On 15-16 May a diverse group of climate researchers gathered at the University of Exeter to discuss the state of climate change following the publication of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and the future of the field. In a previous post I discussed some of the key themes. Here I’m going to summarise some of what went on at the conference in terms of how we should proceed with climate research in the future. It will be biased towards physical science, since that’s my personal area of interest.
What are the outstanding challenges in climate research? What are the areas that need further investigation? Should the IPCC process function as a driver for new research efforts?
I think the final question there is an especially interesting one. The role of the IPCC is to bring together diverse research findings and assess our state of knowledge. And yet, sometimes it is seen as an end in itself. One of the speakers at the conference noted he sometimes sees research justified as ‘important for the IPCC assessment’, and that this is a big turn-off. If that’s the best thing the researcher can say about their work it’s probably not going to be that interesting. Of course, it might be that the research is fascinating and yields new insight into some of the big challenges of contemporary climate science. In that case the authors should say so. The challenges of contemporary climate science are not challenges because the IPCC says so; they are challenges because there are scientific and policy questions that need answering. Thomas Stocker, in his remarks, noted that one of the most important things to do in future climate research is to continue with ‘curiosity-driven research’. There are many examples of pure research that did not have any obvious application spawning major advances, often with great commercial success.
I’m no science policy scholar, so I won’t discuss where the balance should lie between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research, but this conference provided some food for thought. Some speakers emphasised both equally, generating a tension which isn’t easily resolved. Indeed, the majority of the ‘challenges’ identified at the meeting fell on the ‘applied’ side in the sense that they were suggestions to make climate research more policy-relevant. Perhaps that is unsurprising at a meeting structured around the IPCC, with its strong emphasis on policy-relevance.
One of the main challenges identified during the meeting was moving from the robust aspects of climate theory to those phenomena which actually matter to people on the ground. Robust aspects of climate theory are largely thermodynamically driven, argued Stephen Belcher. We understand that the accumulating energy balance of the Earth will lead to warming, and that the land will warm faster than the ocean. We understand that surface warming leads to greater evaporation and consequently, on average, greater precipitation. But the things we really care about are rather smaller in scale. We experience climate through weather events, and these are influenced as much by dynamic as thermodynamic factors. Unfortunately, we have much less confidence in our understanding of these dynamical processes. They have smaller spatial scales and shorter temporal scales, and so they are much more computationally demanding to model. They involve processes which are not well understood. Ted Shepherd has spoken similarly about the need to focus on the climate dynamics of global warming. It certainly seems like a fertile area for future research, though also a very challenging one.
On the subject of things that people actually care about, Mat Collins and David Stephenson both discussed moving from simplistic averages to the broader statistics of climate. We experience climate through weather, and we care about it most of all when it’s extreme. It’s the ‘tails’ of the probability distribution of weather events that we care about. Unfortunately, said Mat Collins, we don’t really have a good idea about how to assess this. Our current batch of climate model simulations are a statistically questionable sample – they have known deficiencies, biases and interdependencies. We need to address this or develop techniques to deal with it.
On the theme of translating our physical understanding into more relevant information, there was also some discussion of modelling of the politico-economic systems. Integrated Assessment Models attempt to do this, but there is no coordinated intercomparison of these models like there is for climate models. Some at the meeting objected, saying we don’t have good enough theory to be able to credibly model economics. Perhaps that’s true, but just because something is complicated and uncertain doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to model it; in fact, perhaps it means we should! An intercomparison would at least help us know where we stand.
A final note: this continued emphasis on relevance seems to me to require a greater role of values in presenting stories about what humans care about. Simon Caney spoke about the major breakthrough of including ethicists and philosophers in WG3. More broadly, I think a move to greater policy-relevance would need everyone involved to be crystal clear about what is factual and what it normative (value-based). People were mostly good at that in this meeting. A productive discussion on climate change needs good-quality factual basis and a wide range of normative viewpoints. There was even some discussion about how it might required new forms of collaborative decision-making.
Regardless, the very necessary shift towards policy relevance will mean the potential for even greater controversies. Sam Fankhauser spoke about the need to develop very clear channels for communication to help get around this: ‘whatever we say will be used in that very emotional debate’. It’s difficult and sometimes downright unpleasant, but I think ultimately we have to embrace that.