Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.


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Transformational Climate Science – approaching the problem of climate change

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 approach climate change.

How does the IPCC work? Is climate research doing what it should? Should it change?

Chris Field presents an overview of the AR5 WG2 report. Credit: University of Exeter via Flickr.

The Transformational Climate Science meeting had sessions structured around the three IPCC working groups (The Physical Science Basis; Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability; Mitigation of Climate Change). However, the IPCC is not the bottom line in climate research. It’s important to remember that its main role is to summarise our state of knowledge rather than to do new research (though it does do this as well to some extent). However, the IPCC remains a convenient ‘hook’ on which to hang our deliberations about climate change, which is presumably why the meeting was structured as it was.

As a physical scientist, I was looking forward to learning about working groups 2 and 3. Working Groups 2 and 3 (WG2 & WG3) bring together an astonishingly broad group of people: physical scientists, economists, sociologists, political scientists, philosophers…I got the impression the level of ‘cohesion’ was a little lower in these working groups than WG1. In WG1 everyone has different specialisms, but participants probably understand each others’ way of thinking well, whereas I don’t think that would be the case for people coming from diverse cognitive traditions in WG2 and WG3.

Aside from the need to bring together people with different expertise to cover the subject matter, there’s another benefit to this diversity. In the meeting a number of IPCC authors acknowledged their work could not be completely free of value judgements. By bringing together a diverse group of people, the hope is that at last a range of different value systems can be considered. A number of authors also made it explicit when they were trying to be objective and reporting ‘IPCC opinion’, and when they were talking about their own personal opinion.

One of the challenges faced by the authors of the WG2 report was the tendency of negative impacts of climate change to be reported more than positive ones. Sari Kovats, in her remarks, explicitly noted this and pointed out this was something authors were aware of and attempted to deal with as best they could. She also described what she saw as the problems in writing a report with limited quantitative research. She gave the example of the Russian heatwave and wildfires of 2010. We do not have a good idea of the impacts of this event on human health, economic productivity or food supply. In short, we lack good data. This problem becomes worse in less developed countries, which is understandable but frustrating since we might also expect such countries to be more vulnerable to climate risks.

I thought Sari’s presentation was one of the most interesting at the meeting. It described nicely what the state of the art is when it comes to studying climate impacts. She described the challenges of interpreting small-scale qualitative studies with the goal of drawing conclusions for quantitative assessments of climate risk. Then she outlined what she thought WG2 did well and what she thought it didn’t. This includes the problem that less developed countries do not have the demographic and health data needed to assess climate impacts, and that the report did much better at describing regional inequalities in impacts than it did the socioeconomic inequalities. In a globalised world, perhaps socioeconomic divides are as important as geographical ones.

Chris Field gave some thoughts on the role of WG2. He saw it as a prompt for discussion of publicly acceptable solutions – the start of a dialogue rather than its end. I found this extremely encouraging, and in line with previous discussions of the importance of considering the value systems of different stakeholders.

I admit to finding this surprising. I had rather lazily assumed that IPCC reports didn’t include discussion of normative aspects of climate science and policy. It was encouraging to see Simon Caney talk specifically about this point. For the first time the WG3 report included a section on ethics. He pointed out that ‘dangerous’ is a value judgement, and it was vitally important to consider peoples’ values. He gave the example of people who say ‘we should do whatever it takes to tackle climate change’. They almost certainly don’t mean that. Caney pointed out that different people have different priorities, but that it was unlikely anyone genuinely things climate change is the only priority.

Such perspectives are very valuable. Caney also brought in the view that the ‘right to emit’ is an odd concept. What matters for people is the access to energy to enable them to fulfil their requirements. He argued that Amartya Sen’s perspective on serving capabilities was more relevant than considering every person’s equal right to emit greenhouse gases. The emissions are a side-effect of the requirement for energy, and we should view responses to climate change in terms of serving capabilities rather than picking out such a side-effect.

One final thought – Saffron O’Neill pointed out that media coverage of WG1 is greater than either WG2 (one third less) or WG3 (three quarters less). Interestingly, the amount of Twitter activity on the conference hashtag also seemed lower during WG2 and WG3 sessions. It’s interesting to consider why this might be the case. One simple reason might be that the WG1 report is released first. But is there something deeper here? Do we ‘value’ the explicit and factual nature of WG1 more than the difficult, fuzzy, value-laden world of WG3? Perhaps, but I think that’s a shame. It seems especially odd that those who self-identify as ‘sceptics’ focus so much on WG1, when there’s a whole lot more stuff up for legitimate debate in WG2 and WG3.

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Transformational Climate Science – meeting report

On 15-16 May 2014, the University of Exeter hosted an impressive array of climate change researchers from across the world. It was a medium-sized conference discussing the state of climate change research across all three working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with goals and challenges for the future.

I found the meeting absolutely fascinating for all manner of reasons, most of which I hope to cover in two following blog posts. This post is something of an introduction.

Conference attendees gathering in the University of Exeter’s Forum. Credit: University of Exeter via Flickr.

One of the most obvious draws for me was that it brought together people from all three IPCC working groups. As a physical scientist I am familiar with the workings and results presented by the first working group, but the other two are rather more mysterious to me. This meeting served as a great summary. In case you’re not aware, the IPCC reports are produced by three separate groups:

These working groups operate rather separately. Once they have all released their reports they are combined in a synthesis report. The synthesis report for the Fifth Assessment goes to governments in October 2014. So, where next?

In the next two blog posts I’m going to discuss two themes which I felt ran through the conference.

The first is: how should we approach climate change? What kind of discussions should we be having, and how should they work? How should decisions be made?

The second is: what is the future of climate research? What information do we need and how can we get that information?

These questions are clearly inter-related. The first question is more of a political one, but the second one is clearly also politically relevant, as ultimately the choice of what information we need lies with policymakers and the public. This is one of the over-arching topics which transcended both of the themes: that climate research and policymaking is a mixture of facts and values. In simple terms: it is a fact that the planet has warmed, will continue to warm to a greater or lesser degree, and that this warming will have impacts. However, what we do about it (or indeed whether we do anything about it) is a question of values. It is a normative question in which there is no single right answer.

Even though facts might be seen as ‘valueless’, many of the speakers at the meeting argued there was no such thing. Asuncion St Clair quoted Bruno Latour: ‘no knowledge is neutral’. The way facts are presented requires the imposition of some kind of value system. Ottmar Edendorfer said at the conference that he sees the role of the IPCC as akin to that of a map-maker. The map-maker doesn’t tell the user which route to take. The map-maker examines the landscape and maps out the features, obstacles and characteristics of all paths. And yet the map-maker can’t just present the ‘facts’. The choice of what goes on the map depends on what the map-maker thinks the user needs. Take, for example, the difference between political and topographic maps. One presents largely artificial boundaries between nation-states; the other presents details of the landscape. Which one you choose would depend on your needs.

Even though it’s not possible to be completely neutral, then, perhaps the IPCC could try to address this problem by providing as much information as possible. Of course, this doesn’t make it very readable and that’s why there are two summaries that attempt to make the make points easier to grasp: the Summary for Policymakers (the content of which has to be agreed to by governments) and a Technical Summary (which doesn’t). But the choice of what goes in there might also be normative.

Given its stated goal to be ‘policy relevant, not policy prescriptive’, and the enormous complexity of its subject matter, the IPCC often makes very careful statements emphasising precisely what we do and do not know. Chris Field pointed out that this leads to something of a problem. He said that some of the statements turned out so vague that they were open to almost any interpretation. Different media outlets could make very different readings of the report and come to sometimes diametrically opposed conclusions!

This raises the issue of framings. ‘Framing is everything in this debate’ said Georgina Mace. What this means is that, given a more-or-less neutral presentation of information there is no single implication that naturally comes out. The implications of the findings of the IPCC depend on how one views the world. At the meeting Saffron O’Neill presented the results of some of her work on media framing of AR5. Common frames included: ‘settled science’, ‘unsettled science’, ‘security’ and ‘morality and ethics’. She pointed out that different frames implied very different policy options.

In the coming blog posts I hope to draw out some more detail on the two main areas of the conference: how should we approach climate change and what is the future of climate research? After all that talk of framings it’s important to say that these are my personal impressions, and not an objective report. If you want to find out exactly what went on at the meeting, you can catch up on the presentations and panel discussions on the website.

Other coverage:


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Climate policy is a question of values as much as it is a question of science

There has been a lot of discussion recently about how climate scientists should engage with climate policy, sparked mostly by Tamsin Edwards’ post on the Guardian’s Political Science blog. I didn’t intend on jumping in because I’m not sure I have much new to add, but perhaps I should put it on the record anyway.

Stick to what you know

I would encourage scientists to speak out on what they know (i.e. science). The claims of climate ‘sceptics’ who deny basic greenhouse theory are easy to refute, and we should be doing that. In fact, by and large we are doing that.

But it’s really not clear to me why a climate scientist should use their position of authority to argue for specific policies. Policy is a democratic process. Scientists shouldn’t abuse their position to give their values the loudest voice. Those on the left who call for them to do so might not always like what they hear. What if a climate scientist proposes using natural gas from fracking as a bridge fuel? What if they come out in support of market-driven responses to climate change, like a cap and trade system? These are views they are entitled to have, of course, but they are outside their area of expertise. They are views partly based on values.

The question of what should be done about climate change is a policy question and should be debated as such. Of course, ‘what should be done’ is influenced by what we think we know about future climate, but that is by no means the only influence. The response to climate change encompasses so many other factors, each as important as the physics of the climate system: engineering and technology, spending and taxation choices, international diplomacy, and democratic representation of values and priorities of the population.

A question of values

The fact is, it is not obvious what to do about climate change. Assuming we have a finite pot of money to spend on a range of policies, it’s not obvious that climate change is top of the list. What about improving energy access to the billions without it? Even if we assume climate change is top of the list, how do we go about reducing our emissions? Taxation, perhaps? How should that tax be designed? How progressive should that tax be? What kind of ‘energy mix’ should that taxation system be striving towards?

These are all important questions which have little to do with climate science, and everything to do with value judgements. In an ideal world we decide on a policy through a mix of democratic discussion (including everyone) and expert input (recognising that some people know more about policy options than others). Most climate scientists cannot claim to be policy experts. As citizens it is their right to engage in the discussion about what should be done, but it’s irresponsible to place themselves as experts when they’re not. It helps no-one.

A crystal-clear separation of science and policy would prevent them from hiding behind ‘but the science isn’t settled’ and force dissenters to articulate why they actually object.

Some object because they perceive calls for climate action as a critique of their wasteful, consumption-based way of life, and they simply can’t handle that critique. Some object because they see climate policy as something which can only be driven by the State, which they mistrust. There may be a way to deal with these objections and move forward with good climate policy, but only once we remove the scientific veil and address why they really object.

What kind of world do you want?

For advocacy groups, the science is somewhat irrelevant. They know what kind of world they want to live in already. The Taxpayers’ Alliance knows what kind of world it wants to live in. Greenpeace know what kind of world it wants to live in. Neither of their conceptions of the world is determined by climate science. They will inevitably use scientific conclusions to back up their pre-conceived notions of how the world should be.

For example, an overzealous left might institute climate policy which is inconsistent with the science. Perhaps they assume climate change is reversible (on near-term timescales it just isn’t). Perhaps they waste public money compensating people for extreme weather events despite plenty of scientific uncertainty about the link between climate change and weather extremes. I don’t know what they might do, but it’s important that everyone gets the correct scientific information, because otherwise everyone will just twist what little science they know to fit with how they want the world to be. If scientific errors are highlighted, it is up to the policymaker to justify their choices in other ways. The left could justify by talking about their particular values, but once again, that’s not to do with science.

Policy options are as much a matter of values as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Scientists aren’t policy experts, and shouldn’t pretend to be. If they pretend, they enable dissenters to set up a strawman and dismiss both the particular policy they are pushing and the generality of the science. If scientists (in their professional capacities) stick to describing the consequences of certain policies their credibility as honest brokers is strengthened. Policymakers can then make policy choices based on credible facts and the values and preferences of the citizenry. Climate scientists are free to hold and express policy views, but in my opinion they should be very careful about doing so when they are speaking in a professional capacity.


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(In)effective counter-arguments

BBC3’s ‘Free Speech’ presenter Jake Humphreys. (C) BBC

Watching BBC3’s Free Speech programme tonight, I noticed an excellent example of a hollow debate in which two sides argue two completely different issues. Their positions reflect their cultural biases. The discussion was about a campaign asking the editor of the Sun newspaper to stop printing pictures of topless women (the infamous ‘Page 3’). The two sides can be (very roughly) summarised thus:

Position 1: The Sun is a mainstream newspaper and printing photographs of topless women perpetuates a culture in which women are measured against their physical attributes. Looking good naked is inconsequential and women should be valued for their intellectual achievements.

Position 2: Women are free to make money selling photographs of themselves in whatever state of undress they like. If some people do not like this, they can express their disapproval by simply not buying the newspaper.

These two positions are clearly in opposition, but one is not a counter-argument to the other. In the programme these two viewpoints were expressed repeatedly and yet no one directly addressed either argument.

Nothing is ever debated

Position 1 argues that the cultural message of printing these pictures in a mainstream newspaper is not one we want to encourage. It does not argue that erotic photographs are wrong, or women who pose for these photographs are exploited victims. To rebut this argument one must argue against the contention that these images foster gender-discriminatory attitudes that have no place in our society.

Position 2 takes a classic ‘freedom’ stance: women should be free to do what they like, as should the newspaper-buying public. To rebut this argument one must either rebut the case for this type of freedom (quite a difficult task) or rebut the contention that Page 3 is a problem because people take offence (easier). Position 1 nearly does it. It points out that Page 3 can be damaging to people who never even pick up a copy of the Sun, because it perpetuates attitudes towards women which contribute to continued gender inequality (highly visible in the gender pay gap).

By my analysis, one can rebut Position 2 by identifying the values behind the argument. Those who subscribe to Position 2 are likely to think their opponents are against personal freedom, whereas it is clear from Position 1 that that is not what their opponents are arguing. Those arguing from Position 1 should Position 2 and explain that, though nothing in the argument is incorrect, there are other reasons why we should campaign to stop the printing of images of nude women in a mainstream newspaper.

Climate science debates are climate policy debates in disguise

This may seem tangential to the main theme of this blog, but I see parallels here with ‘debates’ on climate change and climate policy. Many who argue irrationally against the basic physical science of climate change do so because of their cultural biases against climate policies. Those who value industry, consumer goods and wealth are unlikely to accept necessarily anti-consumptive policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. People take positions on one topic but in fact argue from deeply entrenched but irrelevant positions on another. In order to understand arguments one must understand the underlying cultural biases.

Understanding cultural bias both helps people to construct stronger arguments and helps people to rebut them. In other words, it makes debate more robust, and (hopefully) helps us converge on an appropriate course of action. And yet people seem completely unaware of the values systems underlying different arguments on climate, include their own. Dan Kahan makes this point eloquently in his paper as part of the Cultural Cognition Project.