Scientists have failed to communicate with the public about climate change risks in a way that resonates with people and that enables informed decision-making.
We emphasize what we don’t know and the ways that what we do know might not be entirely correct. Scientists are better at describing the potential limits of individual studies than we are at synthesizing multiple independent lines of evidence into highly robust conclusions. Often, we overlook the potential for awful outcomes or incorrectly characterize outcomes with unknown likelihood as having a “low probability” of occurring.
The complexity of the connection between humans and climate makes it very hard to predict the societal consequences of climate change ahead of time. The possibility of getting lucky can’t be ruled out but the odds of getting lucky aren’t good and truly awful outcomes are possible. Few rational decision-makers would choose the climate change gamble if they understood the stakes and the opportunities on hand for avoiding the worst outcomes.
Society needs scientists to communicate effectively—to provide scientifically accurate information in ways that all audiences understand and can use constructively.
People are causing climate to change and it poses serious risks. The more carbon we emit, the higher the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will be and the larger the changes in climate we’ll face. Based on our current path, a child who is born today could, by age 30, breath air with roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as her great, great grandparents. And yet, we do not know how much carbon we can emit safely and we cannot know in advance when human-caused climate changes will lead to catastrophic societal consequences.
This makes climate change among the most pressing challenges facing society today. Meanwhile, there are response options that would help stabilize the climate system at very low, or even no, net cost. This makes climate change among the more tractable problems that we face.