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IPCC, media reporting and public attitude

By Alex Hughes

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is releasing a report today which is expected to announce a 95% certainty that recent increases in global temperatures, accelerating the rate of climate change, are advanced by anthropogenic GHG emissions. This may come as little surprise to advocates of climate change but equally as the days have drawn in there has been a campaign to incite disbelief that we are having any effect on the climate. Perhaps some of this confusion can arise from the language used in relaying the message. The concept of “global warming”, whilst broadly true in a global context, can be a fallacy on a local level wherein certain regions are expected to warm and others cool. Wording and communications therefore have a key role to play if people are to align and recognise the importance and proximity of climate change.

So despite now almost uniform scientific consensus, it seems that people are becoming more polarised on the issue. A recent report from the University of Oxford into media reporting discovered that eight in ten stories contain some discussion of uncertainties in climate change science. The lead author in the study also revealed in the guardian that “the general public finds scientific uncertainty difficult to understand and confuse it with ignorance” which can create problems for responsible communicators.

Within one type of modelling system there are certain levels of uncertainty that result from standard statistical deviations. These numbers do not imply uncertainty over the topic itself but are rather a standard result when forecasting any and all types of future data, particularly in relation to such an inherently complex and chaotic system as the climate.  As we have seen, however, uncertainty can be an obstacle to political decision-making, and so a change of narrative is therefore suggested, away from probabilities to one where risks are properly signified.

An argument in favour of using the language of risk is it could shift public opinion away from the premise that decisions should be delayed until conclusive proof is obtained, and towards support for appropriate and well-timed action which is informed by a consideration of the costs – and the risks – of different options and choices.

In essence, just as it is prudent for people to insure their home and assets against fire (for which there is no certainty) it would also be wise for society as a whole to mitigate and adapt for the effects of future climate change. Why? Just as the personal investment in your home is too high to leave to the chance of fire, the social, natural and economic infrastructure in today’s world is, most would consider, too precious to leave open to an array of climate risks.

The focus of the media on both uncertainty and sensationalist reporting around climate change creates a public less well informed about the range of risk associated with climate change, and the intrinsic risk of a ‘do nothing’ approach. A step change in the nature of our current dialogue would therefore better serve the public and the decision-making process. 

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