Representing and communicating uncertainty: climate change and risk

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography


The impacts and reporting of events such as the heat wave of summer 2003, the floods of summer 2007, the non-arrival of a 'barbeque' summer in 2009 and the threat of drought in 2011 have all focused attention on climate change and the risks that it might pose. Whilst human related climate change in its general sense (global changes over timescale of decades to centuries) can be difficult to grasp, the increased likelihood of extreme weather events (such as those described above) is easier to understand and evoke an immediate response. The response to major events, such as large scale flooding, is almost always to demand action both to reduce the possibility of the event happening again and to minimise its impact if it does happen. When such events occur, awareness of and belief in climate change, is at its height, even though climate scientists will point out that any individual incident of this kind cannot be directly attributed to climate change. If forecasts are 'wrong', as was felt to be the case with the suggestion of a barbeque summer for 2009, then the climate scientists are mocked in the media and lose credibility. An unfortunate, casual choice of words, can result in a major lack of trust and increased scepticism about climate change generally. This highlights the aim of this study, which is to bring together researchers, government agencies and local authorities, private industry, representatives of the media and people interested in and affected by climate change, to explore how to improve communication and understanding. Our particular focus is on the concept of uncertainty and how this is expressed and understood by different people. The climate modelling community represent uncertainty using statistics and as you move through a process of trying to model the impacts of possible climate change, so layers of uncertainty are superimposed and identifying what is realistically likely becomes more difficult to express. This version of uncertainty is probably not the same as the one we use in our everyday lives; gut instinct, cultural and social norms will all affect how we view the risk of something happening and how we will respond to it. These perceptions of uncertainty will dictate how we assess risk in particular contexts and how far we are willing to change our behaviour and prepare for particular events. If we are to develop policies and strategies to deal effectively with the risks posed by climate change, then these very different ideas about what uncertainty is, and how it is communicated, need to be explored and efforts made to develop a vocabulary, or language, that is mutually intelligible. We intend to contribute to this process by developing real collaborative partnerships both within the research community (too often perhaps focusing on communicating with its particular peer group rather than more widely) and between the researchers and everyone else. The researchers involved in this project come from a wide range of disciplines, but all have an interest in uncertainty and climate change and its impacts. In order to tap into the view of a wide group of organisations and individuals, we intend to draw on the wide range of contacts already known to us, but also to set up a small steering group for the project (largely non-academic) who can help us to identify missing elements. As this is only a six month project, it is really only the start of a process, but we believe that it will help to build links and communication in the vital area of climate change and risk which lies at the heart of science in culture.

Planned Impact

As well as the benefits to the academic community (described separately), this research will be of benefit to a wide range of potential users. These will include the private sector, government agencies, policy makers, the public sector and the wider public, specifically community groups such as local resilience fora. Examples of how these groups might benefit are set out below.
- Private sector. Our contacts include a wide range of private sector organisations with a direct interest in effective communication of climate change and its associated risks. Specifically this includes Lloyds of London (our project partners) who co-sponsor the Lighthill Risk Network, which is a key partner in running a knowledge network funded by the Technology Strategy Board and which encourages the flow of information between academia and the insurance industry. Links with water companies, including Severn-Trent who are the CASE partner in an ESRC-funded study of water literacy, transition education and demand management, will also be important in exploring issues related to water supply, perceptions of drought risk and response to water use restrictions. The media play an important role in communicating issues related to climate change and we shall use our links (Metcalfe) with BBC Radio Nottingham to explore this area.
- Government agencies. The P/CIs have strong links with the Environment Agency (Thorne, Metcalfe). The EA is now responsible in England and Wales for helping organisations adapt to climate change and has responsibility for coastal flooding and flooding associated with major rivers. They will benefit directly from a better understanding of the effective communication of risk and of how and why people (the 'public') respond in the ways that they do.
- Policy makers. One of the CIs (Gosling) is involved with DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change), Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) through the AVOID Programme, a DECC/Defra funded programme that is aimed at providing key advice to the UK Government on avoiding the dangerous impacts of climate change. Gosling has also worked directly with Ed Miliband's Special Envoy for Climate Change and the Environment (Mr Barry Gardiner MP), through the Royal Society Pairing Scheme. Nottingham City Council is one of our project partners (see letter of support). These direct links with policy-makers mean they will benefit from the results of the discussions on the communication and perception of scientific uncertainties.
- Community groups/3rd sector. It is anticipated that the results of the workshops will be of interest and relevance to members of both the amateur and professional meteorological communities. Endfield has strong links with key amateur meteorological networks including the Climatological Observers Link and the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation and various members of the team have established relationships with major national and international organisations including the Meteorological Office and the Royal Meteorological Society, all of whom can provide important points of contact with the wide range of non-academic, practitioner communities and interest groups and can also provide additional platforms for disseminating information resulting from the network workshops. The University also has a long-standing relationship with the Papplewick Trust and its educational offshoot, the Water Education Trust (both registered charities). The work of these Trusts centres on the Papplewick Pumping Station, which is the last example of a Victorian pumping station still in existence, The Trust and University are currently engaged in a collaborative research project concerned with knowledge generation concerning efficient use of water in industry, agriculture and the home and knowledge transfer to stakeholders and the general public.


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Description The objectives of the project were: a) to build understanding of the vocabulary of uncertainty in relation to climate change risks; b) to explore how understandings are communicated between groups and c) to begin to develop a vocabulary of climate change uncertainty intelligible to different groups; these to be addressed drawing on the expertise of our project partners and steering group. Our primary approach to this was through holding two workshops, the first aimed at academics and the second bringing together people from a broad range of backgrounds, but interested in climate change and its potential risks. The workshops have been complemented by discussions with our steering group and input from interested parties who were unable to attend the workshops. Workshop reports and copies of the available presentations are on the project web site A podcast was also made for the project by a producer at BBC Radio Nottingham. The difficulty of understanding and interpreting uncertainty in climate change projections and controversies was evident and the volume of material was problematic. Too much complexity could inhibit decision making. Organisations approach climate change in different ways; in some cases the term itself is seen to be discredited. Tailoring messages about climate change to the target audience is seen as central. Building effective collaborations and partnerships takes time and can be affected by the current economic difficulties with reorganisations and staff losses. Further information on the exploratory award project can be found at
Exploitation Route This study was supported by two project partners (Lloyds of London and Nottingham City Council). Representatives of these organisations (Alexandra Vincenti and Debbie Hill respectively), with Bill Donovan (Environment Agency (EA)) and Paul van der Linden (Met. Office) formed the project steering group. Engagement with these individuals and organisations has proved extremely valuable. The steering group played an important role in workshop 2 and provided additional commentary and guidance to the project team. They contributed direct experience of how organisations supply and manage the dissemination of climate information and approach and apply climate change and uncertainty in their day-to-day business. The aim of the project was specifically to link into the non-academic context and the foundations for this were achieved.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment

Description Research Programme Grant 'Integrated ClimAte Resilience UnderStanding (ICARUS) Belize'
Amount £499,688 (GBP)
Funding ID RPG-2021-288 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2022 
End 01/2025
Description SAtellite ASrgassum Monitoring System (SASAMS) - developing real-time monitoring for Mexico's Caribbean Coast
Amount £359,901 (GBP)
Organisation UK Space Agency 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2020 
End 03/2021
Description SargAssure - Providing reliable actionable near-real-time information to the sargassum downstream industry sector
Amount £279,050 (GBP)
Funding ID UKSAG21_0028 
Organisation UK Space Agency 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2021 
End 03/2022