The Royal Society

Interviews with scientists – Confidence from uncertainty

Posted by on 8 July 2011

By Georgia Lockwood Estrin, digital volunteer at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

The word uncertainty does not usually inspire much confidence; but this exhibit at The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition makes us think again. Dr David Stainforth and his colleagues from the London School of Economics, illustrate the multitude of mathematical models produced to represent climate change and to predict our future climate. Why, therefore, are we still unsure about the specific effects of climate change and global warming? The answer lies in our uncertainty.

By delving into the different models of climate change at the exhibit, it becomes apparent that there is a huge range of different responses for an increase in greenhouse gases. Each response depends on many factors, and can be unpredictable without knowing the specifics. However, despite all the differences, some similarities also emerge: all models show that land areas warm up, and that land warms up faster than ocean. Therefore, these models illustrate that we can be confident of the need to mitigate climate change and reduce carbon emissions; but the models also show that there is huge uncertainty about what the consequences of global warming might be.

With the prop of extraordinary dice (found at the stall), the probabilities of landing on a specific number can easily be found by rolling it many times. Unfortunately, with climate change, we have only one roll – or one chance to get it right – this key aspect of climate change means that it is very hard to calculate the probabilities of a specific result. However, all is not lost – even without probabilities, we can still know the possibilities of what might happen. For example, with an ordinary die, we know which numbers to expect to see on each side; but if we look closely at the special die (found at the stall) we realise that there are other possibilities. By being prepared with knowing and understanding the possibilities of what the effect of climate change may be, we may be better prepared about the consequences.

Here’s a podcast of Dr David Stainforth from the London School of Economics talking about his exhibit Confidence from uncertainty: Interpreting climate predictions and his opinions about climate change.