Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - Technical Summary
Box TS.1: Treatment of Uncertainties in the Working Group I Assessment
The importance of consistent and transparent treatment of uncertainties is clearly recognised by the IPCC in preparing its assessments of climate change. The increasing attention given to formal treatments of uncertainty in previous assessments is addressed in Section 1.6. To promote consistency in the general treatment of uncertainty across all three Working Groups,
authors of the Fourth Assessment Report have been asked to follow a brief set of guidance notes on determining and describing uncertainties in the context of an assessment.
2 This box summarises the way that Working Group I has applied those guidelines and covers some aspects of the treatment of uncertainty specific to material assessed here. Uncertainties can be classified in several different ways according to their origin. Two primary types are ‘value uncertainties’ and ‘structural uncertainties’. Value uncertainties arise from the incomplete determination of particular values or results, for example, when data are inaccurate or not fully representative of the phenomenon of interest. Structural uncertainties
arise from an incomplete understanding of the processes that control particular values or results, for example, when the conceptual framework or model used for analysis does not include all the relevant processes or relationships.
Value uncertainties are generally estimated using statistical techniques and expressed probabilistically. Structural uncertainties are generally described by giving the authors’ collective judgment of their confidence in the correctness of a result. In both cases, estimating uncertainties is intrinsically about describing the limits to knowledge and for this reason involves expert judgment about the state of that knowledge. A different type of uncertainty arises in systems that are either chaotic or not fully deterministic in nature and this also limits our ability to project all aspects of climate change.
The scientific literature assessed here uses a variety of other generic ways of categorising uncertainties. Uncertainties associated with ‘random errors’ have the characteristic of decreasing as additional measurements are accumulated, whereas those associated with ‘systematic errors’ do not. In dealing with climate records, considerable attention has been
given to the identification of systematic errors or unintended biases arising from data sampling issues and methods of analysing and combining data. Specialised statistical methods based on quantitative analysis have been developed for the detection and attribution of climate change and for producing probabilistic projections of future climate parameters. These are summarised in the relevant chapters.
The uncertainty guidance provided for the Fourth Assessment Report draws, for the first time, a careful distinction between levels of confidence in scientific understanding and the likelihoods of specific results. This allows authors to express high confidence that an event is extremely unlikely (e.g., rolling a dice twice and getting a six both times), as well as high confidence that an event is about as likely as not (e.g., a tossed coin coming up heads). Confidence and likelihood
as used here are distinct concepts but are often linked in practice.
The standard terms used to define levels of confidence in this report are as given in the IPCC Uncertainty Guidance Note, namely:
Confidence Terminology Degree of confidence in being correct
Very high confidence At least 9 out of 10 chance
High confidence About 8 out of 10 chance
Medium confidence About 5 out of 10 chance
Low confidence About 2 out of 10 chance
Very low confidence Less than 1 out of 10 chance
Note that ‘low confidence’ and ‘very low confidence’ are only used for areas of major concern and where a risk-based perspective is justified.
Chapter 2 of this report uses a related term ‘level of scientific understanding’ when describing uncertainties in different contributions to radiative forcing. This terminology is used for consistency with the Third Assessment Report, and the basis on which the authors have determined particular levels of scientific understanding uses a combination of approaches
consistent with the uncertainty guidance note as explained in detail in Section 2.9.2 and Table
The standard terms used in this report to define the likelihood of an outcome or result where this can be estimated probabilistically are:
Likelihood Terminology Likelihood of the occurrence/ outcome
Virtually certain > 99% probability
Extremely likely > 95% probability
Very likely > 90% probability
Likely > 66% probability
More likely than not > 50% probability
About as likely as not 33 to 66% probability
Unlikely < 33% probability
Very unlikely < 10% probability
Extremely unlikely < 5% probability
Exceptionally unlikely < 1% probability
The terms ‘extremely likely’, ‘extremely unlikely’ and ‘more likely than not’ as defined above have been added to those given in the IPCC Uncertainty Guidance Note in order to provide a more specific assessment of aspects including attribution and radiative forcing.
Unless noted otherwise, values given in this report are assessed best estimates and their uncertainty ranges are 90% confidence intervals (i.e., there is an estimated 5% likelihood of the value being below the lower end of the range or above the upper end of the range). Note that in some cases the nature of the constraints on a value, or other information available, may indicate an asymmetric distribution of the uncertainty range around a best estimate. In such cases, the uncertainty range is given in square brackets following the best estimate.