 2001 onwards having been the hottest, the warmest that we have seen. (Pachauri L261–263).

However, the scientists also understood these short-term temperature increases to be less certain than the overall theory of climate change:

periods of less than around thirty years. . . are less relevant. (Stocker, L582–583).

Thus, the meaningful, short-term, temperature changes were actually incorporated at the expense of certainty. While the intended move was therefore to the top-right quadrant (position three), the actual move was to the bottom-right quadrant (position four): meaning had been added but at the expense of certainty.

Phase Four: Inconsistent attempt to maintain public meaning and certainty

FEB10 FIG4 jpgDrawing on meaningful information like ‘the hottest decade’ proved problematic for the scientists for it is hard to see why the short-term increase in temperature during ‘hottest decade’ is very different from the short-term decrease in temperature witnessed during the 15-year ‘pause’. Journalists repeatedly asked scientists about the pause and, in particular, how they could be increasingly certain about climate change in the face of such an uncertainty:

Your climate change models did not predict there was a slowdown in the warming. How can we be sure about your predicted projections for future warming? (Harrabin L560–562).

Faced with these questions, scientists insisted that short-term temperature changes were irrelevant for climate science:

we are very clear in our report that it is inappropriate to compare a short-term period of observations with model performance. (Stocker L794–796).

Given the type of statement we saw during phase three it is perhaps unsurprising that this retreat led to confusion, incoherence, and criticism within the press conference.

Conclusion: uncertainty is meaningful

…the scientific reductionism of climate change makes consensus possible, but the result is, in some sense, irrelevant. The things that can be known with scientific certainty are not necessarily the most important to know. (Cohen et al., 1998, p.361)

Climate change is an area where consistent attempts are made to communicate the certainty of the science. As a result, a spotlight on scientific uncertainties may be seen as unwelcome. However, in the run-up to the United Nations climate summit in Paris, making climate change meaningful remains a key challenge and our analysis of the press conference demonstrates that this meaning-making cannot be achieved by relying on scientific certainty alone. When trying to engage the public about climate science, communicators should be aware that there is a tension between expressing scientific certainty (and focusing on long-term trends) and making climate change meaningful (by focusing on short-term trends) and, what is more, that this tension may be unavoidable. A broader, more inclusive public dialogue will have to include crucial scientific details that we are far less certain about and these need to be embraced in order to make climate change meaningful.

Image credit: screengrab from video recording of IPCC press conference, Sep 30th, 2013.

Posted in Climate ChangeScienceScience CommunicationUncertainty