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Communicating climate change uncertainty

How can scientific study be told as a compelling human story?

Edition 5

How can scientific study be told as a compelling human story?

Words: Adam Corner, Research Director at Climate Outreach, Oxford
Illustration: Oliver Cowan

What is the first image that comes to mind when you hear the words ‘climate change’?


For most people, the answer is likely to be one of a small set of iconic images that have come to represent climate change in the public mind: a polar bear on melting ice; an image of the Earth ablaze; or the cracked and scorched landscape of an unidentified African nation.

But there is something important missing from these images: people.

Fundamentally, climate change is a human story – about the impact we’ve had on the world around us, and the choices we now face about how we want the future to be. But it can feel abstract and remote (for people in wealthy Western nations at least), and a social silence surrounds the issue: most people simply don’t talk about climate change at all.

We may know that it is the greatest threat ever-faced by humanity, but we don’t feel it in the same way that we feel the risks of terrorism, with a media-friendly narrative about good and evil, and an easily-identifiable enemy to fear. And we can’t see it in the same way we can see the tragic aftermath of a plane crash, with the evidence laid bare for everyone to see. It is almost as if climate change was custom built to trick our psychological threat-detection machinery.

I live in Bristol but work for an Oxford-based think tank called Climate Outreach focused on how to overcome this problem. Our starting point is that the social-science of communication is just as important as the science of climate change.

One of the biggest challenges is how to communicate uncertainty. On the one hand, scientists are as sure about the link between human behaviour and climate change as they are about the link between smoking and lung cancer. But like any complex area of science, uncertainty is an ever-present part of climate change – something that right-wing lobbyists have exaggerated and exploited to try and downplay the risks of climate change.

Scientists talk about uncertainties a lot – it is part of a good scientific training to be cautious, tentative, and hesitant. But what makes for good science doesn’t necessarily make for good communication. So in a new ‘Handbook’ on how to communicate uncertainty more effectively (a collaboration with academics at the University of Bristol), we condensed dozens of academic studies down into 12 principles for better communication.

We may know that it is the greatest threat ever-faced by humanity, but we don’t feel it in the same way that we feel the risks of terrorism..

For example, scientists should start with what they know (not apologise for what they don’t know), and should use the language of ‘risk’ (familiar from the insurance and health sectors) rather than ‘uncertainty’ (which most people equate with ‘ignorance’). Being clear about the scientific consensus is also important – most people aren’t aware that 97% of climate scientists agree on how human impacts are altering the climate.

And it is crucial find ways of translating and interpreting the technical language found in scientific reports into something more engaging. Most people understand the world through stories and images, not lists of numbers: a visual artist can capture the concept of sea-level risk better than any graph.

But most important of all is to tell a human story. 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 the uncertainty that dwarfs all others.

Find out more at climateoutreach.org

Adam is Research Director at Climate Outreach, Oxford

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