Communicating the risks … that we know about

When looking for more information about the new Lewandowsky seepage paper, I came across the press release. In it, this statement stood out for me (my emphasis):

Professor Lewandowsky said: “We scientists have a unique and crucial role in public policy: to communicate clearly and accurately the entire range of risks that we know about. The public has a right to be informed about risks, even if they are alarming”.

On the surface, I could agree with that. Scientists should communicate the entire range of risk to the public that they know about, even when it is alarming. But the thing to take home here is “that we know about”.

How much is known about the entire range of risk? That assessment will obviously not come from observation or statistical analysis. We live on only one planet with a complex, chaotic climate system and we haven’t been in this situation before. I am very curious how it would be possible to assess the entire range of risks in a system with inherent uncertainties? So I am not really sure what he means with “know”? Wouldn’t it be better to use “assume”?

The public has a right to be informed about the risks, I agree. But the public also has a right to be informed about how and with what certainty that risk was assessed. The public get to hear a one-sided story in the media about how certain the scientists are about the problem as well as the solution. The inherent uncertainties are not being addressed.

Personally, I have no problem with alarming stories, if they are based on facts. But I do have a problem with alarming stories presented as knowledge rather than as assumptions, with the intention of building political will for a specific policy option.

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