Climate uncertainty and policy making—what do policy makers want to know?


In climate change science, the existence of a high degree of uncertainty seems to be the cause of anxiety for many scientists because it appears to undermine the authority of the science. One of the assertions made by the so-called sceptics against the scientific consensus on climate change is that because the science is so uncertain, there is no basis for taking action. The response of the climate change science community has been to develop in-depth analyses of uncertainty of increasing sophistication and complexity. In most areas of policy making, the normal situation is characterised by complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. Therefore, dealing with uncertainty is not an unusual state of affairs for policy makers. However, the overemphasis given to uncertainty in the climate science discourse by scientists working in the field has been self-defeating as it has led to confusion among the intended recipients of the policy relevant scientific knowledge and allowed room for scepticism to grow. Climate change scientists should instead communicate and engage with policy makers (and the public) on those things that we know with confidence.


The high degree of uncertainty in climate change science seems to be the cause of anxiety for many climate change scientists. It is the subject of numerous conferences, debates in the media and scientific articles (Manning et al. 2004; Hulme 2009; Smith and Stern 2011; Painter 2011; Circle-2 ERA-Net 2010; Adler and Hirsch Hadorn 2014; Aven and Renn 2015). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) devotes special papers to the topic and provides specific guidance on dealing with and presenting uncertainty in its reports (Moss and Schneider 2000). Nonetheless, this uncertainty seems to be at the root of the anxiety because of the way that it has been used by others and, in particular, by climate change sceptics.Footnote 1

Notwithstanding the Paris Agreement reached in 2015 at the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties, based as it was on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report (IPCC 2014), one of the assertions made by climate change sceptics is that because the science remains so uncertain, there is no firm basis for collective action on this issue in the face of competing priorities (Lawson 2014). The response of scientists has generally been one of defensiveness (Sharman 2015). This is despite 2016 having been confirmed as the warmest year since records began (NASA 2016).

That there is an overwhelming consensus of scientists who are convinced that climate change is real seems undeniable (IPCC 2014; Cook et al. 2013). Further, there is consensus on the proposition that the rise in global average temperature seen since the middle of the nineteenth century is because of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, which, in turn, is caused by the rise in emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity. There is ample evidence to justify this conclusion. Most practising scientists working in the field would endorse the key conclusions contained in the IPCC’s Synthesis Report (IPCC 2014) that:

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.

And that:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen

Despite this scientific consensus, the fact remains that there are large numbers of people who do not accept this as the final word. The reasons why this is the case has itself been the subject of considerable research (Shuckburgh et al. 2012; Pidgeon and Fischhoff 2011; Pidgeon 2012; Whitmarsh 2011; Hulme 2009). Fossil fuel interests and other supporters of the status quo are known to support ‘think tanks’ and individual academics that hold sceptical climate change positions (Fischer 2013). That these individuals and organisations have been such effective communicators is somewhat of a puzzle given that nearly all of the world’s governments agree that climate change represents a clear and present danger to human society.

An examination of the everyday meaning of the word uncertainty quickly reveals that it includes such connotations as ‘not knowing what to do or believe’ or ‘not able to decide about something’ or ‘being ambivalent’ or ‘irresolute’ or ‘indecisive’ (Cambridge, online dictionary). As will be argued in this paper, the widespread prevalence of climate scepticism around the world may, in part, be due to the overemphasis given by climate change scientists to uncertainty (Shuckburgh et al. 2012; Painter 2011).

This paper reviews briefly the science and technology studies literature on the use of scientific evidence and scientific uncertainty in public policy and the paradox of why many science-led areas, such as climate change, are often the most contested. How the treatment of uncertainty by the IPCC has evolved over time and increased in both sophistication and complexity, becoming a sub-discipline in its own right, is also considered. Three episodes, occurring in quick succession and coinciding with the UNFCCC Conference of Parties in 2009, which appeared to be part of a campaign by climate change sceptics to present a public challenge to the scientific consensus, are examined. The first of these episodes came to be known as Climategate; the second concerned the discovery of errors in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report; and the third was the legal challenge of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change media campaign, Act on CO2. The paper also considers how climate change science has been represented in the media—especially in the Anglophone world where the notion of ‘balance’ in media reporting has long held sway. The paper then addresses the question of what policy makers might want from climate change scientists in order to act on climate change.

At the time of Climategate and these other episodes, the author was the head of the Climate and Energy: Science and Analysis (CESA) Division at the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). CESA’s role was to provide the underpinning science and technical evidence base for DECC policies to tackle climate change through: providing advice and analysis on specific policies and positions on climate change and energy to policy leads and Ministers; leading on relevant national and international science policy issues, such as the UK’s participation in the IPCC; and acting as an intelligent customer for climate change research programmes, such as funding of the Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Research Programme.

As a science adviser in UK Government, the author’s role was to act as a knowledge broker and intermediary between the policy community and the academic community (Doubleday and Wilsdon 2013). This paper presents insights from the perspective of an engaged science policy official involved in articulating the UK Government’s position on climate change.

Science and policy interface and the politics of uncertainty

The field of science and technology studies has developed an extensive literature on the use of science evidence, uncertainty and the role of scientific advisers in policy making in highly contentious areas (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1990; Jasanoff 1990; Wynne 1992; Shackley and Wynne 1996; Pielke Jr 2007; Stirling 2010; Jasanoff 2013; Spruijt et al. 2014; Landström et al. 2015). A key issue addressed by this body of work is the paradox as to why public policy areas which are science-led and strongly committed to rational decision making often fail to reach consensus (Jasanoff 1990). Ostensible disagreements about uncertainty in the scientific evidence often conceal fundamental differences of values between contending actors on a particular policy issue, and the uncertainties are thereby politicised (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1990). A clear view that has emerged from this body of work is that policy relevant science and science advice used in regulatory decision making cannot stand aloof from politics (Jasanoff 2013).

Some scientists take the view that policy makers qua decision makers do not understand scientific uncertainty (Landström et al. 2015). However, it is submitted that dealing with uncertainty in and of itself is not an issue in policy making as a practice in general. There are various idealisations of how public policy, based on ‘bounded’ rational action, is made in liberal democracies (Jones 2003). However, the actual practice of making public policy is usually complex, occurs in rapidly changing and often confusing circumstances, and is often characterised by complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. More often than not, it involves conflict between different interest groups who have radically different values (Jones 2003; Australian Public Service Commission 2009; Boyne and Meier 2009; Hallsworth et al. 2011). Nonetheless, in a liberal democracy, decisions still have to be made and those making the decisions are accountable to the public and are, thereby, obliged to give reasons for those decisions.

What is different about policy areas which are ostensibly science-led is the authoritative status given to experts (Jasanoff 1990; Shackley and Wynne 1996). Science advice is often mediated through institutions (the IPCC is a good example), and in many countries, science advisers are employed in specialist agencies or employed directly (as was the case for the present author) by government (Doubleday and Wilsdon 2013). Shackley and Wynne (1996) suggest that science advisers in government play a ‘boundary ordering’ role between the scientific community and policy community and they help sustain the authority of science in the public policy process. In respect of uncertainty, they suggest that the damaging effects to scientific authority of uncertainty in the science may be managed if certainty about uncertainty’ can be achieved. This also aids the process of achieving consensus around scientific knowledge claims. However, they suggest that this is ‘beguiling’ as, in the example that they give, there was no agreement between the climate scientists about what quantitative uncertainty ranges really meant (Shackley and Wynne 1996). Indeed, Landström et al. (2015) go further and argue that scientific uncertainty means different things in the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. In addition, public controversies show that these different interpretations of scientific uncertainty have different implications for policy and decision-making (Landström et al. 2015).

Others have suggested that the conceptualisation of scientific uncertainty in policy-related sciences conflates a number of distinct things and this conflation has the effect of closing down different, but legitimate, perspectives (Stirling 2010). In a paper suggestively entitled Keep it Complex, Stirling argues that there is a need for a ‘more rigorous approach to assessing incomplete knowledge’ and we should not treat every issue through the lens of risk management. Taking a cue from Knight (Knight 1921), Stirling sets out an Uncertainty Matrix which distinguishes between risk, ambiguity, uncertainty and ignorance depending on where they fall on the dimensions of knowledge about possibilities on one axis and knowledge about probabilities on the other.

From perhaps a more traditional natural science perspective, Smith and Stern (2011) distinguish at least four (non-mutually exclusive) varieties of uncertainty as imprecision or statistical uncertainty where there is a known probability distribution of an event or outcome; ambiguity or scenario uncertainty where the probability distribution of an event or outcome (whether known, unknown or disputed) cannot be made; intractability where the uncertainty is the result of not being able to carry out the computations necessary for an event or outcome; and indeterminacy where there exists honest diversity of views on the desirability of obtaining or avoiding a given event or outcome (Smith and Stern 2011; Landström et al. 2015).

Perhaps the most intuitively accessible articulation of uncertainty is that given by Donald Rumsfeld—which has received a surprising amount of academic comment and analysis (e.g. Spiegelhalter 2017)—where he says:

there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know

It is suggested that there is much in the science of climate change that is in the Rumsfeldian category of ‘known knowns’ (Rumsfeld 2002). However, there are many ‘known unknowns’ which are currently at the limits of our understanding but where further research may help in reducing the scientific uncertainty (an example of this might be climate sensitivity) and tip them into the category of ‘known knowns’. There will, of course, always be ‘unknown unknowns’. However, it is submitted that this is the province of discovery research.

Treatment of uncertainty by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports

The treatment and presentation of uncertainty by the IPCC have evolved and increased in sophistication and complexity over time (Yohe and Oppenheimer 2011; Adler and Hirsch Hadorn 2014; Aven and Renn 2015). In the First Assessment Report (IPCC and Houghton 1990), the discussion and treatment of uncertainty were rudimentary. The IPCC Working Group I, in its Policy Makers Summary, recorded that ‘There are many uncertainties in our predictions particularly with regard to the timing, magnitude and regional patterns of climate change due to our incomplete understanding of: sources and sinks of greenhouse gases...; clouds...; oceans...; polar ice sheets...’. It went on to say that ‘…[t]hese processes are already partially understood and we are confident that the uncertainties can be reduced by further research’. Chapter 11 of the IPCC Working Group I report also set out a scientific action plan to improve prediction of global climate change. What is striking is the confidence of the authors of the First Assessment Report in the predictive skill of the available computer models at the time and also the strong belief that uncertainties, where they existed, could be narrowed through further research.Footnote 2

In the IPCC Second Assessment Report, the Summary for Policy Makers from Working Group I, the authors appear to be a little more circumspect. As well as setting out the case for further research on priority topics, the Summary states “Future unexpected, large and rapid climate system changes (as have occurred in the past) are, by their nature, difficult to predict. This implies that future climate changes may also involve ‘surprises’. In particular, these arise from the non-linear nature of the climate system” (IPCC 1995).

The IPCC’s Third Assessment Report is notable in that, for the first time, there was a comprehensive discussion of uncertainty in projections of climate change derived from computer modelling and quantification of levels of confidence in predictions of the impacts of climate change in the Working Group I (IPCC 2001). It reported that ‘[P]rojections of climate change are affected by a range of uncertainties...and there is a need to discuss and quantify uncertainty in so far as possible’. In its Guidance Papers on Cross Cutting Issues, the IPCC circulated a comprehensive paper on addressing uncertainties containing general recommendations to lead authors for more a consistent assessment and reporting (Moss and Schneider 2000). Ironically, this is when climate change science became caught up in a major controversy through the inclusion of the ‘hockey stick’ graph in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report (Pearce 2010).

By the time of the publication of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, discussion and treatment of uncertainty in the three Working Group reports themselves had assumed an even greater significance (IPCC 2007). The IPCC updated its paper on uncertainties circulated to lead authors of the IPCC Third Assessment Report with new guidance notes on addressing uncertainties consistently and transparently (IPCC 2005). This time, however, the guidance appeared to be more prescriptive with the stated purpose of wanting to ‘define common approaches and language that can be used broadly across all three working groups’ (IPCC 2005). There was very little discussion of theory as seen in the early guidance paper, and it had the appearance of a list of dos and don’ts. It presented a systematic typology of uncertainties as unpredictability, structural uncertainty, and value uncertainty. In addition, the guidance provided advice to lead authors on communication and the need to use calibrated language in presenting conclusions. A calibration scheme for the level of confidence in a given conclusion was introduced ranging from Very High confidence signifying at least 9 out of 10 chance of being correct to Very Low confidence meaning less than 1 out of 10 chance of being correct. Further, to calibrate the Likelihood of a well-defined outcome having occurred or occurring, the new guidance note described a scale ranging from an outcome being virtually certain with a > 99% probability of occurrence to an outcome being exceptionally unlikely with a < 1% probability of occurrence.

The Fifth Assessment Report raised the discussion and consideration of uncertainties in climate change science to an even higher level (IPCC 2014). The IPCC published new guidance notes for authors in 2010 (Mastrandrea et al. 2010). This was because it was acknowledged that in the Fourth Assessment Report, each of the three Working Groups had continued to take very different approaches to the treatment of uncertainties. The new guidance note set out a three-by-three matrix depicting summary statements for evidence and agreement and their relationship to confidence (now expressed more simply using the qualifiers very low, low, medium, high and very high). For the first time, all the three Working Groups used the same metrics for communicating uncertainty. In addition to the general guidance note, Working Group III report included a framing chapter on Integrated Risk and Uncertainty Assessment of Climate Change Response Policies which summarised the extensive literature on how policy makers act in practice under conditions of uncertainty and also contained a discussion of the interface between science and policy (Kunreuther et al. 2014). What comes across to the reader of these latest guidance notes is the recognition that the translation of scientific evidence into policies is a social process and, therefore, there is a need to understand the psychological and intuitive thinking that underlies how decision making actually happens.

However, a point made by Smith and Stern (2011) is that there is a tendency in climate change science to reduce ambiguity to imprecision. The analysis presented in both the framing chapter of the Working Group III in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and the updated guidance note to IPCC lead authors seems to bear out this observation.

Climate- and other -gates

The revelations of the apparent manipulation of data contained in the hacked e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at University of East Anglia at the end of November 2009 created a firestorm of criticism which engulfed the climate science community (Sharman 2015; Booker 2009). This was quickly followed by the discovery that the information contained in a number of references used in the IPCC Working Group II report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability were incorrect and, in particular, the contention that the melting of Himalayan glaciers could occur by 2035 (Cruz et al. 2007; InterAcademy Council 2010). The firestorm of criticism and comment that these two episodes generated was almost unprecedented for the global science community. For this author, as a science policy official engaged in mobilising the scientific community to respond to these criticisms, the unwillingness of bona fide climate change scientists to appear on the news media to defend the consensus on climate change science was somewhat disappointing. This may have been because they had seen the threats and abuse in the traditional and social media aimed at the Director of CRU and were unwilling to be put in a similar position (Laing 2010). Whatever the reasons, climate change sceptics appeared to have a field day and received extensive media coverage. As a result, there was a marked loss of confidence among the general public, at least in the Anglophone world, in the core message on climate change (Painter 2011).

In the immediate aftermath of Climategate, a series of official and semi-official inquiries was set up in the UK (and also in the USA) with the objective, in part, to restore confidence in climate change science and, by implication, policies being introduced by Governments around the world for tackling climate change (Oxburgh et al. 2010; Russell et al. 2010; UK Parliament 2010). All of them exonerated the scientists at University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. The reviews did, however, criticise the lack of openness of the Unit.

The review chaired by Sir Muir Russell demonstrated that any capable non-expert could reproduce the CRU, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) global average land temperature time series from the raw historical data that was available freely (Oxburgh et al. 2010). This is, perhaps, the key evidence for global warming. This ought to have seriously undermined the allegations made by some climate change sceptics of conspiracy and manipulation of the data by CRU and others. However, this was not the case (see below).

The errors found in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Working Group II report generated two additional official inquiries. The first was by The Netherlands environmental assessment agency (NBL) which found that although the conclusions in the Report were generally sound, there was a propensity to ‘accentuate the negative’ in the summary for policy makers (NBL 2010). On the face of it, this finding sits uneasily with those of Brysse et al. (2013) who suggest that, if anything, climate scientists are biased toward caution in their predictions and they name this tendency as ‘erring on the side of least drama’ (ESLD) (Brysse et al. 2013). Similarly, Lewandowsky et al. (2015) suggest that overemphasis by climate scientists on uncertainty and adopting the framing of sceptics has resulted in ‘seepage’ back into the climate scientists’ own discourse and has led to a widespread tendency to understate the severity of the problem (Lewandowsky et al. 2015). However, this difference may be attributed to the fact that the NBL view was in respect of the IPCC Working Group II report on impacts of climate change, whereas Brysse et al. and Lewandowsky et al. papers were dealing with the physical science basis i.e. issues addressed in IPCC Working Group I reports.

The second inquiry, by the InterAcademy Council, made a number of recommendations about the governance arrangement for the IPCC and also criticised the way scientific uncertainties were dealt with inconsistently in the three individual Working Group reports (InterAcademy Council 2010).

At around the same time, DECC’s public information campaign Act on CO2 faced a legal challenge in the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA received over 900 complaints alleging, among other things, that the claims made about strange weather and flooding events in the UK that would happen as a result of climate change were exaggerated and misleading (Gillespie 2010). The media campaign had been launched in the run up to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties to take place in Copenhagen in December 2009 in order to communicate, among other things, the potential impacts of climate change in layman’s terms. The campaign included both television advertisements and press advertisements. One of the press advertisements depicted three men floating in a tub in a flooded landscape after the popular nursery rhyme and contained the text ‘Climate change is happening. Temperatures and sea levels are rising. Extreme weather events such as storms, floods and heatwaves will become more frequent and intense. If we carry on at this rate, life in 25 years could be very different’. The second press advertisement again depicted well-known characters from a nursery rhyme, this time Jack and Jill. It showed them going up the hill to the well only to find it dry. This advertisement contained the text ‘Climate change has serious implications for our way of life. For example, extreme weather conditions such as flooding, heat waves and storms will become more frequent and intense. If we carry on at this rate, life in 25 years could be very different’. In respect of these two press advertisements alone, the ASA ruled in favour of the complainants (Advertising Standards Authority 2010) concluding that:

the claim “Extreme weather events such as storms, floods and heatwaves will become more frequent and intense” in ad (b) and the claim “extreme weather conditions such as flooding, heat waves and storms will become more frequent and intense” in ad (c) should have been phrased more tentatively….However, we considered that the imagery of UK flooding in ad (b) and of a drought in ad (c) were not themselves...exaggerated or misleading. (Emphasis added)

As expected, there was a great deal of coverage of this ruling in the print and social media (Moore 2010; Gillespie 2010). At the time, it represented a serious setback for the UK Government’s public information campaign, Act on CO2. The adjudication turned on when the use of the phrase ‘will happen’ in its everyday meaning was justified and whether this is the case if, and only if, it is associated with events that have a greater than 90% probability of occurring. This is especially pertinent because the adjudication expressly discussed the levels of certainty (and uncertainty) in the predictions of increase in frequency of extreme weather events in the probabilistic terms set out in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC 2007).Footnote 3 What the ASA ruling showed was that the probabilistic percentages for extreme weather events in Northern Europe given in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which were provided to aid interpretation of the research findings, served only to confuse the issue (Budescu et al. 2014). The various gates described above, perhaps, only served to undermine the public’s confidence in these institutions, and, to date, we do not seem to have fully recovered that confidence (BBC 2010; Jowit 2010; Shuckburgh et al. 2012).

Climate change science representation in the media

Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, the media continues to leave readers and viewers with the impression that there is a balance between equal and opposing views on the subject (Boykoff 2010; Garfield 2013).Footnote 4 Boykoff (2010) suggests that the faux balance in media reporting in the USA served to ‘amplify outlier views on anthropogenic climate change’. Boykoff further suggests that these outlier perspectives have already ‘permeated climate policy discourse and decision-making’.

There have been various explanations put forward as to why this is the case (see Painter 2011). What is true, however, is that the coverage in the UK print media during Climategate and these other events discussed herein had a significant impact on the public perception of climate change (BBC 2010; Jowit 2010).

In these debates and exchanges, it was possible to discern a taxonomy of non-exclusive but distinct climate sceptic positions. These can be characterised as:

  1. a)

    There is no compelling evidence that the global climate system is changing now.

  2. b)

    There is no compelling evidence that human activity since the industrial revolution has caused the global climate system to change.

  3. c)

    The global climate system is changing, but it is part of the earth’s natural variability—after all, we know that the earth has been much warmer in the past and there have also been ice ages in the past.

  4. d)

    The global climate system may be changing because of human activity, but the science is too uncertain to tell us by how much. The costs of action now would outweigh the benefits accrued in the future. Therefore, there is no rational basis to act.

  5. e)

    The global climate system may be changing because of human activity, but our current scientific knowledge is too uncertain to tell us by how much. The costs of action now would outweigh the benefits accrued in the future. Therefore, there is no rational basis to act now.

None of these positions is a priori untenable. Position a) represents outright denial that climate change is happening and, more specifically, questions the global warming trend observed in the land and sea surface temperature records since the middle of the nineteenth century. This appeared to be the dominant sceptic discourse during Climategate episode with an extended critique of not only the temperature record since the middle of the nineteenth century, but also the indirectly measured global average temperatures over the previous thousand years contained in the ‘hockey stick’ graph (Pearce 2010). Positions b) and c) are closely related and, arguably, more sophisticated. Both positions appear to accept the proposition that the global climate system is in transition. Position b) is simpler because it asserts that there is no causal relationship between the observed increase in greenhouse house gas concentrations and the observed rising average global temperature. Position c), on the other hand, could be consistent with the proposition of human action (i.e. through increased greenhouse gas emissions) being responsible for a small part of the observed change in the global climate system, but this is overwhelmed by the natural variability of the global climate system (Lawson 2014).

Positions d) and e) are interesting because they appear to accept that human-induced climate change could be happening but, given the uncertainty in the science, assert that there is no basis for action i.e. it expresses an opinion about what is the optimum risk management approach to take. Position d) can be interpreted as declaring that the scientific uncertainty is so intrinsic to the endeavour that there will never be a position reached when the evidence base would be deemed sufficient to justify action (Lawson 2014). Position e), however, is a more contingent formulation which appears to assert simply that we do not know enough now to justify action—but this could change in the future (Sterman and Sweeney 2007).

In retrospect, it appears to have been a mistake to assume that the scientific case for climate change could claim to have been ‘settled’ (Koonin 2014). Or, to assume that to the non-expert, the consensus of experts carried any weight to the extent that it effectively closed down debate (Pearce et al. 2017). That there existed influential groups in society who have different values and have a strong interest in preserving the status quo and who would seek to use that influence should not have been a surprise (Jasanoff 1990; Funtowicz and Ravetz 1990). Therefore, it should not have been surprising that there would be a strong backlash on the scientific consensus.

Acting on climate change under conditions of uncertainty

As a public policy issue, climate change is a classic example of a ‘wicked problem’ (Australian Public Service Commission 2007; Lazarus 2009). Notwithstanding the compelling scientific evidence that is now available, climate change remains a contested concept (Hulme 2009; Lawson 2014). The global climate system is highly complex, and the causal chain from greenhouse gas emissions; increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations; increasing global average temperatures; changes in regional climate systems; and, finally, to impacts on socio-economic systems leads to increasingly larger propagation of uncertainties with each link in the chain i.e. there is a ‘cascade of uncertainties’ (Schneider and Kuntz-Duriseti 2002) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Increase in uncertainty in modelling from emission scenarios to impacts (adapted from Schneider and Kuntz-Duriseti 2002)

Indeed, as the climate models have become more and more complex, paradoxically, the associated uncertainties have increased. Furthermore, they are unlikely to diminish by doing more science (Van der Sluijs 2005). For both the layman and non-expert policy maker, this seems counterintuitive and is a further source of confusion (Pidgeon and Fischhoff 2011). It also seems ironic that in going from the simple handling of uncertainties in the IPCC First Assessment Report (IPCC and Houghton 1990) to the much more sophisticated approaches found in the later reports (IPCC 2007, 2014) has had the opposite effect to the one intended of providing greater transparency to policy makers and the wider public. Arguably, the treatment of uncertainty in the IPCC reports has now become so complex that it is an esoteric subject in its own right with its own interpretative sub-discipline of experts and language (Landström et al. 2015).

However, it is the case that incomplete knowledge is the normal state of affairs when we make decisions about the future. This is true for governments, businesses and individuals—we need to make punts about the future using the best information at hand.Footnote 5 Therefore, we still need to have some understanding of future climate system trajectories, and it is submitted that global climate models are the best tools that we have.Footnote 6 However, it is suggested that there is little benefit to be gained through qualifying knowledge claims with statements such as being 50% certain of a proposition ‘x’ being true. A lay person’s interpretation of such kinds of statements could very well be that there is an equal chance of being wrong as being right (Handmer and Proudley 2011; Budescu et al. 2014).

Because of the way that the IPCC process is structured, with Working Group I looking at the physical science basis, Working Group II focusing on impacts and adaptation, and Working Group III focusing on mitigation, there is a tendency to see this as a continuum from making scientific statements about the world now and in the future and then gradually eliding into statements about what global society ought to or must do collectively (i.e. sliding into a strong advocacy role pace Pielke Jr (2007)). Perhaps this is unavoidable, but evidently this has elicited strong objections.

Turning to the question of what do policy makers want to know? At the time of the three episodes described in this paper, the United Kingdom Government, along with all member governments of the IPCC, had already been convinced by the scientific evidence for climate change. Indeed, in the UK, there existed strong cross-political party agreement on the matter, albeit with some dissenting voices at the margins. The author found that, in his engagement with UK policy colleagues and climate change negotiators, for much of the time, there was little interest shown in the topic of uncertainty in climate science per se. The view extant within DECC was that this was an issue that could be left to the experts as one of detail for them to sort out as the scientific case for the reality of climate change had already been made—the matter was settled.Footnote 7 The need for action on climate change having been adopted formally as UK government policy (illustrated by the Climate Change Act 2008), officials dutifully endeavoured to implement that policy. In practice, this meant that developing climate policy options and their associated cost-benefit and economic analyses became the mainstay of activity within the department. (It is noticeable to the author that the use and practice of economics in government, probably the most influential specialism in government, pays little attention to uncertainty as an issue. In any event, uncertainty in economic models has never been an impediment to policy action). It is suggested that the lack of apparent interest in the issue of uncertainty in climate science by policy colleagues simply reflected a pragmatic response given the ‘boundary ordering’ role played by science advisers in Government (Shackley and Wynne 1996). Simply put, they did not take an active interest because they did not feel the need to.

As far as overtly political actors, such as Ministers, were concerned, the author was responsible for briefing ministers before public appearances before UK Parliamentary Select Committees and in the broadcast media on climate science issues. In these fora, the issue of uncertainty in climate science was frequently raised by interlocutors. The rhetorical tactic adopted was to focus on what was known about changes in the climate system as a result of the observed global temperature trend over the past 150 years, appeal to the authority of the IPCC and the scientific consensus, utilise the language of risk reduction, and avoid discussion of climate modelling projections.Footnote 8

It was evident to the author that a high degree of frustration with the climate science community arose because, after having convinced the policy communities about the reality of climate change, climate change scientists then proceeded to overemphasise the uncertainty in climate science in their public discourse and also adopted some of the framings of climate sceptics (Lewandowsky et al. 2015). This had the effect of undermining public support for policies to address the climate change, particularly in the UK and other Anglophone countries (Pidgeon and Fischhoff 2011; Whitmarsh 2011; Corner et al. 2012).

An assertion often made is that policy makers demand ‘clear and simple answers’ from scientists on which they can base firm policy decisions (Choi et al. 2005). However, it is respectfully suggested that this misses the point. The primary focus of policy makers is in policy action. Even if the scientific consensus on climate change was universally accepted, that would still not tell us what we ought to do or tell us what trade-offs that decision makers would need to consider in addressing the problem (Pearce et al. 2017). For some, the trade-off is simply between the costs of mitigation now and the cost of the damages to the socio-economic system from climate change at some future date (Smith and Stern 2011). However, someone or some group must bear the present cost of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There lies the ground for political contestation. This is why any appeal to scientific evidence alone to justify action on climate change is unlikely to work (Hulme 2009; Pearce et al. 2017).

As the science and technology studies literature has shown, there are ‘boundary ordering’ institutions which help mediate scientific knowledge, including associated uncertainties, within the policy making process (Jasanoff 1990; Shackley and Wynne 1996; Jasanoff 2013). It is submitted that what policy makers seek from climate change scientists is confident articulation of what we know. But, it is a misunderstanding to believe that this is achieved through detailed quantification of uncertainty in probabilistic terms about specific scientific knowledge claims i.e. greater certainty about uncertainty. If overemphasis is given to uncertainty in the climate change science discourse, then it should not be a surprise if policy makers and the public at large get an exaggerated sense of scientific uncertainty and begin to doubt the validity of the science itself (BBC 2010; Boykoff 2010; Pidgeon and Fischhoff 2011; Poortinga et al. 2011; Whitmarsh 2011; Pidgeon 2012; Corner et al. 2012).

Arguably there is a stronger consensus among not just the climate change scientists but also others, on the observational record on global warming, rising sea levels and the widespread melting of snow and ice that is well grounded in the evidence base. In addition, the basic physics of the greenhouse effect is well established and not in dispute. Therefore, in engaging with policy makers (and the wider public), climate change scientists ought to be bolder in asserting those things that ‘we know we know’ (pace Rumsfeld 2002) with confidence and how this knowledge has been acquired. They should also acquire a more nuanced understanding of the use of scientific evidence in the policy process. This, indeed, appears to be the direction of travel of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (see above).

There are, of course, many ways in which policy processes can deal with decision making in the face of uncertainty. Some of these are described in the framing chapter on Integrated Risk and Uncertainty Assessment of Climate Change Response Policies in the IPCC Working Group III report (Kunreuther et al. 2014). For example, the precautionary principle can be applied; or, strategies can be adopted that are resilient to a range of different scenarios; or, adaptive strategies can be chosen that can be modified as we learn more about the issues at hand and how the future is unfolding. Importantly, policy makers can manage uncertainty through a risk management framework, where the risk is formulated as a combination of probability of an event or outcome occurring and consequences of that outcome (Pidgeon and Fischhoff 2011). In that way, policy makers and society can manage the risk from low probability, high impact events which would also need to be addressed (Smith and Stern 2011).

However, to use the scientific evidence that is available most effectively, it is necessary for climate change scientists to enter into dialogues with other social actors—decision makers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. and—most importantly—with communities—in a language that they can understand (Porter and Dessai 2017; Howarth and Painter 2016). Until that happens, climate change science is likely to remain an elite, technocratic discourse (Hulme 2009). A reliance on an ‘information deficit model’ will not be adequate (Howarth and Painter 2016). If the operational response of society locally to climate change is about how to manage the risks from extreme weather events, impacts on agriculture, impacts on human health, impacts on biodiversity and infrastructure, etc., then, at this point, climate change stops being abstract and becomes real for the layman and non-expert. However, a meaningful dialogue is not going to be easy. Robust participatory analytic-deliberative processes will need to be designed that combine scientific and other expertise with deliberation among all participants. At present, there is limited experience in participatory climate change risk management and more needs to be done to address this challenge (Döll and Romero-Lankao 2017).

That there is a cascade of uncertainty, as we move along the causal chain from the physical system to societal impacts and much of this uncertainty is irreducible, is well understood (Schneider and Kuntz-Duriseti 2002). Nevertheless, the existence of a cascade of uncertainty does not mean that we do not know enough to make collective decisions to manage the risks. If individuals and communities are expected to change their behaviours, all the actors engaged in managing the risks from climate change will need to engage on a practical level. This entails that action on climate change is an irreducibly social and political process (Pearce et al. 2017).


The key point made in this paper is that the overemphasis given to uncertainty in the climate science discourse by scientists working in the field has been self-defeating as it has led to confusion among the intended recipients of the policy relevant scientific knowledge and allowed room for scepticism to grow. As the climate change models have become more and more complex, paradoxically, the associated uncertainties have increased. For both layman and non-expert policy makers, this seems counterintuitive and is a source of further confusion. It has had the opposite effect to the one intended of providing greater transparency.

There is a need to move away from the idea of climate change science as a body of given facts that is beyond debate. Where science has a major public policy role, then, as the science and technology studies literature show, the scientific evidence will be challenged and this should be expected. However, when this happens, the best approach is to be open and listen to different perspectives. Climate change scientists also need to be prepared to enter into dialogues and not retreat into defensiveness when challenged. The dialogue has to be with lay persons and policy makers and not just with climate change sceptics with a background in science. There should also be better appreciation in the climate science community of the fact that in most areas of policy making, particularly in those areas that are hotly contested, the normal situation is characterised by complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

What policy makers want from climate change scientists is a confident articulation of what we know. It is a misunderstanding to believe that this is achieved through a detailed quantification of the uncertainty about specific scientific knowledge claims i.e. more certainty about uncertainty. Finally, it does not necessarily follow that from the confident articulation of the climate science alone that action is justified. What happens next is an irreducibly social and political process in which the scientific community is but one of a set of actors, albeit an important one.


  1. 1.

    Climate change sceptic is the term used throughout this paper to denote those whose views range from outright denial of man-made climate change as an observable phenomenon to those who, though accepting that climate change may be happening, do not accept that a case has been made for urgent action (see below).

  2. 2.

    This confidence shown by UK climate scientists in the predictive skill of climate modelling was used to secure government funding support (see Mahony and Hulme 2016).

  3. 3.

    The author coordinated the DECC’s scientific response to the ASA adjudication. The exchanges between DECC and ASA at one point reached somewhat absurdist proportions in respect of delineating what kind of statements could or could not justify the use of the phrase “will happen” and what kind of subjective probabilities ought to be assigned to these kinds of statements.

  4. 4.

    Recently, however, the BBC has introduced new guidelines for coverage of the climate change debate wherein it asked staff to be aware of false balance and stated that it was not necessary to include outright deniers of climate change. (

  5. 5.

    Arguably Knightian uncertainty is of most interest in climate change science as it concerns conditional statements about what would happen if a certain scenario transpires and about which there is no prior information (Knight 1921).

  6. 6.

    Smith and Stern (2011) argue that there must be room for speculation by scientists about what future states of the world would be like and that this kind of speculation is of value to policy makers e.g. what a world that was on average 5 °C warmer than today would look like.

  7. 7.

    A manifestation of the belief widely held by policy makers in the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change that the scientific case for climate change had already been made was the effort made to close down the Hadley Centre Climate Research Programme as it was felt that a government-funded research programme on climate modelling was no longer necessary. Two consecutive reviews were initiated. However, both reviews concluded that the Hadley Centre provided “essential and world-leading climate modelling services to Government.” (Government Office for Science 2010).

  8. 8.

    In one briefing exchange with a Minister during the “Climategate” episode where he was to appear on a major UK TV current affairs programme and also appear against a well-known climate sceptic, the author explained that the temperature projections in the IPCC 4th Assessment Report for the A1F1 (high fossil fuel) and B1 (clean energy technologies) SRES scenarios did not start to diverge much until the 2040s. This came as a surprise to the Minister and brought home the point that action taken now may not have any observable impact for decades as the temperature trajectories were similar for both scenarios until then. A politically challenging argument to make.


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Meah, N. Climate uncertainty and policy making—what do policy makers want to know?. Reg Environ Change 19, 1611–1621 (2019).

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  • Climate change
  • Science policy
  • Uncertainty
  • Science communication