Climate Science and Politics: system failures
For some time, we have argued that action on reducing emissions to mitigate or adapt to the risks of extreme, even runaway climate change and the failing biosphere may turn out to be ‘too little, too late’.
In November last year, we looked at the roots of the limitations of climate science and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In essence, we argued that probability-dominated thinking and the need for consensus—a shared assessment—side-lined more extreme possible scenarios. Here is how we put it, soon after the publication of the IPCC’s ‘1.5 degree’ report in October 2018:
“The report also demonstrated the limitations of modern science, politics and policymaking. The IPCC’s role is to deliver evidence. The focus is on robust scientific conclusions, backed by shared views about levels of ‘confidence’.
This does not prepare us for the potential crises that lie ahead or force political action. The reason is that the IPCC bows to the perceived needs of political leaders and to the culture within which they operate. The ‘high impact, uncertain’ factors and weak signals that hint at potentially far worse outcomes, despite the tone of the report, are given only cursory attention. By definition, in IPCC terms, if there is weak evidence, or low confidence of a particular outcome, then it is downplayed.
The result is that extreme possible futures remain unexplored. The report does not go far enough, since the potential consequences of this systemic failure in thinking are irreversible. In other words, a systemic failure in thinking precedes systemic failure in the real world. Political leaders are then rightly accused of lack of farsighted action on both well-understood emerging problems and potential shocks – on everything from the financial system to climate change.”
We argued that climate science relies too heavily on consensus, on probabilistic models, caution and conservatism.
Fast forward to August 2019 and we see the publication of Discerning Experts, a new book that explains in more detail how the work of the IPCC has long been flawed and how, in practice, it is not true to scientific principles.
One of the key points of the book, made in the Scientific American article, is that the science is compromised of fears about the response of ‘hostile critics’, in practice fossil fuel lobbyists, and worse, that political leaders will fail to act if they are faced with uncertainty:
“Among the factors that appear to contribute to underestimation is the perceived need for consensus, or what we label univocally: the felt need to speak in a single voice. Many scientists worry that if disagreement is publicly aired, government officials will conflate differences of opinion with ignorance and use this as justification for inaction. Others worry that even if policy makers want to act, they will find it difficult to do so if scientists fail to send an unambiguous message. Therefore, they will actively seek to find their common ground and focus on areas of agreement; in some cases, they will only put forward conclusions on which they can all agree.”
The authors go on to say that “The drive toward consensus may therefore be an attempt to present the findings of the assessment as matters of fact rather than judgment.”
This is the essence of the problem. Judgment in uncertainty, as we always argue, is about exploring scenarios and developing strategic options that work in even the most extreme possible futures. It is about hedging to maximise opportunity but deliver resilience. It is not a mechanical, methodology or technocratic challenge: judgment and vision in the face of irreducible and radical uncertainty is the primary responsibility of political leaders. Few of whom meet what is best seen as the challenge of stewardship.
The pre-requisite is that diverse, extreme outcomes must be made explicit. In a world characterised by complex interdependency and radical uncertainty, there is no room for consensus forecasts, since by definition multiple scenarios may emerge over time. Reductionist methods have no role to play. Nor should scientists fear that they “over-estimate a threat”, as the authors of Discerning Experts point out. As we have written elsewhere, many major shocks are the result of failures of the imagination. In the case of climate risk, we may continue to see the evidence of imaginative warnings being systematically suppressed as scientists speak out against the prevailing consensus.
Again, this is not simply a methodology problem. It is also a cultural problem in how public science is both conducted and communicated, and how political leaders think. In a nutshell, climate science is not, as the author put, always real science:
“…a significant point of contrast with academic science, where there is no particular pressure to achieve agreement by any particular deadline (except perhaps within a lab group, in order to be able to publish findings or meet a grant proposal deadline). Moreover, in academic life scientists garner attention and sometimes prestige by disagreeing with their colleagues, particularly if the latter are prominent. The reward structure of academic life leans toward criticism and dissent; the demands of assessment push toward agreement.”
The upshot, increasingly clear, is that the IPCC has underestimated the scale, potential impact and the urgency of action, as we pointed out some time ago and is now reinforced by more detailed research.
These flaws, in both mental models and publishing methods have led to the systematic politicisation of science. The media have only recently begun to put the emerging risks front and centre in news coverage. The public have been lulled into a false sense of security with the narrative that climate change is a long-term challenge and that radical change can wait. Victory has been handed, for the time being, to the fossil fuel industry and climate deniers.
The accelerating crisis is both a failure of science and a failure of political leadership. Until the challenges are framed in a new way, such that urgent action is taken in the short term to mitigate against potential long-term catastrophic outcomes, the fear is we may see more of the same.
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