Climate uncertainty and policy making—what do policy makers want to know?

Abstract

In climate change science, the existence of a high degree of uncertainty seems to be the cause of anxiety for many scientists because it appears to undermine the authority of the science. One of the assertions made by the so-called sceptics against the scientific consensus on climate change is that because the science is so uncertain, there is no basis for taking action. The response of the climate change science community has been to develop in-depth analyses of uncertainty of increasing sophistication and complexity. In most areas of policy making, the normal situation is characterised by complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. Therefore, dealing with uncertainty is not an unusual state of affairs for policy makers. However, the overemphasis given to uncertainty in the climate science discourse by scientists working in the field has been self-defeating as it has led to confusion among the intended recipients of the policy relevant scientific knowledge and allowed room for scepticism to grow. Climate change scientists should instead communicate and engage with policy makers (and the public) on those things that we know with confidence.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Climate change sceptic is the term used throughout this paper to denote those whose views range from outright denial of man-made climate change as an observable phenomenon to those who, though accepting that climate change may be happening, do not accept that a case has been made for urgent action (see below).

  2. 2.

    This confidence shown by UK climate scientists in the predictive skill of climate modelling was used to secure government funding support (see Mahony and Hulme 2016).

  3. 3.

    The author coordinated the DECC’s scientific response to the ASA adjudication. The exchanges between DECC and ASA at one point reached somewhat absurdist proportions in respect of delineating what kind of statements could or could not justify the use of the phrase “will happen” and what kind of subjective probabilities ought to be assigned to these kinds of statements.

  4. 4.

    Recently, however, the BBC has introduced new guidelines for coverage of the climate change debate wherein it asked staff to be aware of false balance and stated that it was not necessary to include outright deniers of climate change. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/07/bbc-we-get-climate-change-coverage-wrong-too-often)

  5. 5.

    Arguably Knightian uncertainty is of most interest in climate change science as it concerns conditional statements about what would happen if a certain scenario transpires and about which there is no prior information (Knight 1921).

  6. 6.

    Smith and Stern (2011) argue that there must be room for speculation by scientists about what future states of the world would be like and that this kind of speculation is of value to policy makers e.g. what a world that was on average 5 °C warmer than today would look like.

  7. 7.

    A manifestation of the belief widely held by policy makers in the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change that the scientific case for climate change had already been made was the effort made to close down the Hadley Centre Climate Research Programme as it was felt that a government-funded research programme on climate modelling was no longer necessary. Two consecutive reviews were initiated. However, both reviews concluded that the Hadley Centre provided “essential and world-leading climate modelling services to Government.” (Government Office for Science 2010).

  8. 8.

    In one briefing exchange with a Minister during the “Climategate” episode where he was to appear on a major UK TV current affairs programme and also appear against a well-known climate sceptic, the author explained that the temperature projections in the IPCC 4th Assessment Report for the A1F1 (high fossil fuel) and B1 (clean energy technologies) SRES scenarios did not start to diverge much until the 2040s. This came as a surprise to the Minister and brought home the point that action taken now may not have any observable impact for decades as the temperature trajectories were similar for both scenarios until then. A politically challenging argument to make.

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Meah, N. Climate uncertainty and policy making—what do policy makers want to know?. Reg Environ Change 19, 1611–1621 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-019-01492-w

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Science policy
  • Uncertainty
  • Science communication