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Mark Buchanan

What We Don’t Know About Climate Is Killing Us

Scientists’ honesty about the uncertainties of global warming is hurting their cause with the people they need to convince most.

Science can be a lonely place.

Science can be a lonely place.

Photographer: Mathilde Bellenger/AFP via Getty Images

For more than 30 years, scientists have tried to inform governments and the public on the urgent threat of global warming, working hard — as scientific norms demand — to acknowledge honestly the limits to what they know. It hasn't worked. As a recent report from the United Nations Environment Program shows, global carbon dioxide emissions have gone up, not down, even in the few years since the once-promising Paris Agreement. Nations' own projections for fossil fuel use suggest that emissions will keep rising at least through 2030, making the climate problem worse.

Much of this is the direct result, of course, of a decades-long disinformation campaign funded by fossil fuel interests and right-wing politicians. But could the way scientists communicate also be part of the problem? Psychology studies show that people tend to accept a message more readily if they hear it expressed with brimming confidence, uncertainties suppressed. And recent experiments suggest that scientists going the extra mile to be honest about their uncertainty may actually make people less likely to trust them.