Scientists unmask the climate uncertainty monster

Apr 04, 2014 by David Stacey

(Phys.org) —Scientific uncertainty is a 'monster' that prevents understanding and delays mitigative action in response to climate change, according to The University of Western Australia's Winthrop Professor Stephan Lewandowsky and international colleagues, who suggest that uncertainty should make us more rather than less concerned about climate change.

In two companion papers published today in Climatic Change, the researchers investigated the mathematics of in the climate system and showed that increased scientific uncertainty necessitates even greater action to mitigate .

The scientists used an ordinal approach - a range of mathematical methods that address the question: 'What would the consequences be if uncertainty is even greater than we think it is?'

They show that as uncertainty in the temperature increase expected with a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels rises, so do the economic damages of increased climate change. Greater uncertainty also increases the likelihood of exceeding 'safe' temperature limits and the probability of failing to reach mitigation targets. The authors highlight this with the case of future sea levels, as larger uncertainty in sea level rises requires greater precautionary action to manage flood risk.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, who is also Chair in Cognitive Psychology and member of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol, said: "We can understand the implications of uncertainty, and in the case of the climate system, it is very clear that greater uncertainty will make things even worse. This means that we can never say that there is too much uncertainty for us to act. If you appeal to uncertainty to make a policy decision the legitimate conclusion is to increase the urgency of mitigation."

These new findings challenge the frequent public misinterpretation of uncertainty as a reason to delay action. Arguing against mitigation by appealing to uncertainty is therefore misplaced: any appeal to uncertainty should provoke a greater, rather than weaker, concern about climate change than in the absence of uncertainty.

Explore further: Role of natural aerosols in climate uncertainties underestimated

More information: 'Scientific Uncertainty and Climate Change: Part I. Uncertainty and Unabated Emissions' by Stephan Lewandowsky, James S Risbey, Michael Smithson, Ben R Newell and John Hunter in Climatic Change

'Scientific Uncertainty and Climate Change: Part II. Uncertainty and Mitigation' by Stephan Lewandowsky, James S Risbey, Michael Smithson and Ben R Newell in Climatic Change

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User comments : 26

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orti
2.1 / 5 (11) Apr 04, 2014
"Scientists unmask the climate uncertainty monster"
No. "Scientists" and their "certainty" are unmasked by actual events.
Eddy Courant
2.5 / 5 (11) Apr 04, 2014
"..., it is very clear that greater uncertainty will make things even worse."

LOL.. this is "certainly" desperation and not science!
Eddy Courant
2.9 / 5 (8) Apr 04, 2014
Uncertainty was Bush's logic for invading Iraq.
Curious George Sr
2.8 / 5 (9) Apr 04, 2014
I'll paraphrase the second paragraph of this news item:

The less we know, the more urgent an immediate action becomes.

UWA at its best.
cantdrive85
2.1 / 5 (11) Apr 04, 2014
Said it before, and it bears repeating, repeatedly.

AGWites are absolute fucking jackasses!
PsycheOne
2.3 / 5 (12) Apr 04, 2014
This is funny...except to the people who believe it. The Church of Global Warming is thrilled. Now it needn't prove anything. It just needs to run around screaming "The sky might be falling!"
runrig
4 / 5 (12) Apr 04, 2014
I'll just leave it to those that have gone before on this thread to have their say and to be sciences best advocates.
They display the alternative.
And all that humanity should be ashamed of.
Code_Warrior
3.8 / 5 (5) Apr 04, 2014
I think it's more appropriate to say that greater uncertainty should produce greater urgency to reduce the level of uncertainty. If our models have worst case scenarios with devastating consequences, but the range of uncertainty also allows for little impact, then it behooves us to invest a larger amount of resources into reducing the level of uncertainty as far as possible while keeping in mind any deadlines after which the probability of the worst case scenario greatly increases. Ideally, we would act to reduce our uncertainty and set a date by which we will make policy based on the level of uncertainty we have at that time. We would then implement that policy while continuing work on reducing the level of uncertainty and adjusting the policy as the level of uncertainty is further reduced.

I think we should leave it to the scientists on both sides of the debate to agree on the level of uncertainty and the worst case scenario that level of uncertainty implies.
antialias_physorg
4.1 / 5 (13) Apr 04, 2014
The less we know, the more urgent an immediate action becomes.

You mean as opposed to: if we're not entirely certain the best thing is to sit and twiddle our thumbs?
Does that sound sensible to anyone? Does anyone here act like that in real life? Why all of a sudden when climate change is concerned?
ryggesogn2
1.4 / 5 (9) Apr 04, 2014
The less we know, the more urgent an immediate action becomes.

You mean as opposed to: if we're not entirely certain the best thing is to sit and twiddle our thumbs?
Does that sound sensible to anyone? Does anyone here act like that in real life? Why all of a sudden when climate change is concerned?

Asteroids are known to impact earth and create much havoc. Nothing serious is being done.
10 million people live in a high risk earth quake zone in LA. Tens of thousands will die in a big one. What serious mitigate plans are being made. Is LA being evacuated? Wouldn't that be the AGWite response, abandon LA?
Captain Stumpy
4.2 / 5 (10) Apr 05, 2014
Asteroids are known to impact earth and create much havoc. Nothing serious is being done
@Rygg
irrelevant as well as a blatant lie AND you have already been proved wrong in this argument!

Searching for "planetary defense against asteroid impact" on Google gives you About 224,000 results (0.67 seconds) including the link: http://www.nss.or...nse.html
&
http://www.space....ids.html

on Google scholar the same search gets you About 18,700 results (0.08 sec) including:

http://schillerla...33a0.pdf
&
http://www.nature...7a0.html

this proves not only that you are ignoring previous shared data, but that you blatantly lie

we can also state that any other posts you make should be equally suspect given your propensity for misrepresentation

marcush
4.5 / 5 (4) Apr 05, 2014
I'd like to ask those who disagree whether they have taken out any insurance policies. If so they are complete hypocrites.
osnova
Apr 05, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Bob Osaka
4.3 / 5 (3) Apr 05, 2014
Certainly the only math that counts in the debate is economic. Business people are thinking "How can we make money out of this terrible,horrible,tragic catastrophe?" Patching ozone holes is not cost effective. Cleaning up the piles of floating plastic debris in the middle of the oceans isn't sexy,selling more air-conditioned automobiles in India and China is. Newton and the force of gravity not withstanding. money makes the world go round.
Sigh
4.4 / 5 (5) Apr 05, 2014
"..., it is very clear that greater uncertainty will make things even worse."
LOL.. this is "certainly" desperation and not science!

A simple example of a case where uncertainty makes things worse is Jensen's inequality applied to risk-sensitivity: http://icb.oxford...92.short Assume a non-linear utility function, say because you owe the Mafia $100 000, which you can pay off by taking a mortgage on your house which you will be unable to pay off, so you lose your house. I offer you double or quits on a coin toss. You win, you can pay the Mafia and keep your house. You lose, you can't pay, and they kill you and your family. To most people, the certainty of $100 000 would be worth more in such a situation than a 1 out of 2 chance of $200 000, even though the expected utility is the same if you assume a linear utility function. This is a simple case of uncertainty being worse. Tell me what is unscientific about the analysis.
ScooterG
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2014
"Scientific uncertainty is a 'monster' that prevents understanding and delays mitigative action in response to climate change"

I can always count on Phys.drivel for a good laugh

runrig
4 / 5 (8) Apr 05, 2014
Asteroids are known to impact earth and create much havoc. Nothing serious is being done.
10 million people live in a high risk earth quake zone in LA. Tens of thousands will die in a big one. What serious mitigate plans are being made. Is LA being evacuated? Wouldn't that be the AGWite response, abandon LA?

Ryggy:
1) Nothing CAN plausibly to prevent asteroid impact.
2) Nothing can plausibly be done re earthquake forecasting and removal of millions on a short-time scale.
3) No it would be no response of those that know of the reality of AGW - precisely BECAUSE nothing can plausible be done.

However many things CAN plausibly be done to mitigate AGW.
runrig
4 / 5 (8) Apr 05, 2014
I'd like to ask those who disagree whether they have taken out any insurance policies. If so they are complete hypocrites.

Exactly so Marcush:
A simple matter of probabilities - and AGW is beyond any probability of a house burglary/fire, car crash, etc.
Yet Insurance companies make a bomb from peeps insuring against them.

Then again it's only the planet's future we're gambling with - our descendants can clean up the mess or maybe zoom off to the spare.
ryggesogn2
1.5 / 5 (8) Apr 05, 2014
1) Nothing CAN plausibly to prevent asteroid impact.

Sure we can.
) Nothing can plausibly be done re earthquake forecasting and removal of millions on a short-time scale.


If govt can control climate and economies to save the planet, govt can make earthquake prone areas forbidden zones.

many things CAN plausibly be done to mitigate AGW.

If AGW is exists.
swordfishtrombone
2 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2014
Quite apart from the fact that the basic argument presented in this paper doesn't make sense, why should I accept the opinion of a Psychologist (who's just had his most famous paper retracted) on the subject of Climate Change?
freeiam
2.3 / 5 (6) Apr 06, 2014
Uncertainty indicates that you don't know what you are talking about. It indicates that the proposed remedies are uncertain also.
Climate 'science' is a very recent endeavour but seems to claim to know all the answers about the intricacies of the hugely complex climate system while a constant stream of information reveals that all kinds of small and large (feedback) systems are recently discovered and completely new to the equation.
Let's remove the appendix, because we know it has no use ...
It's the arrogance of science that people react at, and rightly so. Common sense has it's advantages.
It's time to ignore the voices of ICPP, the new 'Club of Rome' warning in 1972 that we would run out of fossil fuels, look how that turned out.
Mimath224
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2014
Allow me to take a very simple look at this in a 'common sense' analogy.
I am assuming here that most of the posters here drive a car...although I have no math to back that 'uncertainty'.
A long time ago one advert for drivers, which I think was fairly wide spread was 'If in doubt slow down or stop.' Just how valid is this as advice? If there is dense fog, storm, snow etc then one might say it is generally good advice. However, there are some drivers that might be given to doubt conditions just because of single cloud and in this case we are talking about an individual's interpretation of what is doubtful and what is not.
Then there are 'variables' which might also affect us, our reflexes, car's condition and of course volume of traffic not to mention the mood of other drivers.
Can this type of doubt be called 'uncertainty'? To be sure, there are some 'variables' that could be estimated while others could not be. cont..
Mimath224
3 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2014
cont..
In fog (for example) some drivers may slow but others still survive while 'keeping their foot to the floor'.
If there is such a thing as a 'monster uncertainty' doesn't that mean it's a 'monster' in both good and bad outcomes? If so then some of us are going to slow down while others will continue as normal.
Sigh
4 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2014
Quite apart from the fact that the basic argument presented in this paper doesn't make sense

What argument backs up that assertion?

why should I accept the opinion of a Psychologist (who's just had his most famous paper retracted) on the subject of Climate Change?

Check the reason:
In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.
Continued
Sigh
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2014
Frontiers doesn't provide details of what aspects of the legal situation are worrying. Comments on the retraction indicate that the paper contained quotes and names (which could have been found by searching for the quotes). Apparently, some of those named threatened libel action. Then remember libel tourism. I don't think English libel laws have yet been reformed since Ben Goldacre lost a lot of money defending a scientifically well-founded critique, so the journal had reason to worry.

Given the explicit statement of the journal, you can't honestly use the retraction of the paper to imply lack of scientific rigour on Lewandowsky's part. Not unless you show there is something wrong with the reasons that Frontiers gave for the retraction. Of course, if you allege a conspiracy, Frontiers could sue you for libel, if the editors applied the same standard as the alleged conspiracy theorists.
Sigh
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2014
Of course, it might instead be that you didn't check what the journal had to say, and that you were merely uninformed about the reasons for retraction. What is your actual reason for implying a lack of scientific rigour?
ubavontuba
1.6 / 5 (7) Apr 06, 2014
I don't know if the work I am doing will mitigate global warming, or make it worse, but give me millions and millions of dollars to continue with (and expand on) my uncertain task, just in case.