activism climate change

The Uncertainty Handbook

The Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) is a charity that works on communicating climate change. They have specialised in finding messages that engage different audiences, and overcoming obstacles to understanding and acting on climate science. They have a specific expertise that should be of real value to the wider movement – when a big campaign launches, you can usually tell pretty quickly whether they’ve paid any attention to the literature on framing climate arguments.

This week COIN have released The Uncertainty Handbook, a 20 page briefing on how to talk about the manifold uncertainties around climate change. If people think the jury is still out, they’ll be less likely to act, and sceptics have often seized and magnified uncertainties or unanswered questions.

The reality is that we deal with uncertainty every day, in countless little ways. It starts the moment we get up, when we have second-guess the weather and to decide what to wear, and if we can get away with wearing shorts to the office. Businesses and policy makers deal with uncertainty and still make decisions. It’s about balancing risk and preparing for the future with the information that we have.

Climate change shouldn’t be any different, but COIN suggest that many of us misunderstand the nature of science. Because we’re taught it as a series of facts when we’re at school, we think it should be settled and we expect definitive statements. The carefully worded likelies and probablies of UN reports are wasted on us.

The Uncertainty Handbook has a wealth of practical advice for talking about this common problem. Talk about science as a debate, they recommend. Use analogies from everyday life to show how we deal with risk – home insurance, for example. Emphasize what we do know for sure, and use images and stories rather than statistics and graphs.

As an example of how our presentation of a fact can change how people understand it, here are two ways of making a point about potential sea rises:


Both these statements are saying the same thing. But by switching the uncertainty from the outcome to the moment in time, it becomes a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’. People are far more likely to respond positively to the second option.

There’s lots more to think about in The Uncertainty Handbook, which you can download here.


  1. It seams a good plan, and makes perfect sense. Unfortunately our media paint a negative picture on everything, if it was put across with solutions then it might be taken on better.

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