Uncertainty makes action on climate change more – not less – urgent

October 15, 2015, University of Bristol
Uncertainty makes action on climate change more – not less – urgent
The probability of extreme climate events (such as ice sheet collapse) increases with increasing uncertainty, all other factors being equal, the study finds

Uncertainty about climate change can, counter-intuitively, produce actionable knowledge and thus should provide an impetus, rather than a hindrance, to addressing climate change, researchers from the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute argue in a special issue of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions A, published this week.

Responding and adapting to climate change: Uncertainty as knowledge, edited by Professors Stephan Lewandowsky and Rich Pancost of Bristol's Cabot Institute with Dr Timothy Ballard of the University of Queensland, illustrates that, rather than being an argument for delaying mitigative action, uncertainty provides an impetus to be concerned about because greater uncertainty increases the risks associated with climate change.

Professor Pancost said: "Uncertainty plays a pivotal role in public debate, and arguments against mitigation are frequently couched in terms of uncertainty. Such arguments often draw attention to the possibility that because an issue is uncertain, it may be less serious than anticipated.

"In fact, in many instances – including climate change – the reverse is true: mathematical analyses of the risk associated with climate change have revealed that as uncertainty increases, so almost always does risk. Similarly, potential surprises are more likely to be calamitous than benign, because the probability of (such as ice sheet collapse) increases with increasing uncertainty, all other factors being equal.

"The presence of scientific uncertainty doesn't just reveal a lack of knowledge but is, in many cases, a mathematical expression of the knowledge we do have. Uncertainty can therefore be a source of actionable knowledge rather than an indicator of ignorance."

The authors also argue that, because focussing on uncertainties can discourage action and distract people from decision-making, the debate about uncertainty should be reframed.

Professor Lewandowsky said: "Climate projections typically express uncertainty in the outcome itself, but not in the outcome's time of arrival – for example, projections reported by the IPCC generally imply statements along the lines of 'by year X, average global surface temperature will rise by between Y1 and Y2 degrees'.

"Reporting projections in this manner invites because it increases the perceived variance in the outcome. Reframing this projection so that the uncertainty is expressed in the time of arrival can reduce the potential for wishful thinking because saying 'average will definitely rise by Y degrees, and this will occur between years X1 and X2' emphasizes the when rather than the if.

"Our research shows that when is expressed in this manner, people perceive the consequences of climate change to be more serious and show greater endorsement of mitigative action."

Explore further: Scientists unmask the climate uncertainty monster

More information: Stephan Lewandowsky et al. Uncertainty as knowledge, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences (2015). DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2014.0462

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Eikka
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 15, 2015
That's begging the question that all our actions would be necessarily benefical, or have any effect - that we can do no wrong. Just "doing something" is just as likely to have adverse consequences, and then we're in worse trouble, having two problems instead of one.

Even if the actions we take have no effect one way or the other, it's still worse for us because it would be wasting resources that we need to survive the effects of the global warming. For example, if we put our resources into some carbon reduction scheme instead of building levies around coastal cities, and the reduction scheme has no effect, then it's too late and people and property will drown.

Hence why doing nothing is better than doing something when you have no idea whether it will work. The author is just making a type of Pascal's Wager.

leetennant
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 15, 2015
True but in this case the solutions for climate change are almost universally beneficial anyway:-cheaper, cleaner, more democratic energy production; less pollution; greater corporate regulation; the effective pricing of externalities; and more efficient use of resources generally.

Remember, in Pascal's Wager there was a "right" answer.
Eikka
2.1 / 5 (7) Oct 16, 2015
True but in this case the solutions for climate change are almost universally beneficial anyway:-cheaper, cleaner, more democratic energy production; less pollution; greater corporate regulation; the effective pricing of externalities; and more efficient use of resources generally.


In reality none of that appears to be true. We're simply spending massive subsidies on big corporations with little oversight of what they're actually doing with it, and as a consequence the energy is not cheaper, it's not cleaner, it's not sustainable economically or ecologically, and the whole system is the antithesis of democracy because people are being ripped off and sold snakeoil solutions by appealing to their panic about the climate change.

In this Pascal's wager, we have a "right" answer, and that is: "tax everything until it stops moving, institute massive wealth redistribution schemes and micromanage everyone's lives, build a lot of windmills, and pray that it works."

antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (6) Oct 16, 2015

In reality none of that appears to be true. We're simply spending massive subsidies on big corporations with little oversight of what they're actually doing with it, and as a consequence the energy is not cheaper, it's not cleaner, it's not sustainable economically or ecologically,

Seems like you're describing the fossil fuel/nuclear industry to 't' here. Are you sure you know what renewables even are?

And this isn't a question of democracy (right to vote) but of democratic right to production (i.e. everyone can do it with little investment).

and pray that it works

Why pray when it demonstrably works and the old way doesn't? Facts trump wishful thinking - and you're really being a poster-boy in your comments of what the article describes, you know that?
Eikka
3 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2015
the solutions for climate change are almost universally beneficial anyway


What I'm trying to say, and the subtle point you're missing, is that the end result is not the solution itself. The solution is the means to the end.

So yes, what we want to be the end result is all those; cheap, clean, democratic, efficient... but the solutions and practices we have do not necessarily lead to those ends - they don't necessarily work as intended - and confusing the solution with the result leads to the notion that nearly all our solutions are good solutions because they all naturally promise all the good things and we simply assume they cannot fail.

Hence why it's a Pascal's Wager.

In Pascal's Wager, the solution "believe in god" promises all the good things, and it is simply assumed that the belief in a particular god cannot have equally bad unintended consequences, such as going to hell as a heretic.

Eikka
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 16, 2015
Seems like you're describing the fossil fuel/nuclear industry to 't' here. Are you sure you know what renewables even are?


You're pulling a tu-quoque fallacy there.

It is a demonstratable fact that subsidies on renewble energy per unit energy are massively higher than those for fossil fuels and nuclear, and that is what matters - not the absolute numbers, because the renewable energies that we are building cannot operate without the level of subsidy while the fossil fuels essentially can.

They're self-sustaining while the renewables aren't.

Why pray when it demonstrably works and the old way doesn't?


Because it hasn't been shown to work. None of it works without the massive subsidy schemes going on, and it cannot be scaled up to replace fossil fuels because we lack the necessary technology to integrate any more.

We just keep throwing other people's money around in all the wrong places in panic, hoping that it would make something happen.

Eikka
3 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2015
Especially on the point of self-sustainability:

Look ahead 50 years into the future. How are you going to make steel, concrete, glass, etc. without the use of fossil fuels? That's the question that the renewable energy schemes have to answer - they have to become self-sustainable. We have to be able to use a solar panel somehow by some means to make another solar panel, with a surplus of energy left over.

Otherwise they are just like corn ethanol - takes a barrel of oil to make a barrel of ethanol. What's the point?

Having a massive building and spending spree riight now, when we haven't solved the fundamental questions on what we're actually trying to do, is just hurting ourselves by retracting resources away from the effort to solve those questions.

If it turns out that the problems cannot be solved in practice, that we should have had gone a different way instead - well it's too late then.

Research, instead of erecting windmills, is the proper answer.
leetennant
3 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2015
Especially on the point of self-sustainability:

Look ahead 50 years into the future. How are you going to make steel, concrete, glass, etc. without the use of fossil fuels?.


Why would we need to do it without fossil fuels? You do understand the difference between energy
generation and other uses of it, right?

In fact, if we stop burning it for fuel and instead convert to better, cheaper, more polluting sources of energy we can convert the use of fossil fuels entirely to more productive ends - like steel and plastic and glass etc.

Who's proposing we outlaw fossil fuel extraction?

Bueller?
leetennant
3 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2015
Sorry, that should say "less polluting" sources of energy...
marcush
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 18, 2015
Even if the actions we take have no effect one way or the other, it's still worse for us because it would be wasting resources that we need to survive the effects of the global warming. For example, if we put our resources into some carbon reduction scheme instead of building levies around coastal cities, and the reduction scheme has no effect, then it's too late and people and property will drown.

Hence why doing nothing is better than doing something when you have no idea whether it will work. The author is just making a type of Pascal's Wager.


False dichotomy. No reason not to cut CO2 as well as build levies. It is well known that a cost on carbon can be completely off-set by cutting other taxes. We are unique on Earth not in our ability to influence global climate but in our ability to foresee this influence. The question remains as to whether we are also equipped to alter our behavior accordingly. People such as yourself represent failures in this respect.
geokstr
1 / 5 (1) Oct 19, 2015
The question remains as to whether we are also equipped to alter our behavior accordingly. People such as yourself represent failures in this respect.


Yes, that is a key question, isn't it? Lunatic fantasies like Marxism and socialism must assume that human nature is malleable, that it is possible to abolish innate self-interest or transmute it into Collective interest, or they will never work. So the billions of eggs must be broken anyway to keep the nomenklatura in power and in control, which also proves human nature is immutable in a bad way except possibly in the very, very long term via evolution.

And that's where we are politically on climate change. Whether it's real or not, harmful or not, or we can alter it or not are irrelevant in this battle. A power-mad totalitarian ideology is now running with it for all it's worth.

The right will always be against the AGW movement politically. Some of us actually still like freedom.

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