A recent Nature Climate Change paper co-authored by Gro Intelligence Climate Data Scientist Dr. Greg Garner assesses how scientists have communicated climate-related risks related to rising sea levels.
In the study, the scientists review the language and graphics used in climate assessment reports by members of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the period from 1990 to 2021. The analysis evaluates whether the risk of sea-level rise has been presented accurately, which can be critically important for public bodies planning for environmental changes in coastal cities.
When conveying sea-level uncertainties that have been and remain difficult to quantify, the language in the reports often has fallen short, either oversimplifying projections or conveying the information in a confusing manner, according to the analysis. Such language could lead policymakers to neglect the risks associated with possible high-end, sea-level outcomes
In the IPCC’s First Assessment Report, released in 1990, the report’s authors characterized a rapid disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet because of global warming as a low-probability event, saying such an occurrence is “unlikely in the next century.” However, in the Sixth Assessment Report, published in 2021, scientists embraced language that conveyed the ambiguity around the Antarctic ice sheet dynamics and warned that higher rates of sea-level rise before 2100 could be “caused by earlier-than-projected disintegration of marine ice shelves, the abrupt, widespread onset of marine ice sheet instability and marine ice cliff instability around Antarctica.”
The report goes on to explain that the processes are characterized by “deep uncertainty.” It concludes: “In a low-likelihood, high-impact storyline, under high emissions such processes could in combination contribute more than one additional meter of sea level rise by 2100.”
Communicating complex risk scenarios to the public in an effective manner is an ongoing process. If the approach taken in the most recent climate report in 2021 is successful, it will be accurately reflected in future regional assessments and will ultimately be judged by policymakers, along with climate and social scientists.
Data Are Critical in Assessing Climate Risk and Uncertainty
As noted in the Nature Climate Change paper, Dr. Garner used a “probability box” (p-box) approach to convey the level of deep uncertainty in the sea-level change projections for the Sixth Assessment Report. Multiple simulations, each using a different combination of models for land-ice contributions, produce probabilistic views of future sea-level change. These projections were then combined into p-boxes that convey deep uncertainty consistent with IPCC likelihood language. It was the first time this level of effort in quantifying deep uncertainty has happened for sea-level change projections in an IPCC report.
Although the level of clarity fluctuates between reports, it is clear that under all climate change scenarios shown by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, companies and governments will increasingly face significant risk of physical climate impact in coming years. To manage that risk, companies must first measure it. Yet how does one measure uncertainty?
Gro works directly with companies in both the agricultural and the food and beverage industries to help form a clearer picture of the effect that extreme weather volatility is having, and will continue to have, on the places and ecosystems that they care most about. Gro does this through combining our extensive data ecosystem, powerful predictive platform, and team of 50-plus domain experts. Our customizable models and applications, such as our Climate Risk Navigator for Agriculture, leverage real-time data and long-term climate indicators to measure and assess climate risk – providing sound predictions along with quantified uncertainty.
“If we are planning for transition and resilience, predictability is a key factor in modeling any type of risk,” said Sara Menker, Gro Intelligence’s CEO.
Dr. Garner's work exemplifies Gro’s commitment to applying predictive modeling and cutting-edge research to real-world challenges. By collaborating with other climate scientists at Gro, Dr. Garner continues to advance our understanding of sea-level change projections and support decision-making processes in addressing climate risks.
“The concept of uncertainty and ambiguity in risk analysis can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Dr. Garner. “Frameworks exist now to not only acknowledge uncertainty, but to capture it and leverage it for a fuller picture of risk quantification and improved decision-making.”
Robert Kopp, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University, led the Nature Climate Change study with Jessica O’Reilly, an anthropologist at Indiana University Bloomington who studies the IPCC, and Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist who has served with the IPCC since the First Assessment Report. The other authors in the study, all of whom were involved with the Sixth Assessment Report, include those from Brown University and the University at Buffalo in the U.S., as well as others in China, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Singapore.