Extreme Weather and Climate Change: How Can We Address Uncertainty

How should scientists communicate climate risks to a skeptical public and how can policymakers plan for adaptation, mitigation and development in the face of uncertainty?


On March 28, 2012 researchers and communication experts gathered to discuss the connection between recent extreme weather events and climate change. The event, co-sponsored by the Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Society and the Climate and Environmental Change Initiative featured four panelists and an interactive workshop.


Leading scholars offer insights on the connections between extreme weather and climate change, and how to communicate about uncertainty with the public and decision makers.


"Attribution of Extreme Events": Gabriel Vecchi, NOAA (see video at 7:10)

  • Climate change shifts the odds of extreme weather events.
  • More extreme temperature events (i.e. heat waves) and precipitation can be expected as planet warms.
  • The influence of warming on hurricanes is less certain.
  • Attribution can be problematic for single events.

"Integrating Science and Policy": Baruch Fischhoff, Carnegie Mellon University (see video at 31:15)

• Have limited ability to evaluate the extent of their own knowledge.
• Have difficulty projecting non-linear trends.
• Dislike uncertainty, but can live with it.

Communication Recommendations for Emerging Events:
• Have a consistent policy in all domains
• Provide useful, timely information
• Address: risks and benefits, uncertainty, personal actions
• Audience needs should drive agency analyses
• Use standard formats; evaluate routinely
• Consider needs of diverse populations

"Uncertainty: Weather and Climate": Joe Witte, George Mason University (see video at 53:35)

Types of climate uncertainties: Is it real? (happening not and here?). Is it bad?, Is it caused by humans?, Do scientists agree?, What can we do?

  • Keep risk communication simple and relevant. Social science can improve forecast graphics aimed at the public.
  • Extreme weather is a sneak preview of the future.
  • In business, health and security, we are accustomed to levels of uncertainty.
  • People tend to overestimate the probability of events that are current or easy to remember. Need to consider long-term trends.
  • People push back when presented information that appears to challenge their worldview.

"Climate Science and Uncertainty": Richard Moss, University of Maryland (see video at 1:12:40)

  • Communication requires more engagement with the public.
  • Climate scenarios are important to gain "if-then" insights, frame uncertainty, inform decisions and communicate about the issue.
  • Climate change research depends as much on social science as natural science.

For the panel discussion see video at 2:01:26.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Date: 2012
Organization: Rutgers University
Strategic Approach: Engagement, Framing, Other
Organization: Rutgers University
Strategic Approach: Engagement, Framing, Other

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