by Judith Curry
While my goal is to build bridges, I realize that there is no hope of eliminating disagreement on the climate change issue. Does this mean that we are we forever are doomed (Anthony Watts once referred to it as the world’s longest monopoly game), or do we have some chance of dealing with this issue and the risks it presents in a sensible way?
The previous thread clearly illustrates the disagreement about the topic of climate change, a disagreement that has many dimensions. Mike Hulme provides a fascinating analysis of why we disagree about climate change. I’ve argued that we need to embrace the uncertainty and complexity monsters; we also need to accept the disagreement.
This post on disagreement sets the stage for the forthcoming series on decision making under climate uncertainty.
Climate hawks and doves
David Roberts at Grist has done something very interesting, he has collapsed the disagreement into two dimensions. Roberts develops the idea of climate hawks and doves. An excerpt from Roberts’ piece:
“The hawk/dove distinction — on climate as on foreign policy or the deficit — is about more than facts. It’s about risk assessment. How serious is the threat and how strong a response is warranted? Answering those questions goes beyond facts into economic, ethical, and policy judgments. It’s not about what to believe, it’s about what to do.”
To help get clear about this, let’s do a crude exercise. Here are two positions on climate change science:
1. Climate science shows that climate change is a serious, pressing threat.
2. Climate science is uncertain and the risks of climate change are distant and highly speculative (or climate change is a big hoax).
Here are two positions on climate and clean energy policy:
A. Action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build out clean energy will be socially and economically beneficial: it will save consumers money, increase the nation’s energy security, and create jobs.
B. Action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build out clean energy will be prohibitively costly: it will cost consumers money, decrease energy security, and destroy jobs.
You can now see four distinct positions:
1A. Climate hawk.
1B. Climate hawk or dove (depending which is judged higher, the threat or the costs).
2A. Climate hawk.
2B. Climate dove.
Of course this is reductive: there are many positions on the spectrum between 1 and 2, and between A and B, and thus there are many nuanced positions along the climate hawk/dove spectrum. Climate hawks will have divergent views about the science, as will doves.
Point is: the hawk/dove spectrum implies nothing in particular about one’s scientific views. It is supposed to capture where you come out after weighing the risks, no matter what you think the respective risks are.”
The implication is that uncertainty in the science isn’t a big driver for the policy choice between A and B. We can acknowledge the uncertainty and that there are diverse opinions about the science, and get on with A and B which are political decisions.
If we can switch the debate over energy and climate policy to the political arena (where it belongs), Mann, Curry, et al. are no longer the whipping boys (and girls) for political disputes over energy and climate policy (why the heck should energy and climate policy depend on how we count tree rings anyways?) This seems especially appealing after my adventures this past week as a heretic.
The uncertainty monster
Does it really make sense that the level of uncertainty in climate science shouldn’t be a big driver in the political decision between A and B? Uncertainty can play into the decision making process in the following three frameworks:
1. Classical decision theory involves reducing uncertainty before acting.
2. Paul Krugman’s perspective that “You might think that this uncertainty weakens the case for action, but it actually strengthens it.”
3. Uncertainty monster assimilation gives uncertainty an explicit place in the contemplation and management of environmental risks, whereby uncertainty is regarded as information that contributes to the decision making process.
We will discuss the pros and cons of these different decision making frameworks in the forthcoming series on decision making under climate uncertainty, but it suffices for now that 2 out of the 3 decision making strategies don’t preclude decision making in an environment of uncertainty.
For too long, climate science has been a proxy for what should be a political debate about climate and energy policy.
Charles Sanders Peirce outlined four methods of settling opinion and overcoming disagreements, ordered from least to most successful:
- the method of tenacity (sticking with one’s initial belief) and trying to ignore contrary information.
- the method of authority, which overcomes disagreements but sometimes brutally.
- the method of congruity or “what is agreeable to reason,” which depends on taste and fashion in paradigms.
- the scientific method whereby inquiry regards itself as fallible and continually tests, criticizes, corrects, and improves itself.
Engaging in the first three actions in establishing a consensus is no longer necessary or desirable if there is no pressure from the decision making framework to reduce uncertainties. Rather the challenge for scientists is to understand and characterize the uncertainties. Oppenheimer et al. sense this in their statement about the IPCC: “The establishment of consensus by the IPCC is no longer as important to governments as a full exploration of uncertainty.”
Once the pressure for a consensus disappears, the politicization of the science can disappear along with it. And scientific debate about climate change can be scientific again.
What role for scientists in the politics and policy deliberations?
One of the things I really like about David Robert’s scheme is that climate scientists are removed from the political debate. Scientists and science inform the debate, but the political battles stay in the realm of politics.
While I support the general idea of the climate hawks and doves, I don’t support this idea put forward by John Rennie and Keith Kloor that somehow I could make this all work by declaring my position as a climate hawk. I think this is exactly what not to do: the beauty of this idea is that it separates the climate science from the politics. This only works if the scientists stay out of the politics.
Climate scientists have no particular expertise on politics, economics or social ethics. A scientist’s personal sense of values and morality has no more legitimacy in this debate than any other individual’s personal sense. There’s an additional reason for climate scientists to stay out of the public debate on this topic: they are biased because of their personal research interests and results, with professional egos and other factors likely weighing into their policy preferences.
Staying out of politics does not preclude engagement in the policy process. Climate scientists have a key role to play in developing future scenarios, characterizing uncertainties, and analyzing policy options.
People ask me where I stand and what my preferred policy options are. I am not being coy when I say that I want clean green energy, economic development and “world peace.” And that I don’t have any particular wisdom or ideas on what the actual solution might be.
But what I would like to do in the forthcoming series on decision making under climate uncertainty is to explore how we might approach reframing the strategy for identifying robust policy options for dealing with climate change in the context of the broader challenges to sustainability.
Taking the politics out of the science would help clarify both the scientific disagreements and the political disagreements. Neither the scientific or political disagreements are going to go away. But by separating them we stand to make much more progress on each.
Am I being naive and optimistic about how this might work? I look forward to your assessment and further development of these ideas.