Framing uncertainty assertively

Framing uncertainty assertively

The concept of uncertainty is used in a lot of different ways to promote and discourage action on climate change.

Uncertainty around just how damaging sea level rise will be for coastal communities and infrastructure is a strong argument for taking precautions against it (for example, it could be more costly to repair damage than prevent it). Climate deniers also use scientific uncertainty to argue that climate change isn’t happening and discourage policies to mitigate it. Meanwhile, many people avoid talking about uncertainty altogether in an attempt to avoid the potential pitfalls, focusing instead on the scientific consensus that climate change is human caused.

So what is a communicator to do?

Climate Outreach and Information Network’s (COIN) new guide outlines key principles for addressing uncertainty explicitly and effectively to a range of audiences. Summarized in the Guardian newspaper, the guide’s 12-point program is aimed at helping scientists, advocates and policy-makers better communicate the inherent uncertainty of such a complex issue. Here are six from their list that we think are extra important (you can get the full guidelines in COIN’s report):

1. Start with what you know, not what you don’t know

Too often, communicators give the caveats before the take-home message. On many fundamental questions, such as “are humans causing climate change?” and “will we cause unprecedented changes to our climate if we don’t reduce the amount of carbon that we burn?”, the science is effectively settled.

2. Shift from “uncertainty” to “risk”

Most people are used to dealing with the idea of risk. It is the language of the insurance, health and national security sectors. So for many audiences – politicians, business leaders or the military – talking about the risks of climate change is likely to be more effective than talking about the uncertainties.

3. Understand what is driving people’s views

Uncertainty about climate change is higher among people with right-leaning political values. However, a growing body of research points to ways of communicating about climate change that do not threaten conservative belief systems, using language that better resonates with the values of the centre-right.

4. Have a conversation, not an argument

Despite the disproportionate media attention given to sceptics, most people simply don’t talk or think about climate change all that much. This means that the very act of having a conversation about climate change – not an argument or repeating a one-shot slogan – can be a powerful method of public engagement.

5. Communicate effectively about climate impacts

The question “is this weather event caused by climate change?” is misplaced. When someone has a weak immune system, they are more susceptible to a range of diseases, and no one asks whether each illness was caused by a weak immune system. The same logic applies to climate change and some extreme weather events: they are made more likely, and more severe, by climate change.

6. 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 an uncertainty that dwarfs all others.