Climatic Change

, 108:791

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Climate uncertainties and their discontents: increasing the impact of assessments on public understanding of climate risks and choices

  • Brenda EkwurzelAffiliated withUnion of Concerned Scientists
  • , Peter C. FrumhoffAffiliated withUnion of Concerned Scientists Email author 
  • , James J. McCarthyAffiliated withMuseum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University


US public awareness of the reality and risks of human-caused climate change remains limited, despite strong evidence presented in the IPCC and other major climate assessments. One contributing factor may be that the immense collective effort to produce periodic climate assessments is typically not well matched with public communication and outreach efforts for these reports, leaving a vacuum to be filled by less authoritative sources. Print and online media coverage provides one metric of the US public reach of selected climate assessments between 2000 and 2010. The number of Lexis-Nexis articles for the search terms “climate change” or “global warming” within 14 days of each report’s release varied significantly over time with a peak occurring in 2007. When compared to background “chatter” relating to climate change, each assessment had widely diverse penetration in the US media (~4% for US National Climate Assessment in 2000; ~17% for Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment in 2004; ~19% and ~10% for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report Working Group I and Working Group II respectively in 2007; ~4% for the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) assessment report in 2009; and ~5% for US National Research Council’s America’s Climate Choices reports in 2010). We propose ways to improve the public reach of climate assessments, focusing in particular on approaches to more effectively characterize and communicate the role of uncertainty in human actions as distinct from other sources of uncertainty across the range of possible climate futures.