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

Abstract

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.

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Figure 1: Shifting public opinion.
Figure 2: Sources of uncertainty in climate assessments.
Figure 3: The existing Thames flood-protection barrier at Greenwich, East London, UK.

© ISTOCKPHOTO.COM / RSARAIVA

Figure 4: The recent UK climate projections in 2009 use probability assessments to represent the modelling uncertainty for a range of variables and with a grid resolution of 25 km2.

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Acknowledgements

Work for this paper was supported by a Personal Fellowship to N.P. from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (RES-066-27-0013), with additional support from the Leverhulme Trust (F/00 407/AG) and the US National Science Foundation (SES-0949710). We wish to thank I. Hall and P. Stern for comments on earlier versions, together with attendees at a workshop held at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, UK in the summer of 2010.

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Correspondence to Nick Pidgeon or Baruch Fischhoff.

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Pidgeon, N., Fischhoff, B. The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature Clim Change 1, 35–41 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1080

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