This Research Highlight describes the work of Ursula Rick, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Ursula’s Ph.D research focused on meltwater in the Greenland Ice Sheet. Working in a politically charged science got her interested in science policy, specifically energy and climate policy. Ursula has been working with Lisa Dilling looking at climate change adaptation research. They would like to know who has been calling for what types of adaptation research and who is funding such research. In addition, they would like to find out from stakeholders what kind of research is actually needed for communities to adapt to climate change. Ursula's other project with Roger Pielke, Jr. is described below.
Climate Change Metrics and Their Uncertainty
By Ursula Rick
Policymakers as well as other stakeholders make decisions about climate change under uncertainty, much of it irreducible, and they often judge information by its source. Scientific data about climate change comes from many sources, including the scientific literature, boundary organizations, and the media. Within those categories there are many different types of sources of information, each with a different mission and possibly differing political goals.
Due to the nature of science, scientific literature can often have seemingly contradictory results, and this becomes a problem when the issue is of political importance. As Andrew Revkin, environmental reporter for the New York Times, has written, when scientific findings are not consistent, “the news media and advocates of all stripes dive in. Under nonstop scrutiny, conflicting findings can make news coverage veer from one extreme to another, resulting in a kind of journalistic whiplash for the public.” The same is no doubt true for policymakers.
This project seeks to understand how the reporting of various metrics of climate change in the mainstream media, in the scientific literature, by advocacy groups and by boundary organizations has affected the debate over climate change. The first metric focused on is sea level rise projections to the year 2100. I searched seven newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, The Times (London), The Guardian and The Telegraph) and two scientific news outlets (Science News and Nature News) for reports on sea level rise. In each article, I looked for global sea level rise projections for the year 2100 and any associated uncertainty. The media reports were compared to the sea level rise projections from the IPCC Assessment Reports.
Surprisingly, the sea level rise projections to 2100 reported in newspapers have not changed significantly in the last 20-25 years. The average reported projection over the mainstream media is less than 1 meter of sea level rise by 2100, and the UK newspapers reported average greater sea level rise projections than the US newspapers. There have been very small trends in the reported numbers over time with the largest increase in reported sea level rise projections coming from The Times and the Washington Post, and the largest decrease in reported projections coming from The Financial Times. The reported uncertainty in the projections ranges from 0 to almost 2 meters and has also changed very little over time. Like the mainstream media, the reported sea level rise projections in the science news outlets have virtually no trend with time, but the average reported projections are significantly less than the mainstream media reports. The IPCC projections have decreased from the 1st through the 4th Assessment Reports (WGI). It should be noted, however, that the 4th Assessment Report is widely thought to greatly underestimate future sea level rise because the effects of dynamic loss from glaciers and ice sheets were not taken into account.
The continuation of this project will include gathering similar data on global mean temperature projections, CO2 concentration targets and other metrics commonly used in climate change dialogue. I will also include more scientific assessment report data and delve deeper into what metrics and uncertainty advocacy groups are reporting to policymakers and other stakeholders.
Ursula Kay Rick