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Roulette, insurance policies and loading the dice: What could the IPCC learn about risk? A Q&A with James Painter

  • 26 Sep 2013, 10:30
  • Ros Donald

Credit:Conor Ogle

How can smart use of the language of risk help those communicating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s new blockbuster assessment? Oxford University's James Painter tells us Carbon Brief how recommendations in his new book can help science communicators and policymakers explain the IPCC's findings.  

Painter's new book, ' Climate change in the media - reporting risk and uncertainty', analyses media coverage of climate science. Among the book's conclusions is that talking about risk may help shift the conversation away from less certain areas of science and start people talking about what society needs to do to avoid the worst effects of climate change. 

What does the reporting of risk and uncertainty mean in the context of the book, and how does it relate to climate science? 

In the book, we looked at what we already know about how the media report risk and uncertainty in general, and then looked specifically at climate science and how the print media in six countries reported the uncertainties and risks around it.  

To analyse the content of media reports, we used indicators of uncertainty such as ranges of projections, use of words like 'may' 'could' and 'might', and dissenting voices including the different types of sceptics. 

For risk, we assessed how much the media and scientists explicitly use the word 'risk', or risk concepts such as assigning probabilities and confidence levels to possible outcomes, or every day risk language such as 'loading the dice', 'taking out an insurance policy', or 'playing Russian roulette with the climate'.  

One of the findings of the book was that nearly half of all the 350 articles we looked at included a quote from a scientist or science report indicating some manifestation of uncertainty. Much fewer used risk language.  

How have the media reported risk and uncertainty in climate science, especially the work of the IPCC?  

In 2007 [when the most recent IPCC report was released] the media were not very good at explaining how the IPCC measured uncertainty. About 40 per cent of the articles included the IPCC concepts of likelihood and confidence levels but only 15 per cent included an explanation of what they actually meant  - such as 'very likely' meaning more than a 90 per cent probability.   

Journalists gave us lots of good reasons to explain this - such as readers or viewers not liking or understanding numbers - or the difficulties of concepts such as 'medium confidence'.  But one of the essential challenges remains to explain to a general public that uncertainty [in a scientific context] does not mean ignorance, and uncertainty can be quantified, particularly to help decision-making. 

How has this played out in the run-up to the IPCC report? 

I think some of the reporting has been excellent, in that it has raised the issue of how the uncertainties can be best communicated and whether talking of risk can help.  

These are very important issues to think about. I would point to this by Alister Doyle of Reuters and this by Seth Borenstein of AP, who are directly addressing the issue of uncertainty. It is also positive that a recent speech by Lord Stern, in which he uses risk language [- he's quoted saying it would be "absurd" to claim the risks of climate change are small -] has been widely reported.  

My concern would be that some of the right-leaning press seem keen to discredit the IPCC and have misreported the uncertainties, or their implications. Professor Myles Allen's response [below the line] to a recent article in the Mail on Sunday is exactly what climate scientists should be doing to point out when journalists are making mistakes, or using the revision of climate sensitivity estimates to downplay the urgency of taking measures to reduce emissions.

What tensions are there between scientists' concern about reporting their results accurately and the more accessible language of risk?  

Different scientists have different approaches to this, and in part it depends on what scientific discipline they are coming from, and in part on their perception of whether, or in what way, scientists should wrestle with the need to communicate the climate science to a wider audience.   

For example, it is very understandable that the authors of report on the physical science - which comes from one of three so-called working groups, Working Group One - may shy away from using risk language. 

They argue that they prefer to use likelihoods as it is a more neutral and quantifiable language; they say risk on the other hand is a more qualitative language and implies only bad outcomes whereas some outcomes from climate change may be beneficial to a limited extent. 

What's interesting is that the Working Group Two report [on climate impacts] will probably have much more risk language in it, as indeed the IPCC report on extreme weather events did.  This is in part explained by the different science disciplines involved, but also by the greater acceptance that the impact of extreme weather events are likely to be negative, and therefore 'risky' in the sense of a negative outcome. 

How can scientists use what you've found to move the debate from dwelling on the uncertainties to what they do know about? 

This is a real challenge. For example, the draft version of the Summary for Policy Makers for the Working Group One report has the word 'uncertain' in it more than 40 times.  

Journalists will no doubt report the uncertainties extensively, and some media organisations may play them up to follow an editorial line of justifying not taking action on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.  

Some of the climate scientists we interviewed in the book stressed that at least in interviews with the media, they found it helpful to start with what they were very sure about - for example, that temperatures are going up, that it's largely caused by human activity and that many of the impacts are likely to be negative - before explaining the areas of uncertainty.  

How can policymakers use the language of risk to convey the need to reduce emissions to the public? 

Several politicians and policy makers are already using this language, such as Michael Bloomberg in the USA, and in the UK, the Lib Dem Ed Davey and the Conservative Lord, John Selwyn Gummer.  

Intuitively you feel that risk language could work with a wider audience, who are accustomed to risk from the worlds of insurance, betting, health and investment. However, there's a need for more research. 

Which other conclusions from the book do you think are valid in the context of the IPCC report? 

Just one point - there's a lot of work being done in general in the media on the use of infographics. 

Several experts and journalists stressed that there are already some really good examples of representing risk and uncertainty-  and much more could be done. Visual presentations of uncertainty can be better than text.  

James Painter is head of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism's fellowship programme at Oxford University.

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