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New study applies cognitive psychology to communicating uncertain climate information

How does the brain interpret visual climate data? How does it make sense of uncertain climate information? These are some of the questions cognitive psychology can help us answer, which is why climate scientists and practitioners are increasingly turning to the psychological sciences to understand how best to communicate climate information to non experts and decision makers.

Communicating climate change often involves the visualisation of climate data – such as maps projecting future temperature increases and rainfall changes. Decision makers need to be able to understand this information, including interpret data with contradictory messages of different possible future changes, in order to make robust decisions and flexibly respond to uncertainties arising from the emerging understanding of climate science.

Recently Harold et al. (2016) undertook a comprehensive review of how people understand visual representations of climate data, and developed a new set of 11 guidelines that synthesises the literature from cognitive and psychological sciences of how to improve the visualisation of climate data based on how the human brain processes visual and linguistic information.

Uncertainty emerged as an area requiring more research from this review (identified also by Spiegelhalter et al. 2011). Uncertainty can be related to incomplete or conflicting scientific findings and messages, uncertainties around future climate change projections, but also uncertainty regarding potential socioeconomic impacts of climate change and exactly which climate impacts will materialise when, which are difficult to model but are critical for decision makers.

Subsequently, the Future Climate For Africa programme (FCFA) is funding new research to better understand how climate scientists can better communicate and visualise uncertain climate information for decision makers and other non-experts. The 12-month research project will build on lessons from two existing FCFA projects (AMMA 2050 and FRACTAL) related to assessing the comprehension of uncertain climate information in the context of decision making. The project is being led by the Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town, in partnership with the University of East Anglia (UK), Laboratoire d’Océanographie et du Climat: Expérimentation et Approche Numérique) LOCEAN, the University of Sussex (UK), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK), the Stockholm  Environment Institute (SEI) OxfordUniversité Cheikh Anta Diop (Senegal), and VNG Consulting Ltd.

The research will involve undertaking structured interviews with both scientists and decision makers, developing a set of guidelines for communicating uncertainty within climate information, and training scientists on how to implement these guidelines. The research will engage decision makers working with climate data in a range of contexts, including urban and rural areas, at both national and subnational levels of government (including regional and city-level), as well as in Anglophone and Francophone countries in West and Southern Africa. The aim is to address a range of issues of concern to decision makers across the urban planning, energy, food security and agriculture sectors.

This research presents a unique opportunity to bring cognitive psychology into these diverse decision making contexts, and link the knowledge and experience of climate scientists and impact modelers, agricultural researchers, social scientists and decision makers and policy researchers with expertise in the psychological sciences. 

“Communicating uncertain climate information can be challenging due to the often complex data, a diversity in decision-makers’ needs, and challenges and limitations in the use of software to create graphics. Cognitive psychology can help us understand how people process uncertain information and identify solutions to support comprehension and decision-making. Hence, joining-up expertise from a range of disciplines, including practitioners, climate researchers, and psychologists, will provide new insights to enhance communication on the ground with decision-makers,” says Jordan Harold of the University of East Anglia, one of the project’s lead researchers.

For more information about the project, please contact Dr Christoper Jack, the Principal Investigator (cjack@csag.uct.ac.za).