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Are we really communicating uncertain climate risks?

31 March 2011

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Explaining climate change risk to non-scientists – citizens and politicians - has not been as effective as it should be, according to a new collaborative research paper published by School of Psychology Professor, Nick Pidgeon in the journal Nature Climate Change this week.

Despite much research that demonstrates potential dangers from climate change, public concern has not been increasing. One theory is that this is because the public is not intimately familiar with the nature of the climate uncertainties being discussed, and as such it does little to support decision-making and change behaviour.

"A major challenge facing climate scientists is explaining to non-specialists the risks and uncertainties surrounding potential climate change", says a new Perspectives piece published in the science journal.

"Few citizens or political leaders understand the underlying science well enough to evaluate climate-related proposals and controversies," the authors write, at first appearing to support the idea of specialized knowledge - that only climate scientists can understand climate research.

But, co-author Professor Baruch Fischhoff quickly dispels the notion. "The goal of science communication should be to help people understand the state of the science, relevant to the decisions that they face in their private and public lives. All of our climate-related options have uncertainties, regarding health, economics, ecosystems, and international stability, among other things," he says.

Professor Nick Pidgeon an environmental psychologist in the School of Psychology’s Understanding Risk group, and Professor Fischhoff, a social and decision scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, wrote the article together, titled, "The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks."

"The temptation, in the face of rising climate scepticism, has been to simply emphasise the communication of scientific facts. But we need to move on from a sterile debate about whether global warming is happening or not, to recognise that climate change poses fundamental questions of decision making and risk," said Professor Pidgeon.

Key to effective communications is what the authors call "strategic organisation" and "strategic listening."

Strategic organisation involves working in cross-disciplinary teams that include, at a minimum, climate scientists, decision scientists, social and communications specialists and other experts.

Strategic listening encourages climate scientists, who often have little direct contact with the public, to overcome flawed intuitions of how well they communicate.

Strategic listening asks scientists to go beyond intuitive feeling and consider how well they communicate by using systematic feedback and empirical evaluation.

"I think that it is good for scientists to be in contact with the public, so that they can learn about its concerns and see how well, or poorly, they are communicating their knowledge," said Professor Fischhoff. "That way they can do a better job of producing and conveying the science that people need."

The research was jointly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust. Additional support was received from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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