Uncertainty

Uncertainty in climate predictions—especially predictions of dangerous climate tipping points—may delay collective action on climate change. But not all variability is uncertainty 

For Better Science Communication: Reduce Uncertainty

March 19, 2014

Uncertainty

Uncertainty in climate predictions—especially predictions of dangerous climate tipping points—may delay collective action on climate change. But not all variability is uncertainty.  Accurate communication about climate change requires clearly distinguishing between real uncertainty (unexplained variation) and known, natural variation. In short, when scientists largely agree about “what” is happening, they should not allow explainable variation in “when” and “where” to dilute their fundamental message.

Faculty Fellow Johannes Lehmann (CSS) recently argued in Nature Climate Change that “known variation should . . . never be called uncertainty, but explained as variability.” According to Lehmann:

Uncertainty is a measure of unexplained variation, and can be partly caused by measurement errors, and partly by our lack of understanding about cause and effect. But predictions of climate change, and approaches to its mitigation, do not only carry uncertainties in the magnitude of responses, they also entail significant natural variability in time and space. Importantly, this spatial and temporal variability will not shrink with scientific progress. Embracing the difference and clearly distinguishing between these two sources of variation is therefore critically important for science communication, as well as for collective and policy action.

This crucial distinction is currently blurred in the scientific literature, as well as messages for the public. More precision will improve science communication—and may encourage meaningful collective action and policy change.

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