Public opinion polls reveal that the perception of climate change as an uncertain phenomenon is increasing, even as consensus has increased within the scientific community of its reality and its attribution to human causes. At the same time, the scientific community has sought to improve its communication practices, in order to present a more accurate picture to the public and policy makers of the state of scientific knowledge about climate change. In this review article, we examine two sets of insights that could influence the success of such communication efforts. The first set questions which uncertainties matter for effective climate policy. While the literature has focused disproportionately on uncertainties with respect to the climate system, we draw attention here to uncertainties associated with the solution space. The second set examines which factors lead people to take slow and deliberated decisions versus quick and spontaneous ones, and looks at the results of these two systems of thought on climate change action. From the review of these two sets of literature, we propose a new hypothesis: that the gap between public and scientific attitudes toward climate change will narrow not because of greater attention to and communication of climate system risks and uncertainties, but rather out of growing experience with the policies and technological systems needed to address the problem. WIREs Clim Change 2014, 5:219–232. doi: 10.1002/wcc.259
Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.
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