Climate scientists, journalists and citizen advocates alike often discuss the frustrations of climate communication that fails to translate into action. One expert is asking if the way that climate risks are framed for policymakers is the problem because, as he notes, we’re not “telling the boiling frog what he needs to know.”
That’s the title of a new paper from Simon Sharpe of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College of London, published in Geoscience Communication. He advocates for equations that plot the risks as probability over time instead of most-likely projections as a function of time. It may seem a subtle distinction but, he says, it would be more consistent with the way risk is measured in other industries like insurance, engineering and safety.
“Humanity’s situation with respect to climate change is sometimes compared to that of a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water, meaning that change will happen too gradually for us to appreciate the likelihood of catastrophe and act before it is too late,” says Sharpe.
The risk is expressed as what is most likely to happen as a function of time. That means we’re telling the frog that, for example, the water will be 2°C warmer in another five minutes. What may be more effective is a risk assessment that describes specific impacts on the continuum: “The probability of you being boiled to death will be one percent in five minutes’ time, rising to 100 percent in 20 minutes’ time if you do not jump out of the pot.”
Essentially, there are three variables – time, probability and impact – in calculating risk assessment if we’re going to understand and act on the biggest risks. Deciding which variable should be held constant contributes to how visible those risks become, and it is high-saliency impact data that informs regulations about a building’s structural integrity in an earthquake or the potential for occupational-hazard deaths.
That’s the way climate risks should be handled too, says Sharpe.
The frog may not see the point of getting out of the water if it hears what will happen five minutes from now. “If instead he asks first what is the worst that could happen, and then how likely this is, his adviser will tell him that he could be boiled to death,” Sharpe explains. The news that the probability of this is low within the next five minutes but it is rising over time, and at some point it will become more likely than not, completes the message.
“Presented with the graph of probability of boiling as a function of time, the policy conclusion for the frog will be relatively clear,” he adds. It’s true that climate change and its complexities don’t lend themselves to sharply defined thresholds, but it doesn’t mean the same overall communication strategy isn’t useful.
Looking at the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1°5 C, Sharpe sees an emphasis on most likely impacts expressed over time in the various scenarios. There’s reason to think it wise to avoid worst-case scenario presentations, not the least of which is identifying them, but that may not be the most effective approach.
“The risks of climate change can be understood more clearly when research starts by identifying what it is that we most wish to avoid and then assesses its likelihood as a function of time,” the author concludes.
“Decarbonizing the world economy will not be as easy as jumping out of a pot. That makes it all the more important that no opportunity is missed to communicate the severity of the risks to those in charge. The water is already getting warm.”