When 95% certainty adds to uncertainty

When certainty adds to uncertainty

The initial response to the IPCC report of the human effects on climate change has now died down. Time, maybe to assess its impact outside the myopia of the media spotlight.

The key headline from the report was that the panel was “95% certain” that climate change is caused by human activity. One wag responded to my post quoting this on Twitter that this statement is an oxymoron; which indeed it is. An outcome is either certain or it isn’t. Therefore while the sustainability and ecological community is joining in in a collective “told you so”, the rest of the world has probably been left as confused, complacent, cautious and inactive as ever.

The scientific parlance of the near certainty of human impact has not been fully absorbed. Basically it is as likely as smoking being harmful to human health… which we all accept and understand the risks. But would you put your family on a flight that had a 95% chance of landing at its destination? I think not.

Therefore the reporting of the report is not as equivocal as I believe the authors had intended. In science there is always an element of doubt. But in life most of us are looking for certainty or at least believability.

In fact I would argue that the report has probably hardened views at both ends of the environmental spectrum, leaving the majority with even less to believe in and hold on to. This is because it is not about scientific fact or results that the majority are looking to.

The ordinary citizen does not have time to consider peer reviewed papers and debate the niceties of decile temperature rises. They crave certainty in different ways; ways that fit into the their belief systems. Sadly the scientific debate may be becoming increasingly counterproductive.

Witness the latest research results from UK Energy Research Centre, where climate change denial has grown considerably over the last reporting period, with 19% of UK adults stating that they do not believe in climate change. This is up from a minimal 4% in 2005. The majority still believe in the human effect on climate change, but it seems that a growing minority do not. And notice the language; belief not fact.

This evidence supports Professor Chris Rapley’s assertion that we must stop studying the ice caps and now start really studying the human brain. For this is where the answers to climate change lie. We need to understand how to create beliefs and more importantly behaviours that will move us away from our present unsustainable system of consumption.

Psychology and neuroscience however, will only take us so far. I believe we need to look much further back into history and rediscover our audible traditions, the creation of myths and the telling of powerful stories. This is probably the subject for another blog but suffice it to say that science is proven, but it may now be destroying the myths that human society needs to hold it together. Ironically the search for scientific certainty is creating questions, divisions and uncertainty. Something big tobacco knew all those years ago was all it needed to focus on to maintain the social acceptance of its product.

The science is at a point where further increased certainty seems to add nothing more – in practice it is proven. Time for us all to move on, cut through the confusion and make a sustainable life the norm and not the exception. See more here.

Read more from Dan in our Clubhouse and find out more about the Vivian Partnership on their website.