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The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks

Publication TypeManual Entry
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsPidgeon, N., and B. Fischhoff
Nature Climate Change

A major challenge facing climate scientists is explaining to non-specialists the risks and uncertainties surrounding potential changes over the coming years, decades and centuries. Although there are many guidelines for climate communication, there is little empirical evidence of their efficacy, whether for dispassionately explaining the science or for persuading people to act in more sustainable ways. Moreover, climate communication faces new challenges as assessments of climate-related changes confront uncertainty more explicitly and adopt risk-based approaches to evaluating impacts. Given its critical importance, public understanding of climate science deserves the strongest possible communications science to convey the practical implications of large, complex, uncertain physical, biological and social processes. Here, we identify the communications science that is needed to meet this challenge and the ambitious, interdisciplinary initiative that its effective application to climate science requires.

Citation Key120
Community Notes

Pidgeon and Fischhoff present the challenge that scientists face in communicating the risks of climate change to non-specialists.  Part of the reason for this disconnect is because both parties have little interaction and do not understand the others' needs.  Non-specialists do not understand the complexity of the climate system or of the climate models.  In communicating risks, risk can be defined very differently by different people: risk to human life, risk to the environment, risk in economic terms.  A tool for communicating risks is “cognitive representations” of the processes controlling the risks.  Social processes are also found to be important in communicating risk.  An important process is for scientists to listen to the non-specialist to uncover their needs.  This allows the decision-makers’ needs to direct the content of communications.  Collaborations are required at least between climate scientists, decision-makers, other experts, social and communication specialists, and program designers.  This article is useful for describing the issues of scientific communication about climate change and the need for better descriptions of uncertainty.