Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.


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Transformational Climate Science – the future of climate research

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?

Science & policy panell (left to right): Thomas Stocker, Saffron O’Neill, Georgina Mace, Andrea Tilche, Asuncion St Clair, Chris Field. Credit: University of Exeter via Flickr.

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.

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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: