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Embracing (Climate) Uncertainty

By Keith Kloor
Jun 30, 2010 10:15 PMNov 20, 2019 4:54 AM


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In the public sphere, where the various running debates on climate science and climate policy are most fiercely fought, the uncertainty factor is often downplayed or glossed over. Subsequently, it gets little attention in the media. And that's a shame, because in the decision-making sphere, the uncertainty factor is very much on the minds of everyone from water managers in Denver to national security planners in the Pentagon. And they have to make some hard decisions, regardless of what happens with the energy/climate bill in Congress or treaty negotiations on the international stage. That's because for both water managers and security planners (even though they work in very different arenas), there are huge unknowns with respect to the projected localized impacts of global warming. So I think it's notable that Gavin Schmidt highlights this issue over at Real Climate, with a new post that draws attention to this paper, called, "Options for Improving Climate Modeling to Assist Water Utility Planning for Climate Change." Despite the wonky title, the paper is well worth reading for anyone interested in how the uncertainty factor is being grappled with at the ground level in water management circles. It's also notable that Gavin chose to spotlight this clever play on a famous phrase, which is taken from that paper:

Grant us"¦ The ability to reduce the uncertainties we can; The willingness to work with the uncertainties we cannot; And the scientific knowledge to know the difference.

As I pointed out last week, it seems that national security experts are mouthing that same prayer. This is a good place for me to mention a recent paper that I've been meaning to discuss. It's called, "Lost in Translation: Closing the Gap Between National Security Policy and Climate Science." Here's one passage that jumped out at me:

For the past 20 years, scientists have been content to ask simply whether most of the observed warming was caused by human activities. But is the percentage closer to 51 percent or to 99 percent? This question has not generated a great deal of discussion within the scientific community, perhaps because it is not critical to further progress in understanding the climate system. In the policy arena, however, this question is asked often and largely goes unanswered.

That brings me to one of the arguments that climate researcher Judith Curry has been making of late on this blog, which might best be summarized here:

we need to do a much better job of characterizing, assessing, and reasoning about uncertainty regarding this extremely complex system of climate science and the climate-science policy interface.

In other recent threads at this site, Judith has elaborated on where some of the key uncertainty lies and why it is necessary to engage forthrightly about it. During some of this discussion, Judith laid out where she thinks people engaged in the climate debate line up on the uncertainty spectrum. Below is a slight modification of the categories she first mentioned here. ***** Regarding uncertainty, my take is that there are 5 different ways of dealing with it (an adaptation of Van der Sluijs): 1. Uncertainty denier "“ pretend it doesn't exist, or underestimate it or try to keep the discussion away from the topic. Uncertainty denying or the "never admit error" strategy can be motivated by a political agenda or because of fear that uncertain science will be judged as poor science by the outside world. 2. Uncertainty reducer "“ "reduce the uncertainty" mantra, of the early IPCC reports and also the US CCSP Strategic Plan. A laudable goal, but reducing uncertainty will prove to be vain in the long run: for each uncertainty that science reduces, several new ones will pop up due to unforeseen complexities. Further there is a class of uncertainties (ontic or aleatory uncertainties) that are fundamentally not reducible. 3. Uncertainty simplifier "“ fit complex uncertainties into nice categories. The subjective Bayesian approach of Moss and Schneider (expert judgment) fits here, this has been the uncertainty recipe for the IPCC 3rd and 4th assessment reports, e.g. the likely, very likely stuff. Uncertainty simplifiers, while they definitely pay attention to uncertainty, they tend to be inadvertent uncertainty minimizers. 4. Uncertainty detectives "“ well, all scientists should work hard to understand, represent, and reason about uncertainty (climate scientists generally don't do a great job at this). The conflict is when political opponents seize on this uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. 5. Uncertainty assimilator "“ include uncertainty information in rational decision support systems and policies. We need to get to #5. This is not simple, since climate assessment (e.g. IPCC) is stuck in #3 right now. My efforts to move it to #4 are being met with apparent calls to go back to #1. We have to work our way through #4 before we get to #5. Will #4 result in blood on the floor and more polarization? On the contrary, it may actually enable the two sides of scientists to become less polarized, which will take some of the steam out of the political uncertainty embracers. Moving forward in the science requires #4. #4 will also improve the policy and decision making process. ***** If various decision-makers (such as those water managers and security experts) are grasping for a handle on the uncertainties associated with climate change, then maybe it's only a matter of time before our fractious public debates pivot on the collaboration between (#4) uncertainty detectives and (#5) uncertainty assimilators. But to even get to that point might require a constant invocation of that Uncertainty Prayer spotlighted at Real Climate.

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