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Usable climate science is adaptation science

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The author argues that in the present historical moment, the only climate science that is truly usable is that which is oriented towards adaptation, because current policies and politics are so far from what would be needed to avert dangerous climate change that scientific uncertainty is not a limiting factor on mitigation. The author considers what implications this might have for climate science and climate scientists.

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  1. Including some that have been recorded and made available as a podcast, see

  2. By “a piece of climate science” I refer to any of the typical outputs of working climate scientists: a new scientific result, a peer-reviewed article containing such results, or even a community assessment that summarizes the results of many such articles. A particularly relevant example is Sherwood et al. (2020), as per the discussion in section 2.

  3. A more complete treatment should consider the possibility that the science could be used for bad purposes rather than good ones, or more generally that the values of the users could be in conflict with those of the scientists. This is briefly mentioned by Parker and Lusk (2019) in their broader consideration of how to incorporate user values into climate services.

  4. I do not distinguish here between the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) and transient climate response (TCR). The ECS is relevant only on very long time scales, but even the TCR is most relevant after a few decades, time scales that are already long for most adaptation problems.


  6. Notwithstanding efforts towards some degree of global standardization, e.g., Olhoff et al. (2018). Incipient efforts to assess and price climate risks to financial portfolios could also be viewed as a form of adaptation, and one which should incorporate both global and local factors.

  7. I use the term “co-production” here in its simple sense, to describe collaboration between scientists and users in the generation of new knowledge. This meaning is common in the literature around climate services and other user-oriented sciences, but is distinct from the broader and more complex meaning found in the science and technology studies literature, e.g., Jasanoff (2004).


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I thank Melanie Bieli, Deborah Coen, Amitav Ghosh, Joshua Howe, Frances Moore, and Noami Oreskes for discussions on aspects of this work, and Melanie Bieli, Deborah Coen, Robert Kopp, Elisabeth Lloyd, Frances Moore, and Tapio Schneider for insightful comments on drafts. This essay is loosely based on a talk given at several institutions in early 2020 in seminar series for climate scientists. I thank my hosts at Texas A&M, Caltech, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and Washington State U., Vancouver, for being willing to explore these ideas with me — particularly for doing so in settings usually reserved for the presentation of scientific research results — and all the participants in the 2019 Usable Climate Science and the Uses of History workshop for informing my perspective.

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Correspondence to Adam H. Sobel.

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This article is part of a topical collection on “Critical and historical perspectives on usable climate science,” edited by Deborah R. Coen and Adam H. Sobel.

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Sobel, A.H. Usable climate science is adaptation science. Climatic Change 166, 8 (2021).

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