Rewriting the Uncertainty Story (High Water, Bad Math and Explosions, Pt. 2)

Note: This is the second post related to issues on my mind after Hurricane Harvey’s sweep over my hometown this fall. Part 1, discussing Houston’s chemical safety vulnerabilities, is here

Of all the talking points arising from the string of devastating storms in September, one in particular seemed to echo through every news article on the subject: Were all these huge storms “caused by climate change“?

Testing that question, as Dr. Susan Lozier discussed at the Nic School’s hurricane panel earlier this semester, would be a difficult process. On a fundamental level, however, it’s also the wrong question to ask. Like debating whether a single harsh winter in the Northeast proves global temperatures aren’t really rising, asking whether a single intense hurricane season is proof of climate change can oversimplify and muddy the whole conversation. It’s a bad foundation for further discussion.

But looking at why such a question is so hard to answer in the first place can demonstrate something important about the climate change conversation itself, and point toward ways to talk more effectively about scientific findings. For people speaking about the policy implications of scientific research, scientific accuracy is absolutely necessary – but it’s no longer enough to only be accurate. The way information is structured and presented deeply affects how easily its importance can be understood, and what other messages it carries with it, intended or not.

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Researchers tend to speak incredibly carefully about what they can learn from any given experiment or data set. Solid, well-supported findings are declared “extremely likely,” not “unquestionably proven.” Some chance that new evidence could upend a conclusion, even if that chance is incredibly tiny, is always assumed. And holding that chance in mind is absolutely necessary from the standpoint of scientific integrity.

But that distinction also creates a major stumbling block for those trying to talk about the implications of research findings. Consider this: The people who know the most about how the earth and its atmosphere works, the people that have the best chance of understanding and predicting what changes we are likely to see, are also the most tightly bound by professional duty to be reserved, careful and dryly technical when they talk about what they believe and why – even when what they learn is shocking.

Politicians campaigning on fiery anti-establishment platforms, pundits trying to stoke outrage and boost ratings, industry lobbyists running defense against possible regulations or market shifts – those folks don’t have to be careful about sounding objective (and in practice, don’t even always have to be truthful). Those jobs revolve around creating convincing, emotionally powerful stories and repeating them, passionately, until they are believed.

Even news voices, in theory striving for objectivity around science reporting, have been all over the place in terms of finding ways to help their audience parse through the competing voices on climate change. Depending on the source, climate change has been reported in this country over the last decade as a solid fact, as a controversial guess or as an outright conspiracy, particularly where poorly-understood aspects of the scientific process get blown out of proportion. Even the word “uncertainty” means very different things when said by different journalists – uncertainty can be a possibility worth worrying about, or the red flag of a scam.

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Statistics, the beating heart of all efforts to draw meaning from measurements of nature, centers on patterns and trends seen across many samples and data points. We can’t technically say that any particular storm of the three most notorious ones this year was “caused by climate change,” in large part because we don’t have enough recent storms to compare them to.

For all the damage they cause, and all the splash they make in the human psyche, hurricanes are still extremely rare events, each unique from the others in various ways. We don’t have records of enough modern storms, measured consistently with the same modern sensors and tools, to make the kind of statistical comparison that would let us definitively label any one storm a “climate change storm” and another as just “normal.” Just because we can’t yet run such a test doesn’t mean that the answer will ultimately turn out to be “no” – but that’s a nuanced point, and nuance doesn’t translate well to a soundbite or a tweet.

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Here’s something else important to understand about climate change uncertainty:

The big questions related to climate change no longer really include “Is the earth’s climate changing?” We can see right now that it is. The question is not whether ice is melting, sea level is rising, coral reefs are bleaching or plant populations are shifting to different elevations. We have been carefully tracking those patterns for years now. And human-caused climate change is the only theory so far that reasonably ties together all of the observations we have about these trends.

What is still extremely unclear is exactly how those trends will play out over the next century. Just how fast will temperatures escalate, if we do nothing differently? What exactly do those trends mean for the Arctic vs. the Texas desert, vs. the low-lying Maldive islands, vs. the deep ocean? Do we have 100 years to respond, or 15? For whom will the costs of adapting be an inconvenience, a hardship, a benefit or an unbridled catastrophe? These are the kinds of questions that make up most of the “uncertainty” in the climate change debate – capped with the incredibly volatile question of “How do we address this both effectively and fairly?”

It’s extremely difficult to measure the value of uncertain future harms, no matter how large, against more concrete ones that many people have already experienced. I was reporting daily on Houston real estate and development during the year the price of oil touched bottom, leaving entire office highrises empty and more than a 100,000 people unemployed. Both I and a huge portion of my family and friends have worked in or around the petroleum industry (or been laid off by it), from drilling supply to contract law to geologic exploration to environmental permitting to leasing out land for fracking. Environmental impacts aside for a moment: For several generations of Texans, oil companies have meant steady work, stability, prosperity and the ability to give your children a much better life than you had.

When you look at what the rises and falls of fossil fuel operations have meant for individuals, communities and whole cities in the past century, it’s easy to understand the tendency to dismiss or minimize “uncertain” possibilities that might require deliberately unraveling those dynamics. Acknowledging and deciding to seriously prepare for climate change probably does mean creating economic pain for some people in the short run, even if there’s a serious push to help those dependent communities build other skills and industries to replace the ones that wane. And global questions of fairness, of what countries should bear the burdens of reimagining the world’s energy system, loom large even for those who wholeheartedly agree that these changes are urgently needed.

The biggest question of climate change, however, is “economic pain now, or entire countries under water later?” Refusing to seriously discuss climate risks before they become potentially unavoidable is the same as deciding that we’re ok with, say, losing the Breadbasket or drowning Galveston and New Orleans if we are wrong. It is unconscionable not to talk urgently and carefully about these kinds of tradeoffs, even though those conversations will be hard.

But instead of spending the last few decades looking for creative and ethical solutions to these very real conflicts, we’ve spent much of that time on questionable fights over the basic science. This isn’t by chance: Some of the same PR specialists that helped set the stage for decades of inflated “controversy” over the health impacts of smoking appear to have also helped major oil companies hide and confuse the potential impacts of their own products, as well. Documents that came to light in the last few years show that scientists working for ExxonMobil, for example, had been studying the potential for its products to cause serious global climate harm for 40 years or so, long before the issue came into public view. The company (along with other fossil fuel giants) proceeded to spend decades and tens of millions of dollars funding campaigns and think tanks that have muddied the waters and airwaves on that same science.

As a consequence, we now face the same looming environmental and socioeconomic questions we did in the late 1980s, but on a much tighter deadline, amid far greater public and cultural confusion. Those years amount to stolen time.

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In light of all that – in light of the fact that the playing field of dialogue has been so spectacularly tilted for so long – it’s also easy to understand the temptation to fight back in kind, and to tell a more simple story that feels more urgent and more true. It would be so much easier if we could point at this year’s devastation and say, “Yes, those storms are climate change at work, full stop. Get ready.” But Dr. Lozier was extremely careful not to do this, as she addressed the community earlier this fall.

What we can say, she emphasized, is that these are the kinds of storms that we expect climate change to cause more of. And this phrasing points to a subtle but critical takeaway for communicators.

Effective communication, on science issues and beyond, requires a deep awareness of what else the audience hears in a statement beyond just its factual content. Consider two claims about the likelihood of a possible outcome: “There is a 10% uncertainty” and “There is a 90% risk.” These sentences mean the same thing to a speaker, but they may convey opposite messages to a listener; the first implies a buffer while the second implies a need to act. There are a lot of creative approaches currently being explored to discuss climate change and other environmental problems in a way that accurately highlights what we do know and what we can do to respond (or even thrive) in the face of this enormous set of challenges. 

Effective storytelling by public advocates and science communicators holds real potential to push the country’s climate change conversation back into the realm of fact. The challenge, however, is to refuse to mirror bad behavior – refuse to sacrifice the science itself – in the process. Adding more bad information to the media sphere doesn’t push some cosmic pendulum back in the opposite direction; it only makes it that much harder to understand what’s real. Good science storytelling can’t be at the expense of accuracy. But the science can be a powerful enough story on its own, if we can learn to tell it well. 

3-D cross-sections of the complex interior structure of Hurricane Irma. Created by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

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