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Climate scientists grapple with uncertainty (though not the kind you think)

2nd of November, 2011

BY BRAD PLUMER, 10/18/2011 Washington Post

You’ll often hear climate skeptics say “The science isn’t settled.” And, to an extent, this is true — though not in the way they’re implying. There are lots of things climatologists know with a high degree of confidence: that the Earth is warming, that human activity is a major culprit. But, as scientists will readily concede, there are still plenty of aspects of the climate system subject to fervent debate, especially the scale of the risks involved in heating the planet. That’s not necessarily comforting. Uncertainty, after all, can easily mean things might be much worse than we thought.

Increasingly, many scientists are puzzling over how best to present what they know and don’t know to a broader audience. It’s not as easy as it sounds. What do you do when there’s a small but real chance that global warming could lead to a catastrophe? How do you talk about that in a way that’s useful to policymakers? “This is something we’ve struggled with a lot over the years,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University. And as the world’s climatologists get started on the next big assessment of climate science — due in 2013 — figuring out how to talk about what they’re unsure of has taken on renewed urgency.

Here’s an example of why this matters. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report had a section on future sea-level rise. At the time, there was still debate over how quickly ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica would...READ MORE

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