Reporting On Climate Change, “The Mother Of All Risks”

Temperature Chart With 95% Confidence Range, via The EconomistAfter reviewing the latest evidence from a major climate change report -- released in full on Monday -- the prominent consulting group PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that climate change is the “mother of all risks.” But while many businesses recognize climate risks, the media often cloud these risks by framing climate change in terms of “uncertainty,” according to a recent study. This can lead to a disconnect between scientific understanding and public perception, and a misguided contentment with inaction.

“What 95% Certainty Means To Scientists”

The lead author of the University of Oxford study on media framing clarified, “the general public finds scientific uncertainty difficult to understand and confuses it with ignorance.” In fact, as Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein explained on Tuesday, in an article headlined “What 95% Certainty Means To Scientists,” the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report's finding that scientists are 95 percent certain about manmade global warming reflects a certainty analogous to scientific fact:

Top scientists from a variety of fields say they are about as certain that global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill.

They are as sure about climate change as they are about the age of the universe. They say they are more certain about climate change than they are that vitamins make you healthy or that dioxin in Superfund sites is dangerous.

They'll even put a number on how certain they are about climate change. But that number isn't 100 percent. It's 95 percent.

And for some non-scientists, that's just not good enough.


But in science, 95 percent certainty is often considered the gold standard for certainty.

“Uncertainty is inherent in every scientific judgment,” said Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Thomas Burke.

What 95% Certainty Means To Businesses

The disconnect between how the public and scientists view uncertainty may lead some people to come to the misguided conclusion that we should wait to act until the science is “certain.” Fox News host Neil Cavuto, for instance, once said that “whether there is or not [a consensus among scientists on climate change], you want to make 100% sure before you plunk down trillions on something.” But for a purported business expert, Cavuto seems to have little concept of risk management. As PricewaterhouseCooper's Will Day explained, hedging against catastrophic climate change now is only sensible:

The very nature of science means it does probability and likelihood, not certainty. So it's only natural as human beings, that when we hear there's a 95% chance of something bad happening, we cling onto the 5% that it won't.  You wouldn't get in a car with a 95% chance of crashing, but we seem happy to take an equivalent level of risk with climate change.

We need to be very careful not to pick and choose the facts we want to be guided by, if we're serious about managing risk, building economic recovery and sustaining growth. There's enough policy and technology possibilities and options right now to build low carbon growth that are good, defensible, and attractive and enable the planet to live within its means.

PricewaterhouseCooper's Cerline Herweiger added that by not establishing clear climate policies, governments are contributing to businesses' uncertainty about how to respond: “Companies want and need governments to minimise the risks they will face; they want clear, consistent and long-term government policies and investment that will prevent warming beyond 2C.” Indeed, nearly 700 businesses have signed a declaration calling for climate action.

Taking Out A Climate Pension: What 95% Certainty Means To Workers

The Oxford study recommended that journalists talk about climate change in terms of risk -- for example, discussing climate change in terms of "loading the dice" -- in order to best convey what scientists and business leaders are telling us about climate change. The study likened efforts to combat future climate change to taking out a pension:

One of the arguments in favour of using the language of risk is that it shifts public debate away from the idea that decisions should be delayed until conclusive proof or absolute certainty is obtained (a criterion that may never be satisfied), towards timely action informed by an analysis of the comparative costs and risks of different choices and options (including doing nothing).

Another is that risk is an essential part of everyday experience, including the worlds of insurance, health, and investment. Many people have to deal with it daily and manage it in different ways: most people in the developed world take out house insurance against the low probability, very high impact event of a fire. Patients are increasingly familiar with the concept of the risks and benefits of different health treatments (though they rely on trusted intermediaries to help them to navigate the risk). And some of the risk assessments people make are on the same timescale as possible climate impacts - for example, taking out a pension policy into which they pay for 40 years.

That's not to say that it never makes sense for journalists to write about uncertainty. The study reportedly classified stories as focusing on “uncertainty” if they referred to a range of projections or used the words “may,” “possible” or “uncertain” -- references that are at times necessary. But PricewaterhouseCooper's take on climate change shows that there is a fresh, under-covered, angle: conveying climate change in terms of risk understandable to economic decisionmakers on both sides.

Retreat Of The “Skeptics”

Some “skeptics” are now claiming that the large degree of certainty on manmade global warming is irrelevant, and that what they actually meant to draw attention to is the uncertainty of various impacts of climate change, arguing this uncertainty should delay action. For instance, the Daily Caller wrote that manmade global warming is “uncontroversial,” and a recent article by a fellow from the fossil fuel industry funded Competitive Enterprise Institute declared that “few prominent skeptics of the sky-is-falling school of global warming actually deny that man-made climate change is real.” (As both these outlets have seized on any story to cast doubt on manmade climate change over the years, they've failed to convey the facts to their audiences -- who largely believe that any recent warming is not primarily manmade, in contrast to the scientific consensus.)

While at least these articles acknowledge the high amount of certainty about manmade global warming, they draw the wrong conclusions about what uncertainty implies in terms of the need to take action. In risk terms, we are rolling the climate dice, or playing a high-stakes game of Russian Roulette, by simply crossing our fingers and hoping that climate impacts will trend on the lower end of scientific projections, as these 2009 graphics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers  illustrate:

MIT's Climate Roulette

When businesses analyze risk, they do not use uncertainty to dismiss the need for action, but rather to inform decisions about what is the best action. Analyses along these lines consistently show that delaying is more costly than taking action. And in stark contrast to the conservative narrative, the more uncertain we are about the probabilities of different impacts, the more proactive we need to be in preparing for all possibilities.