, Volume 108, Issue 4, pp 811-826
Date: 18 Aug 2011

Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world

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Abstract

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been extraordinarily successful in the task of knowledge synthesis and risk assessment. However, the strong scientific consensus on the detection, attribution, and risks of climate change stands in stark contrast to widespread confusion, complacency and denial among policymakers and the public. Risk communication is now a major bottleneck preventing science from playing an appropriate role in climate policy. Here I argue that the ability of the IPCC to fulfill its mission can be enhanced through better understanding of the mental models of the audiences it seeks to reach, then altering the presentation and communication of results accordingly. Few policymakers are trained in science, and public understanding of basic facts about climate change is poor. But the problem is deeper. Our mental models lead to persistent errors and biases in complex dynamic systems like the climate and economy. Where the consequences of our actions spill out across space and time, our mental models have narrow boundaries and focus on the short term. Where the dynamics of complex systems are conditioned by multiple feedbacks, time delays, accumulations and nonlinearities, we have difficulty recognizing and understanding feedback processes, underestimate time delays, and do not understand basic principles of accumulation or how nonlinearities can create regime shifts. These problems arise not only among laypeople but also among highly educated elites with significant training in science. They arise not only in complex systems like the climate but also in familiar contexts such as filling a bathtub. Therefore they cannot be remedied merely by providing more information about the climate, but require different modes of communication, including experiential learning environments such as interactive simulations.