Defining Climate Change: Different Interpretations of “Uncertainty” and “Risk” are Dangerously Skewing Public Perception
Columbia Business School research finds the scientific community’s use of the terms “Uncertainty” and “Risk” confuses the public about the threats of climate change
NEW YORK, NY — The public often looks to the scientific community for guidance to understand climate change and how it will affect them. In some cases, the public is even calling for scientists to be more involved in policy debates. However, the scientific community’s dependence on key terms including “risk” and “uncertainty” can be misinterpreted. In a new essay, Columbia Business School Professor Gernot Wagner writes that a disconnect in interpretations in the public’s perception of the threats of climate change is causing a delay in adoption of the timely solutions needed to avoid further irreparable damage.
In the essay, The Risky Language of Climate Uncertainty, Professor Wagner focuses on the enormous impact that words have when describing climate change. To most of the public, risk means a danger that must be addressed, and uncertainty means a lack of clarity about whether there is any meaningful danger at all. To scientists and economists, uncertainty is worse than risk as it indicates the possible range of just how bad a very real danger will be and is categorized as something that can multiply risk. Professor Wagner argues that climate change is inherently uncertain, however the public perceives that uncertainty as scientists not knowing what may happen and therefore not having a solution to the problem, and as a result, they take no action. In actuality, uncertainty means there is no way to measure the inputs making the risk higher.
“By breaking free from jargon, academics can help put to rest these wasteful uncertainty-certainty debates,” said Professor Gernot Wagner, the Senior Lecturer in Discipline of Economics in the Faculty of Business, and author of the book Climate Shock: The Economic Consequence of a Hotter Planet. “Then we can focus more clearly on the most relevant uncertainties: the ones that could make the future of our planet even worse than expected.”
Professor Wagner argues that economists and scientists understand risk and uncertainty through the research of economist Frank Knight. Measuring risk, as Knight outlines, would be akin to selecting a single card from a deck of playing cards – and preparing for the outcome. Uncertainty, under the same analogy, is akin to selecting the card from a deck where cards are missing, or where there are more than the standard 52 cards. Professor Wagner calls upon the scientific community to use the broader definitions of risk and uncertainty, so the public has an understanding that uncertainty is clearly worse than risk when addressing climate change. Using the broader definitions of risk and uncertainty will align scientists and the public on not only the effects of climate change, but more urgently on what solutions can be pursued. The main focus for both the public and the scientific community should be how we can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
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