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Julie Winkler will deliver her AAG Past President’s Address at the AAG Annual Meeting in Chicago on Thursday, April 23, 2015. 

Embracing the Complexity and Uncertainty of Climate Change

Climate change is one of the defining environmental concerns of our time, and will directly or indirectly affect every sector of society. The complexity of the climate system and the multifaceted linkages between natural and human systems complicates planning for future change. Another hurdle is the multiple sources of uncertainty such as internal climate variability, land cover change, spatial and temporal interdependencies, and sectoral synergies. When interacting with stakeholders or addressing the public directly about climate change, scientists are often advised to “keep the message simple.” One consequence is that climate change communication strategies are frequently advocacy based, where the case is made for a specific viewpoint, rather than nonpersuasive communication that explicitly considers complexity and uncertainty. Recently, the potential value of framing climate change planning in terms of complexity and uncertainty has been recognized by many physical and social scientists, including geographers.

The challenge is to communicate climate change in a manner that inspires action, but also leads to robust decision-making.

The challenge is to communicate climate change in a manner that inspires action, but also leads to robust decision-making. In this address, the evolution of climate change communication is explored, attempts to incorporate complexity and uncertainty into local and regional climate change assessments are evaluated, and opportunities for the development of more nuanced communication strategies are considered. Geographers are involved in all aspects of climate change research and applications, from modeling the complex climate system to assisting stakeholders in planning for climate change. It behooves us to carefully consider our roles and responsibilities in climate change communication.