The future isn’t set in stone. As we’ve experienced in the last eighteen months, we can’t plan for everything or predict what the future holds. Likewise, scientists cannot use a crystal ball to know all climate change impacts in 10, 20 or 100 years. While it’s certain that climate change will have increasingly far-reaching effects all around the world, much of the details will inevitably remain uncertain. Still, we need to act now curb climate change and prepare for changes that are already inevitable. So, scientists have found ways of dealing with uncertainty.

Uncertainty is part of the package

We live in a complex, dynamic world. What it looks like today results from the interaction of millions of factors, some of which we are not even aware of. Scientists are often trying to replicate our reality in models to better predict and eliminate risks, whether that is to determine best-before-dates, study the possible path of a storm or evaluate loan applications. But because models can only take so many factors into account.

Models are always improving though, and we don’t always need a perfect replica of our reality to be able to take decisions. What we need is the right information for what we are trying to do. Engineers don’t need to know the origin of the Big Bang to be able to safely set up GPS satellites over our heads. And your GP probably just uses a number of parameters to evaluate your blood tests. Science is filling gaps in our understanding every day, upgrading models and validating them with observations, which improves our estimates and our predictions. But uncertainty is part of a lot of our science and it is important to take it into account.

Knowing that we don’t know (why it matters)

Regardless of its specific discipline, Science is on a mission to understand and explain reality. Essentially, it is on a quest to eliminating uncertainty. And scientists have successfully discovered a lot, all that we know, actually. But a lot remains to be understood, whether that’s the nature of the centre of a black whole, whether we’ll be able to prevent cancer or the exact sequence of extreme weather events we’ll be facing by 2100.

Scientists have a good understanding of the mechanisms that lead to climate change and their broad-scale impacts. That was echoed in the new IPCC report on climate change published at the start of August. But specific estimates of local impacts are influenced by regional variability, internal feedbacks and external factors such as human action.

How we deal with uncertainty

Knowing where our confidence in models is low allows researchers to find ways around uncertainty. RECEIPT is developing climate risk storylines of future climate, in which we look at the plausible narratives of extreme weather events. Through a chain of cause and effect, we explore what could happen, rather than predicting what will happen. Using what our researchers call counterfactuals , essentially asking “what if”, RECEIPT explores multiple scenarios for extreme climate events. We study how changes in physical processes due to a warming climate can potentially result in a variety of climate impacts. This allows us to explore our vulnerabilities to climate change, and the implications of each scenario provide sector-specific information practitioners can use to address climate risks.

Uncertainty and climate action

Climate scientists commonly disclose the limitations of their research. This is important to drive further research in order to reduce uncertainty. But the way this uncertainty is framed plays a massive role on the public trust, as well as on the uptake of the research in policy and decision-making. Emphasizing uncertainty can obscure the important scientific findings that should not be ignored in decision-making. That’s why it is crucial to put what we do know at the centre of the discussion. We know that we are in “code red for humanity” as it stated in the last IPCC report , and that profound and ambitious changes are needed to change this path.

Because the future depends on a multitude of factors, and that their trajectory is not set in stone, our choices can always make a difference. In their book “The future we choose” Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (who led negotiations for the United Nations during the Paris Agreement of 2015) wrote “humanity is only ever as doomed as it believes itself to be”. Who we vote for, how we spend our money as consumers and what emission regulations we implement have an impact on our future and our climate.

Published on : 24 August 2021