Uncertainty and Facing Climate Change Denial

Chris Burke, Maroon-News Staff

Professor of Geography at Michigan State University Julie Winkler utilized her climatology research in the Central Plains and Great Lakes region to build a presentation focused on the reality of uncertainty that comes with climate studies. Professor Winkler’s lecture, titled “The Complexity of Climate Change: Examples from Agricultural and Natural Resources,” was presented to a standing-room only crowd of students and professors in the Ho Science Center on Thursday, March 22. 

The uncertainty Winkler talked about is different than traditional climate change skepticism, instead being defined as the inevitable errors in climate projections. Winkler stressed the importance of communication when acknowledging this “uncertainty,” which must effectively build public trust through transparency and clarity. When dealing with a word like “uncertainty,” Winkler explained that scientists must be careful not to give individuals a reason to delay climate action, for a misguided perception of “uncertainty” could lead to a broad skepticism of climate change data. Winkler outlined three factors that contribute to uncertainty in climate projections: limitations of baseline climate information, inaccuracies in response models and the complexity of markets.

Winkler first spoke about the issue of choosing baseline climate information when making climate projections and dealing with studies like species distribution. She referenced the example of a study in bamboo species distribution to illustrate the certain amount of uncertainty that arises from using data-sets that contain unique flaws. Winkler focused on WorldClim, a baseline climate data-set, explaining the risks associated with it being used in a majority of climate-based studies. Baseline data sets influence the resulting climate projections and have the ability to skew studies and introduce inaccuracies.

Winkler introduced the subjectof response models, which she warned were prone to unknown errors. Response models, used in climate studies, are often regionally specific, meaning that they are more effective in certain regions and contexts. Studies that incorporate response models have to take on those inaccuracies, skewing them to a degree that needs to be acknowledged. Winkler invoked an interesting agricultural study regarding the temperature sensitivity of potatoes, explaining how climate change projections and the integration of response models directly influences the findings of studies.

Winkler’s lecture focused on market complexity, specifically the uncertainty of how climate change will affect agricultural markets. 

Again using potatoes as an example, Winkler explained the potential impacts on crop storage as climate change drives a deviation in average seasonal temperatures. Winkler focused on the storage of potatoes, which would become more expensive since storage improvements would have to be made to counter the shifting temperatures. With the traditional length of the reliably cold winter storage period shortening, climate change would send shockwaves through the agricultural market. Earlier crop selling, thrown off production cycles, and a shift in planting schedules would drive up prices and interfere with the established system. Winkler suggested that cooler northern growing areas may even gain future market shares because their climate would be more favorable for storage.

Winkler’s highly technical and data-driven lecture found resonance with students through her clear concluding remarks. First-year DJ Griffin reflected on the lecture. 

“Professor Winkler’s talk was a very insightful way to put climate change into context… she gave a real face to the struggle of scientists who must find data they can trust and decide how to bring that data to the public,” Griffin said.

Winkler stressed that complexity and uncertainty in the field of climatology are not realities that need to be swept under the rug. Instead, they should be readily shared with the public in the hopes of educating and building trust between scientists and the community. 

First-year Tommy Colman felt the talk was a testament to her successful advocation of transparency as a means of combating climate change denial.

“Professor Winkler’s remarks regarding the importance of communicating the concept of ‘uncertainties’ were particularly insightful,” Colman said. 

For Winkler, embracing transparency about uncertainties and engaging in honest conversation about climate projections is the best way to help prepare for a future of altered climate.

Contact Chris Burke at [email protected]