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27 June 2023

Climate scientists have improved risk communication but challenges remain

A new study involving King’s climate expert Dr Tamsin Edwards analysed how uncertainties around projecting sea-level rise are communicated in climate assessment reports.

Vanderford Glacier, a major outlet glaciers that is thinning and retreating in Wilkes Land, East Antarctica (credit: Richard Jones)

Scientists are getting better at communicating uncertainties and ambiguities involved in projecting future sea-level rises due to climate change, according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change.

Accurately communicating the risks in projecting sea-level changes is crucial since policymakers at the regional and local level rely on this information to make decisions about mitigating the effects of sea level rise.

However, predicting future sea level rise is complex. It involves two distinct types of uncertainties – those that can be quantified and those that are ambiguous. Such ambiguities or deep uncertainties arise when analysts make divergent interpretations of a common set of facts or are not able to make any interpretations.

The study reviewed climate assessment reports issued by members of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) between 1990 and 2021.

It found that aspects of sea level rise where risks could be quantified have been effectively communicated such that it aids public understanding. However, when conveying deep uncertainties that are challenging to quantify, the reports often fall short, either oversimplifying projections or presenting information in a confusing manner. Such language might cause policymakers to overlook the risks of potential high-end sea-level outcomes.

The authors said that the Sixth IPCC Assessment Report improved its communication by presenting the ambiguity of sea-level projections “without overwhelming the projections of those processes on which there is a reasonable degree of agreement”. The report also provided guidance on how different users could use the projections based on their risk tolerance.

Dr Tamsin Edwards, Reader in Climate Change at King’s and co-author of the study, was also an author of the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC published in 2021. She specialises in quantifying and communicating uncertainties of climate models, particularly for ice sheet and glaciers melting and contributing to sea level rise. She writes about the subject on her blog ‘All models are wrong’.

Uncertainties in sea level rise can be really hard to communicate because some of the processes involved, particularly for ice sheets, are complex and influenced by factors we don't fully understand – and some are contested between different scientists. This makes it particularly important for us to be clear about these uncertainties and differences, so that decision-makers can understand the latest evidence on future sea level rise and coastal flooding.

Dr Tamsin Edwards, Reader in Climate Change

The lead authors of the paper are Robert Kopp, Rutgers University, Jessica O'Reilly, Indiana University Bloomington and Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University. Other authors include researchers from USA, China, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Singapore who were involved in the Sixth Assessment Report.

In this story

Tamsin Edwards

Professor in Climate Change