Climatic Change

, Volume 121, Issue 2, pp 415–425 | Cite as

Lost in translation? Interpretations of the probability phrases used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in China and the UK

  • Adam J. L. HarrisEmail author
  • Adam Corner
  • Juemin Xu
  • Xiufang Du


Tackling climate change is a global challenge and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the organisation charged with communicating the risks, dangers and mechanisms underlying climate change to both policy makers and the general public. The IPCC has traditionally used words (e.g., ‘likely’) in place of numbers (‘70 % chance’) to communicate risk and uncertainty information. The IPCC assessment reports have been published in six languages, but the consistency of the interpretation of these words cross-culturally has yet to be investigated. In two studies, we find considerable variation in the interpretation of the IPCC’s probability expressions between the Chinese and British public. Whilst British interpretations differ somewhat from the IPCC’s prescriptions, Chinese interpretations differ to a much greater degree and show more variation. These results add weight to continuing calls for the IPCC to make greater use of numbers in its forecasts.


Numerical Range Natural Interpretation Chinese Participant Uncertainty Information Tackle Climate Change 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank Melinda Soh, Jia Li, Lingxiao Guo, Yanmei Zhang, Qin Zhang, Qi Guan, Lina Bai and Zhen Xiao for assistance with data collection, Daniel Chu for assistance with translation, Tobias Gerstenberg for assisting with graphs and Nigel Harvey and Matthias Gobel for comments on a previous version of the manuscript.

Supplementary material

10584_2013_975_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (39 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 39 kb)


  1. Beyth-Marom R (1982) How probable is probable? A numerical translation of verbal probability expressions. J Forecast 1:257–269CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Box GEP (1954) Some theorems on quadratic forms applied in the study of analysis of variance problems: I. Effect of inequality of variance in the one-way classification. Ann Math Stat 25:484–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Brun W, Teigen KH (1988) Verbal probabilities: ambiguous, context- dependent, or both? Organ Behav Hum Decis Process 41:390–404CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Budescu DV, Wallsten TS (1985) Consistency in interpretation of probabilistic phrases. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process 36:391–405CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Budescu DV, Broomell S, Por H (2009) Improving communication of uncertainty in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Psychol Sci 20:299–308CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Budescu DV, Por H-H, Broomell SB (2012) Effective communication of uncertainty in the IPCC reports. Clim Chang 113:181–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Davidson RA, Chrisman HH (1993) Interlinguistic comparison of International Accounting Standards: the case of uncertainty expressions. Int J Account 28:1–16Google Scholar
  8. Davidson RA, Chrisman HH (1994) Translations of uncertainty expressions in Canadian accounting and auditing standards. J Int Account Audit Tax 3:187–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Doupnik TS, Richter M (2003) Interpretation of uncertainty expressions: a cross- national study. Acc Organ Soc 28:15–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Doupnik TS, Richter M (2004) The impact of culture on the interpretation of ‘in context’ verbal probability expressions. J Int Account Res 3:1–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fischer K, Jungermann H (1996) Rarely occurring headaches and rarely occurring blindness: is rarely = rarely? Meaning of verbal frequentistic labels in specific medical contexts. J Behav Decis Mak 9:153–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Geall S (2011) Climate change journalism in China: opportunities for international cooperation. International Media Support. [Retrieved from March 26th, 2013]
  13. Harris AJL, Corner A (2011) Communicating environmental risks: clarifying the everity effect in interpretations of verbal probability expressions. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 37:1571–1578CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Harris AJL, Corner A, Hahn U (2009) Estimating the probability of negative events. Cognition 110:51–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Howell DC (1997) Statistical methods for psychology, 4th edn. Wadsworth, BelmontGoogle Scholar
  16. Hulme M (2010) Why we disagree about climate change: understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  17. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) Contribution of working groups I, II and III to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [Retrieved from March 26th, 2013]
  18. Lau L-Y, Ranyard R (1999) Chinese and English speakers’ linguistic expression of probability and probabilistic thinking. J Cross-Cult Psychol 30:411–421CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Mastrandrea MD, Field CB, Stocker TF, Edenhofer O, Ebi KL, Held H, et al. (2010) Guidance note for lead authors of the IPCC fifth assessment report on consistent treatment of uncertainties. IPCC cross-working group meeting on consistent treatment of uncertainties, Jasper Ridge, CA. [retrieved from August 14th, 2013]/
  20. Patt A, Dessai S (2005) Communicating uncertainty: lessons learned and suggestions for climate change assessment. Compt Rendus Geosci 337:425–441CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Sirota, M., & Juanchich, M. (2012). Risk communication on shaky ground. Science, 338, 1286-1287.Google Scholar
  22. Smithson M, Budescu DV, Broomell SB, Por H-H (2012) Never say “not:” impact of negative wording in probability phrases on imprecise probability judgments. Int J Approx Reason 53:1262–1270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Teigen KH, Juanchich M, Riege AH (2013) Improbable outcomes: infrequent or extraordinary? Cognition 127:119–139CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Wallsten TS, Budescu DV, Zwick R (1993) Comparing the calibration and coherence of numerical and verbal probability judgments. Manag Sci 39:176–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Weber EU (1994) From subjective probabilities to decision weights: the effect of asymmetric loss functions on the evaluation of uncertain outcomes and events. Psychol Bull 115:228–242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Weber EU, Hilton DJ (1990) Contextual effects in the interpretations of probability words: perceived base rate and severity of events. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 16:781–789CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Witteman C, Renooij S (2003) Evaluation of a verbal-numerical probability scale. Int J Approx Reason 33:117–131CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adam J. L. Harris
    • 1
    Email author
  • Adam Corner
    • 2
    • 3
  • Juemin Xu
    • 1
  • Xiufang Du
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain SciencesUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.School of PsychologyCardiff UniversityCardiffUK
  3. 3.Climate Outreach and Information NetworkOxfordUK
  4. 4.School of PsychologyShandong Normal UniversityJinanChina

Personalised recommendations