Confidence Levels and Likelihood Terms in IPCC Reports: A Survey of Experts from Different Scientific Disciplines

Posted on by Stephen Gee

Scientific assessments, such as those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), inform policymakers and the public about the state of scientific evidence and related uncertainties. We studied how experts from different scientific disciplines who were authors of IPCC reports, interpret the uncertainty language recommended in the Guidance Note for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Consistent Treatment of Uncertainties. This IPCC guidance note discusses how to use confidence levels to describe the quality of evidence and scientific agreement, as well likelihood terms to describe the probability intervals associated with climate variables. We find that (1) physical science experts were more familiar with the IPCC guidance note than other experts, and they followed it more often; (2) experts’ confidence levels increased more with perceptions of evidence than with agreement; (3) experts’ estimated probability intervals for climate variables were wider when likelihood terms were presented with “medium confidence” rather than with “high confidence” and when seen in context of IPCC sentences rather than out of context, and were only partly in agreement with the IPCC guidance note. Our findings inform recommendations for communications about scientific evidence, assessments, and related uncertainties.

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