When, not if: The inescapability of an uncertain future

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Stephan Lewandowsky1,2 and Tim Ballard2, (1)University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, Australia, (2)University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom
Uncertainty is an inherent feature of most scientific endeavours, and many political decisions must be made in the presence of scientific uncertainty. In the case of climate change, there is evidence that greater scientific uncertainty increases the risk associated with the impact of climate change. Scientific uncertainty thus provides an impetus for cutting emissions rather than delaying action. In contrast to those normative considerations, uncertainty is frequently cited in political and public discourse as a reason to delay mitigation. We examine ways in which this gap between public and scientific understanding of uncertainty can be bridged.

In particular, we sought ways to communicate uncertainty in a way that better calibrates people’s risk perceptions with the projected impact of climate change. We report two behavioural experiments in which uncertainty about the future was expressed either as outcome uncertainty or temporal uncertainty. The conventional presentation of uncertainty involves uncertainty about an outcome at a given time—for example, the range of possible sea level rise (say 50cm +/- 20cm) by a certain date. An alternative presentation of the same situation presents a certain outcome (“sea levels will rise by 50cm”) but places the uncertainty into the time of arrival (“this may occur as early as 2040 or as late as 2080”).

We presented participants with a series of statements and graphs indicating projected increases in temperature, sea levels, ocean acidification, and a decrease in artic sea ice. In the uncertain magnitude condition, the statements and graphs reported the upper and lower confidence bounds of the projected magnitude and the mean projected time of arrival. In the uncertain time of arrival condition, they reported the upper and lower confidence bounds of the projected time of arrival and the mean projected magnitude.

The results show that when uncertainty was presented as uncertain time of arrival rather than an uncertain outcome, people expressed greater concern about the projected outcomes. In a further experiment involving repeated “games” with a simulated economy, we similarly showed that people allocate more resources to mitigation if there is uncertainty about the timing of an adverse event rather than about the magnitude of its impact.