When, not if: The inescapability of an uncertain climate future

Timothy Ballard*, Stephan Lewandowsky

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Climate change projections necessarily involve uncertainty. Analysis of the physics and mathematics of the climate system reveals that greater uncertainty about future temperature increases is nearly always associated with greater expected damages from climate change. In contrast to those normative constraints, uncertainty is frequently cited in public discourse as a reason to delay mitigative action. This failure to understand the actual implications of uncertainty may incur notable future costs. It is therefore important to communicate uncertainty in a way that improves people's understanding of climate change risks. We examined whether responses to projections were influenced by whether the projection emphasized uncertainty in the outcome or in its time of arrival. We presented participants with statements and graphs indicating projected increases in temperature, sea levels, ocean acidification and a decrease in arctic sea ice. In the uncertain-outcome condition, statements reported the upper and lower confidence bounds of the projected outcome at a fixed time point. In the uncertain time-of-arrival condition, statements reported the upper and lower confidence bounds of the projected time of arrival for a fixed outcome. Results suggested that people perceived the threat as more serious and were more likely to encourage mitigative action in the time-uncertain condition than in the outcome-uncertain condition. This finding has implications for effectively communicating the climate change risks to policy-makers and the general public.

Original languageEnglish
Article number0464
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2055
Publication statusPublished - 28 Nov 2015

Structured keywords

  • Memory
  • Cognitive Science


  • Climate change
  • Communication
  • Judgement
  • Risk
  • Uncertainty

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