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New Paper: Uncertainty In Climate Science And Climate Policy

In a nutshell, we do not think that academic climate science equips climate scientists to be as helpful as they might be, when involved in climate policy assessment. Partly, we attribute this to an over-investment in high resolution climate simulators, and partly to a culture that is uncomfortable with the inherently subjective nature of climate uncertainty.

Uncertainty in climate science and climate policy

Jonathan Rougier * (University of Bristol, UK)
Michel Crucifix (Universit´e catholique de Louvain, Belgium)
* Corresponding author. Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Bristol, University Walk, Bristol BS8 1TW, email j.c.rougier@bristol.ac.uk
Draft copy. File compiled June 13, 2012

Introduction

This essay, written by a statistician and a climate scientist, describes our view of the gap that exists between current practice in mainstream climate science, and the practical needs of policymakers charged with exploring possible interventions in the context of climate change. By ‘mainstream’ we mean the type of climate science that dominates in universities and research centres, which we will term ‘academic’ climate science, in contrast to ‘policy’ climate science; aspects of this distinction will become clearer in what follows.

In a nutshell, we do not think that academic climate science equips climate scientists to be as helpful as they might be, when involved in climate policy assessment. Partly, we attribute this to an over-investment in high resolution climate simulators, and partly to a culture that is uncomfortable with the inherently subjective nature of climate uncertainty.

In section 2 we discuss current practice in academic climate science, in relation to the needs of policymakers. Section 3 addresses the aparently common misconception (among climate scientists) that uncertainty is something ‘out there’ to be quantified, much like the strength of meridional overturning circulation. Section 4, the heart of the essay, addresses the core needs of the policymaker, and focuses on three strictures for the climate scientist wanting to help her: answer the question, own the judgement, and be coherent. Section 5 concludes with a brief reflection.

We have taken the opportunity in this essay to be a little more polemical than we might be in an academic paper, and maybe a little more exuberent in our expressions. We have also ignored the technical details of practical climate science, something we are both involved in day-to-day, choosing instead to look at the larger picture. We believe that our observations are valid more widely than just climate science; for example many of them would apply with little modification in many areas of natural hazards, and in radiological or ecotoxicological risk assessment (Rougier et al., 2012). But they seem most pertinent in climate science, which outstrips the other areas in terms of funding. For example, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), whose vision is to “advance knowledge and understanding of the Earth and its environments to help secure a sustainable future for the planet and its people”, allocates 40% of its science budget to climate science and earth system science (NERC Annual Report and Accounts 2010–11, p. 40).

Full paper