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


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.

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  1. 1.

    The IPCC translates its reports into the six official languages of the United Nations (English, Chinese, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian). There have, however, been a number of additional, unofficial, translations of the IPCC reports (see http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#6)

  2. 2.

    In the present studies, we did not provide participants with the numerical ranges specified by the IPCC, as we were interested in participants’ natural interpretations. Moreover, in such short studies, experimental pragmatics might ensure consistency with IPCC prescriptions, but in the context of reading hundreds of pages of technical reports, a closer fit with natural interpretations is likely to be highly beneficial. The lack of consistency between the IPCC’s guidelines and participants’ interpretations when provided with the information in the IPCC’s typical format (Budescu et al. 2009, 2012) demonstrates this.

  3. 3.

    Although participants’ responses are on an interval scale, we chose to present medians and IQRs to maintain consistency with related research (e.g., Budescu et al. 2009). Given the interval nature of our data, however, we use parametric analyses in our inferential statistics.

  4. 4.

    Data were analysed with ANOVAs, despite the homogeneity of variance assumption being violated. Using Box’s conservative procedure (Box 1954; Howell 1997) to adjust the critical F-value where appropriate, does not change the significance levels of any results.

  5. 5.

    All these results also hold if age is included as a covariate in the analysis, as is the case in Section 2.

  6. 6.

    These analyses were conducted through an ANOVA in which the effects were calculated sequentially, using Type 1 sum of squares, such that gender and educational attainment were added to the model before location, with age included as a covariate.


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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.

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Correspondence to Adam J. L. Harris.

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Author contributions

AJLH conceived and designed the studies, and analysed the data. JX assisted in designing the studies and oversaw the translation of materials into Chinese. AJLH, JX and XD ran Study 1. AJLH and XD ran Study 2. AJLH and AC wrote the manuscript.

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Harris, A.J.L., Corner, A., Xu, J. et al. Lost in translation? Interpretations of the probability phrases used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in China and the UK. Climatic Change 121, 415–425 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-013-0975-1

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  • Numerical Range
  • Natural Interpretation
  • Chinese Participant
  • Uncertainty Information
  • Tackle Climate Change