Politicians and the media need a better understanding of the nature of uncertainty, argue climate change experts.

A group of leading experts on climate change has called for a more balanced discussion of basic science and public policy to tackle the threat of global warming. 

’How we handle the interface between these represents one of the greatest challenges ever in environmental management,’ say the scientists, whose views will be published in the Journal of Environmental Monitoring.

The authors of the report, led by Robert Watson, chief scientist and senior advisor for environmentally and socially sustainable development at the World Bank, argue that ’incomplete science can be misused to support particular ideological viewpoints, and the tendency of the media to polarise issues can further distort perceptions about the state of knowledge.when scientists respond by characterising the scientific uncertainties the public can become even more confused and mistrustful.’

An accompanying article, written by ecologist Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, US, also laments the way that science reporting has become polarised. 

’The media can either inflate or deflate an issue’s importance, but it seems that in either case, science reporting has become increasingly polarised. From the scientific community, there has rarely been such a level of agreement on an issue as there is on global climate change. Of several hundred articles published on climate change in recent years, not a single one questioned that climate change is real and caused by anthropogenic emissions.  Yet about half of the popular press articles cast doubt on the link between climate change and human activities.’

In reviewing the environmental and health implications of global climate change, including the possibility of large numbers of ’environmental refugees’ displaced by flooding, for example, and an increase in vector-borne diseases such as malaria, the authors say that with increasing capability to predict climate changes ’there exists the opportunity to do better than just adapting in response to changed conditions as and when they emerge.’
In addition, they argue, environmental monitoring should be broadened to include issues such as population-based indices, including rates of mortality associated with specific illnesses, hospital admissions and insurance claims.

Simon Shackley, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, UK, is an expert on the response of society to potential impacts of global warming. ’Monitoring is crucial and one of the problems is that there is insufficient data,’ Shackley told Chemistry World. ’There has been a trend to increasingly overlap environmental and medical monitoring and it is imperative to reduce uncertainties through monitoring.’

Shackley agrees with the authors of the paper that policy makers must understand that scientists cannot always provide definitive answers. ’As a society we are not good at dealing with uncertain scenarios. Politicians and society as a whole need to adopt a more mature attitude towards what science can and cannot do. We need a better understanding of the nature of uncertainty.’ Simon Hadlington