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Are we really communicating uncertain climate risks?

31 March 2011

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 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 at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, 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 co-author 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," says 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).

ENDS

Notes to Editors

1. For further information or to arrange an interview with Professor Nick Pidgeon, please contact Lowri Jones, Cardiff University Public Relations Office: Tel:

(0)29 2087 0995, e-mail: joneslc3@cardiff.ac.uk

2. A full copy of the paper is available to journalists from the Nature Climate Change editorial office, one of the authors, or from the Cardiff Public Relations Office. The full reference is: Pidgeon, N.F. and Fischhoff, B. (2011) The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature Climate Change DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1080

3. Nick Pidgeon’s research on climate change risks (www.understanding-risk.org) is supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Leverhulme Trust; Baruch Fischhoff's research on science communication is funded by the US National Science Foundation's Decision Risk and Management Sciences program.

4. Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. A major University Research Centre offering radical new approaches to sustainability research was announced by the University in 2010 www.cardiff.ac.uk/research/sustainableplaces

5. CarnegieMellon University is a global research university based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA, with more than 11,000 students, 84,000 alumni, and 4,000 faculty and staff. Recognized for its world-class arts and technology programs, collaboration across disciplines and innovative leadership in education, Carnegie Mellon is consistently a top-ranked university.

6. The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2010/11 is £218 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at: www.esrc.ac.uk

7. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent US federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2010, its budget is about $6.9 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 45,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes over 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly. More at: www.nsf.gov

8. The Leverhulme Trustwas established in 1925 under the Will of the first Viscount Leverhulme. It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £50 million every year. For further information about the schemes that the Leverhulme Trust fund visit their website at

www.leverhulme.ac.uk