Indiana University and international scientists Develop Effective Communication Methods for Future Sea-Level Rise

View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the Moon. This translunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea area to the Antarctica South polar ice cap. This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the South polar ice cap. Note the heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere. Almost the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible. The Arabian Peninsula can be seen at the Northeastern edge of Africa. The large island off the coast of Africa is the Malagasy Republic. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the Northeast. NASA Identifier: GPN-2000-001138

Staff report

Bloomington – June 20, 2023

Scientists from Indiana University, along with an international group of climate scientists, have developed new methods of effectively communicating crucial facts about future sea-level rise, according to research published in Nature Climate Change. The study reveals the significant impact of improved communication, as civic leaders actively incorporate climate scientists’ risk assessments into major planning efforts to mitigate the effects of rising seas.

To conduct the analysis, scientists reviewed language and graphics used in climate assessment reports from 1990 to 2021 by members of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One area of focus was the assessment of sea-level rise risk resulting from the disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Jessica O’Reilly, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, contributed to the research as the only social scientist on the team. O’Reilly emphasized the need for decision-makers to have accurate information about the timing and impact of ice sheet disintegration on local communities. While uncertainties remain in scientists’ projections, O’Reilly highlighted the importance of quantifying and narrowing down uncertainties, even though they cannot be reduced to zero.

The analysis revealed that aspects of sea-level rise with quantifiable risk levels were accurately presented in the reports, effectively informing public bodies. However, when conveying uncertainties that are difficult to quantify, the language used often fell short, either oversimplifying projections or causing confusion. Such language could lead policymakers to underestimate the risks associated with high-end sea-level outcomes.

The research also identified “boundary chains” as tracks through which science and policy information travel, requiring translation between fields of expertise, governments, and the general public. By analyzing the language used in the IPCC assessment reports from different years, the study compared how ambiguities in sea-level rise risks were conveyed.

The study concludes that accurate and effective communication of complex future scenarios to the public is an ongoing process. The success of the approach taken in the most recent climate report will be reflected in future assessments and ultimately evaluated by policymakers, climate scientists, and social scientists. The researchers emphasized the importance of scientists getting the communication right, especially during this critical decade for climate decision-making.

Read a full IU press release here:

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