by Judith Curry

A 20 minute presentation on Climate & Uncertainty and Risk (including some content from my forthcoming book)

This was presented at the ICCC Conference.  Here is a link to my complete presentation with audio [presentation].  Lindzen and McKitrick also gave excellent presentations in this session (I assume the presentations will be made available online in a few days).

Most of this material will be familiar from previous blog posts, here is the text of my presentation with some images.

What we know, versus what we don’t and cannot know

Even people that don’t know much about climate science have heard that 97% of climate scientists agree.  But exactly what do they agree on?  Not nearly as much as is portrayed in the media.  Everyone agrees that:

Surface temperatures have increased since 1880
Humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and
Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases have a warming effect on the planet

However, there is disagreement on the most consequential issues:

How much of the recent warming has been caused by humans
How much the planet will warm in the 21st century
Whether warming is ‘dangerous’
And how we should respond to the warming, to improve human well being

The first two points are in the realm of science, requiring logical arguments, model simulations and expert judgment to assess “whether” and “how much.” The issue of “dangerous” is an issue of societal values, about which science has little to say. Whether reducing CO2 emissions will improve human wellbeing is an issue of economics and technology. This is also contingent on the relative importance of natural climate variability versus human-caused global warming for the 21st century.

Nevertheless, we are endlessly fed the trope that 97% of climate scientists agree that warming is dangerous and that science demands urgent reductions in CO2 emissions.

Why do scientists disagree?

The most fundamental source of disagreement regarding the theory of human-caused climate change is natural climate variability. Why do climate scientists disagree on the relative importance of natural versus human-caused climate change? The historical data is sparse and inadequate, particularly in the oceans. There’s disagreement about the value of different classes of evidence, notably the value of global climate model simulations and paleoclimate reconstructions. There’s also disagreement about the appropriate logical framework for linking and assessing the evidence. And finally, there’s little acknowledgement that some climate processes are poorly understood or even unknown.

Science works just fine when there is more than one hypothesis to explain something. In fact, disagreement spurs scientific progress through creative tension and efforts to resolve the disagreement.

Perils of consensus

In the 1990’s the IPCC made a fateful decision to formulate their reports around consensus. The IPCC arguably adopted a “speaking consensus to power” approach that sees uncertainty and dissent as problematic and attempts to mediate these into a consensus. The speaking consensus to power strategy acknowledges that available knowledge is inconclusive and uses consensus as a proxy for truth. The consensus to power strategy reflects a specific vision of how politics deals with scientific uncertainties.

The IPCC’s manufacture of consensus has done incalculable harm to climate science and the policy making that is informed by climate science.

An explicit consensus building processes has enforced overconfidence and belief polarization.
Consensus beliefs are serving as agents in their own confirmation
Dismissal of skepticism has been detrimental to scientific progress
Overreliance on expert judgment has motivated shortcuts in reasoning and hidden biases
Narrow framing of the climate change problem has provided a basis for neglecting research in certain areas

Framing the climate problem

So, how did we come to the point where we’re alleged to have a future crisis on our hands, but the primary solution of rapid global emissions reductions is deemed to be impossible?  The source of this conundrum is that we have mischaracterized climate change as a tame problem, with a simple solution.

The climate change problem is framed as being caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which can be solved by eliminating fossil fuel emissions.  Both the problem and solution are included in a single frame.  This framing dominates the UN negotiations on climate change.

The framing on the right addresses climate change as a complex, wicked problem.  This framing shows two separate frames, one associated with the causes of climate change and the other associated with solutions that can help reduce vulnerability to climate change.  The larger frame on the right also includes natural causes for climate change such as the sun, volcanoes and slow circulations in the ocean. This framing is provisional, acknowledging that our understanding is incomplete and that there may be unknown processes influencing climate change.

The frame on the left is about controlling the climate, whereas the frame on the right is about understanding the climate.  Further, the framing on the right acknowledges the futility of control. Solutions on the right focus on managing the basic human necessities of energy, water and food. Economic development supports these necessities while reducing our vulnerability to weather and climate extremes.

My own understanding of climate change and human well being is squarely in the framing on the right.

The  Climate crisis isn’t what it used to be

The climate “crisis” isn’t what it used to be. Circa 2013 with publication of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, the extreme emissions scenario RCP8.5 was regarded as the business-as-usual emissions scenario, with expected warming of 4 to 5 oC by 2100. Now there is growing acceptance that RCP8.5 is implausible, and RCP4.5 is arguably the current business-as-usual emissions scenario according to recent reports issued by the COP 26 and 27. Only a few years ago, an emissions trajectory that followed RCP4.5 with 2 to 3 oC warming was regarded as climate policy success. As limiting warming to 2 oC seems to be in reach, the goal posts were moved in 2018 to reduce the warming target to 1.5 oC.

Climate catastrophe rhetoric now seems linked to extreme weather events. For nearly all of these events, it is difficult to identify any role for human-caused climate change in increasing either their intensity or frequency.

Misperception of climate risk

The main stream media is currently awash with articles from prominent journalists on how the global warming threat is less than we thought.  The rationale for continuing to increase the alarm is that the impacts are worse than we thought, specifically with regards to extreme weather.  Attributing extreme weather and climate events to global warming is now the primary motivation for the rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

This rationale commits the logical fallacy of conflation.  There are two separate risk categories for climate change.  The first is impacts of the slow creep of global warming on sea level rise, contribution to regional water shortages and hypothesized tipping points.  The second is extreme weather events and interannual climate variability, which has little if anything to do with global warming.

The proposed management strategy for both risk categories is to eliminate CO2 emissions.  This strategy may have some incremental benefits in the 22nd century, but will not help with the emergency risks associated with extreme weather events.  The appropriate way to deal with the emergency risks is fundamentally regional, through economic development and vulnerability reduction.

The urgency of addressing emergency risk is being used to motivate the urgency of reducing the incremental risk from emissions.  Ironicallly, attempts to reduce emissions are exacerbating energy poverty and unreliability, which is increasing emergency risk.

One would logically think that if warming is less than we thought but impacts are worse, that the priorities would shift from CO2 mitigation towards development and adaptation.  However, that hasn’t been the case.

Perceptions of risk

How did we come to the point where the world’s leaders and much of the global population think that we urgently need to reduce fossil fuel emissions in order to prevent bad weather?

Not only have we misperceived the climate risk, but politicians and the media have played on our psychological fears of certain type risks to amp up the alarm.

Psychologist Paul Slovic describes a suite of psychological characteristics that make risks feel more or less frightening, relative to the actual facts. In each of the risk pairs on the left half of the slide, the second risk factor in bold is perceived to make the risk worse than it actually is.

For example, risks that are common, self-controlled and voluntary, such as driving, generate the least public apprehension. Risks that are rare and imposed and lack potential upside, like terrorism, invoke the most dread.

Activist communicators emphasize the manmade aspects of climate change, the unfair burden of risks on undeveloped countries and poor people, and the more immediate risks of severe weather events. The recent occurrence of infrequent events such as a hurricane or flood produces elevated perceptions of the risk of low probability events. This then translate into perceptions of overall climate change risk.

The cultural theory of risk proposes that our views on risk are filtered through culturalworld views about how society should operate.   Our perceptions of climate risk have been cleverly manipulated by propagandists.

Even if the initial harm from climate change is small, the social risk is being greatly amplified by the collective responses and irrational behaviors of individuals. The response to climate risk, driven by alarmism and “extinction” rhetoric, has arguably crossed the threshold to actually increasing the social risk associated with climate change, including increasing risks from energy poverty.

We have mischaracterized climate risk

Leading risk scientists and philosophers, who don’t have a particular dog in the climate fight, have expressed their concerns about how all this has evolved and where it is headed.

Norwegian risk scientist Terje Aven has this to say:

“The current thinking and approaches have been shown to lack scientific rigor, the consequence being that climate change risk and uncertainties are poorly presented. The climate change field needs to strengthen its risk science basis, to improve the current situation.”

Philosopher Thomas Well has this to say:

“The global climate change debate has gone badly wrong. Many mainstream environmentalists are arguing for the wrong actions and for the wrong reasons, and so long as they continue to do so, they put all our futures in jeopardy.”

Mixing politics and science

One of the reasons that the global climate change debate has gone badly wrong is that we have created problems at the interface between climate science and policy making.

Encroachment of politics into socially-relevant science is unavoidable.  Problems arise from many sources, and scientists, policy makers and the media are all culpable.

Climate science is far from the only area of science that has been politicized.  Others include COVID19, gender studies, and genetically modified food. Cancel culture is alive and well in the sciences, where scientists that disagree with an interpretation that supports desired policy objectives are ostracized, with some even losing their jobs.

Wicked science

The wickedness of the climate problem is related to the duality of science and politics in the face of an exceedingly complex problem.  There are two common but inappropriate ways of mixing science and politics.

The first is scientizing policy, which deals with intractable political conflict by transforming the political issues into scientific ones.  The problem with this is that science is not designed to answer questions about how the world ought to be, which is the domain of politics. The second is politicization of science, whereby scientific research is influenced or manipulated in support of a political agenda. We have seen both of these inappropriate ways of mixing science and politics in dealing with climate change and also the pandemic.

There’s a third way, which is known as wicked science. Wicked science is tailored to the dual scientific and political natures of wicked societal problems.   Wicked science uses approaches from complexity science and systems thinking in a context that engages with decision makers and other stakeholders.

Wicked science requires a transdisciplinary approach that treats uncertainty as of paramount importance.  Effective use of wicked science requires that policy makers acknowledge that control is limited and the future is unknown.   Effective politics provides room for dissent and disagreement about policy options, and includes a broad range of stakeholders.

Climate Uncertainty and Risk – the book

I have a new book that is in press, entitled Climate Uncertainty and Risk.  The subtitle for the book is rethinking the climate change problem, the risks we are facing, and how we can respond.

This book encompasses my own philosophy for navigating the wicked problem of climate change. As such, this book provides a single slice through the wicked terrain. By acknowledging uncertainties in the context of better risk management and decision-making frameworks, in combination with techno-optimism, there is a broad path forward for humanity to thrive in the 21st century.

JC note:  Quick update on my book.  Currently in copyediting and indexing phase.  New and improved cover (check it out in my presentation slides).  Update on paperback edition: will be published simultaneously with hardcover edition.

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