Climatic Change

, Volume 124, Issue 1, pp 21-37

First online:

Scientific uncertainty and climate change: Part I. Uncertainty and unabated emissions

  • Stephan LewandowskyAffiliated withUniversity of Western AustraliaUniversity of Bristol Email author 
  • , James S. RisbeyAffiliated withCSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research
  • , Michael SmithsonAffiliated withAustralian National University
  • , Ben R. NewellAffiliated withUniversity of New South Wales
  • , John HunterAffiliated withAntarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre

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Uncertainty forms an integral part of climate science, and it is often used to argue against mitigative action. This article presents an analysis of uncertainty in climate sensitivity that is robust to a range of assumptions. We show that increasing uncertainty is necessarily associated with greater expected damages from warming, provided the function relating warming to damages is convex. This constraint is unaffected by subjective or cultural risk-perception factors, it is unlikely to be overcome by the discount rate, and it is independent of the presumed magnitude of climate sensitivity. The analysis also extends to “second-order” uncertainty; that is, situations in which experts disagree. Greater disagreement among experts increases the likelihood that the risk of exceeding a global temperature threshold is greater. Likewise, increasing uncertainty requires increasingly greater protective measures against sea level rise. This constraint derives directly from the statistical properties of extreme values. We conclude that any appeal to uncertainty compels a stronger, rather than weaker, concern about unabated warming than in the absence of uncertainty.


Uncertainty unabated emissions decision making