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By Sandra Ortellado, 2018 Science Communication Fellow

Around 8,000 kilometers away from Vienna, Austria, hundreds of Arctic coastal communities are at imminent risk from the melting ice and coastal erosion. Indigenous Arctic populations struggle with food insecurity every day, living off small fractions of what their catch would have been only a few years ago. Their culture and their way of life, so dependent on sea ice conditions, are melting away, along with the very root of the Arctic ecosystem.

However, construal level theory, a social psychological theory that describes the extent to which distant things become abstract concepts, tells us that 8,000 kilometers is just far enough for Arctic peoples to lose tangible existence in the minds of urban citizens. Unlike Arctic communities, who experience the direct effects of climate change at each meal, commercialized lower latitude societies don’t have to face the environmental consequences of choosing to drive to the grocery store instead of bike.

Nevertheless, those consequences are very real, even if the impacts on the Arctic and climate system don’t always catch our attention. Sea level will continue to rise for the next several hundred years—it takes 500 years for the deep ocean to adjust to changes at the surface.

On Friday, 22 July, former Chief Scientist of the UK Met Office Dame Julia Slingo and former Chair of the IIASA Council Peter Lemke joined us at IIASA for a joint lecture on climate risk in weather systems and polar regions. The lecture had one underlying theme: in order to make informed decisions on climate change, we need to embrace uncertainty with a broader understanding of what’s possible. That means that the far-away Arctic needs to be seen as nearby and relevant, and that climate change forecasts once seen as ‘uncertain,’ should instead be interpreted as ‘probable.’

“People are often confusing uncertainty with risk. If it’s uncertain they think they don’t really have to think about it. But there is a risk they take if they avoid things,” says Lemke. “a 40% chance could also mean a doubling of the risk, and a doubling of the risk is something that’s easily understood.”

“It’s a matter of how you communicate it,” says Lemke.

Perhaps Hollywood’s obsession with apocalyptic disaster narratives serves some kind of purpose after all—the stories seem outlandish, but films translate them into concepts we can understand and scenes we’re familiar with.  It’s hard to picture what it would be like to live in a world that is 2°C warmer, but thanks to Hollywood special effects, we can picture what it would be like if storms of epic proportions engulfed the Statue of Liberty in a gigantic tidal wave.

“We have get down to people’s personal experience. That’s why I’m so against the use of things like global mean temperature, because people can’t relate to that,” says Slingo. “I am very keen on using narrative, but based on science, so people have access to the evidence for why we have this story that we tell about how climate change could affect them personally.”

Of course, we can’t give Hollywood too much credit: these stories are dangerously lacking input from actual climate science. Nevertheless, armed with the forecasting tools and technologies that have advanced so much over the past decade or so, we can counter uncertainty and get a better understanding of the risks we face. For example, using improved computer models and satellites that determine the age and thickness of ice, we can determine the rates of receding ice, and how much that will affect sea level rise in coastal communities.

Likewise, social media makes it easy to transmit information rapidly to a large audience that might not have been reachable otherwise. Reaching people where they are is of paramount importance—while scientists can put painstaking effort into presenting the most accurate, unbiased account of probable risks, this is just one facet of any given decision. In the end, it is the public and the policymakers that represent them that must make the decision about what actions to take, based on a complete narrative that includes the socioeconomic and cultural factors involved.

“It’s all about dialogue at the end of the day. One of the things I learned as MET office chief scientist was that based on the evidence I was giving to government, you would think that the policy would be quite clear,” says Slingo. “But there are other aspects to take into consideration, such as unemployment or other policy implementation capacities and societal implications.”

That’s why Lemke and Slingo both make huge efforts to communicate with the public, especially with the impressionable, optimistic, social media savvy and politically mobilizing younger generations. From their interactions and outreach with the public, Lemke and Slingo know that once you put climate change in proximity and translate science into narratives that are relevant to the lives of individual citizens, the public does care about climate change. They want to know more, and they want to do something about it.

When it comes to environmental advocacy, education is power, especially when it translates the high-end risk probabilities of climate science into relatable narratives. For Lemke and Slingo, that creates a huge opportunity for scientists of all backgrounds.

“I don’t think climate change has to be depressing. It’s a fantastic opportunity for a whole generation of scientists and engineers to tackle a great problem,” says Slingo. “I actually have the confidence that we’ll solve it.”

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