Addressing uncertainty in climate change policy making

Climate change is currently high on both scientific and political agendas. Being able to allow policy makers to take action on climate change using the best available science is important and therefore communicating scientific uncertainties that are involved is crucial in order for well informed decisions to be made and promote the best use of the science available. The Living With Environmental Change partnership has recently produced a report card on the uncertainty in climate science, and helps to address the question of how scientific uncertainty can be better communicated.

Addressing climate change and the impacts that it has upon people and the environment require actions by policy makers from local to global scales. However, scientific evidence at these different required levels of action has differing levels of certainty. This is because of the complex and multi-faceted variability of climate in space and time and the theoretical and practical challenges of predicting future changes. Despite these uncertainties existing, it is important that those using the science are informed about them. It must be remembered that whilst uncertainties in science exist, they aren’t a bad thing and should not be hidden away from those making decisions. Decisions using scientific evidence need to be based on informed choices, and knowing all the facts AND the unknown ones are an important part of decision making processes.

In the UK, the key climate change policy is under Defra’s remit, entitled ‘Adapting to Climate Change’. Within this policy, key assessments, adaptation plans and partnerships at both regional and national scales are in place in order to address the impacts climate change will have within the UK and develop ways to enable adaptation. However, coming up with adaptation solutions is difficult given the uncertainty surrounding exactly how climate change will impact the UK both regionally and nationally, and so clear communication of such uncertainties is important for effective actions to take place. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested that climate change has caused the recent UK flooding, but the ability of science to pinpoint one extreme event with climate change is extremely difficult.

The report card lists a number of suggestions for both researchers and decision makers about dealing with uncertainty in climate science:

Tips for scientists in communicating uncertainties:

– Using different methods to communicate uncertainty can help target different groups who need it. Using scenario methods and highlighting trade-offs can be particularly useful.

– Engaging with the users of your science and understanding how decision making works can enable the best use of your science.

– Information about climate change and uncertainty needs to be user friendly and accessible.

Tips for decision makers to work with scientists to address uncertainty:

– Identify the most important areas of uncertainty for decision making and how they could be effectively communicated.

– Engage with researchers and help formulate research questions that are based on real-world problems.

– Identify scientists who have both scientific expertise and the ability to communicate issues that are important for decision making.

However, it is not just climate change science that needs to communicate its uncertainties. All science, including ecology, has associated uncertainties. It is up to scientists to try to communicate this uncertainty and up to decision makers to account for it. Uncertainty should not be perceived negatively; it progresses science forward and it should allow policies to be more informed and flexible to the challenges of real world problems.