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The Uncertain World: Is uncertainty used as a stick with which to beat climate change?

The Cabot Institute is focussing on our Uncertain World this year, with a host of events to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  We are posting blogs during November on 'Our Uncertain World'. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  Read other blogs in the series by visiting the weblinks at the bottom of this blog.
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Uncertainty runs through climate science like the lettering in a stick of rock. It will never 'go away' and no communication strategy should ever aim for this. But it does seem as if somehow, uncertainty has become a stick with which to beat climate change in a way that it has not for other areas of science (or perhaps more to the point, in other areas of life). So it is worth asking why this is the case, and what we can do to address this...

My background is in psychology, and there is a rich literature on the psychology of risks perceptions that is certainly relevant to communicating uncertainty in the context of climate change. We know that people discount certain risks and inflate others, given the chance many will lean towards 'wishful thinking' rather than a cold, rational assessment of the probabilities.

But to my mind, the challenge of communicating uncertainty in climate change goes beyond presenting information in a way that will 'beat the biases' of the human mind - although there is an important role for this. To me it is more about 'going with the grain' of public engagement with climate change, starting from 'where people are' and working backwards from there, rather than starting with the science...and this tends to be the approach we take at Climate Outreach, the organisation I work for

For example, its now well-established that some of the most important and consistent drivers of public engagement with climate risks are peoples values, worldviews and political orientation. Scepticism is essentially unjustified levels of uncertainty about climate risks...but what drives this perception is people's ideas about the implications of climate risks for their lives. People work backwards from an outcome that they don't like the sound of, or feel threatened by, and assess the underlying risks accordingly. So starting with those 'implications' is crucial, and why the focus of the second day of the Cabot Institute's Uncertain World conference is so important.

Where will people live? What impact is climate change having on Civil Society and the voluntary sector? These are crucial questions covered in Day 2, and help to join the dots between the underlying science and the 'social reality'  of climate change for non-scientists and specialists. Once people are more engaged with 'solutions' to climate change that they endorse or can identify with - when people hear a story about climate change that sounds like it was written about them - they are much more likely to be open to the science that defines and describes the underlying problem.

My sense is that the biggest step we could take (as a community of people from very different background and disciplinary perspectives) would be to develop much greater strategic capacity to 'join the dots' between the science and the stories that people engage with. At the moment, sustained public engagement with climate change does not happen in a co-ordinated way, but events like the Uncertainty Summit are important ways of bridging the gap between different disciplines and professions. If the expertise and diversity of perspectives represented at this meeting could be marshalled on a permanent basis, to provide a new type of institution explicitly tasked with full-time public engagement on climate change (from the science through to the social reality of the issue), we would have a level of public engagement proportionate to the scale of the challenge we face.

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

Climate Outreach recently published a 'Handbook' on communicating uncertainty with Steve Lewandowsky and Mary Phillips at University of Bristol. Download the handbook.


Other blogs in the Uncertain World series

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue
The Uncertain World: Question Time
The Uncertain World: Reflections

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