Genesis of a scare

Michael Kile comments:

Quadrant‘s Tony Thomas is right to emphasise Sir John Houghton’s role in driving Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change policy during the 1990s (“The Serpents Egg,” May, 2012).

Some readers may be unaware the late environmental scientist, Stephen Schneider (1945-2010), had a crucial influence on him. Schneider, a researcher at Stanford University’s Woods Institute, was an author for the IPCC’s four assessment reports and a “core member” for two of them.

When The Royal Society published a commemorative volume of essays in 2010, Seeing Further – The Story of Science and The Royal Society, it included one by Schneider: “Confidence, Consensus and the Uncertainty Cops: Tackling Risk Management in Climate Change.” At the time, he was struggling (as the IPCC still is) to deal with what he described as the “significant uncertainties” that “bedevil components of the science”, “plague projections of climate change and its consequences”, and challenge the traditional scientific method of directly testing hypotheses (‘normal’ science). His solution was ambitious: to change ‘the culture of science’ by developing a language that would convey the gravity of the situation “properly” to policy makers.

As climate uncertainty was (and is) so intractable — and incomprehensible to the public — Schneider introduced the rhetoric of risk management – “framing a judgement about acceptable and unacceptable risks” – and pseudo-probability. While he claimed he was “uncomfortable” with this “value judgement” approach – he was even “more uncomfortable ignoring the problems altogether because they don’t fit neatly into our paradigm of ‘objective’ falsifiable research based on already known empirical data.”

Schneider proposed a new subjective paradigm of “surprises’ in global climate scenarios, one with “perhaps extreme outcomes or tipping points which lead to unusually rapid changes of state”; while admitting that, “by definition, very little in climate science is more uncertain than the possibility of ‘surprises’.”

Houghton, the IPCC Working Group I leader for the first three assessment reports was, “initially very reluctant to get into the surprises tangle.” Schneider recalled ” a very clear exchange” at a 1993 climate meeting in Oxford University (Oxford Environment Conference, 15-16 July). Houghton thought public discussion about ‘surprises’ was too speculative and would be abused [not by climate scientists, but] by the media.”

Houghton: “Aren’t you just a little bit worried that some will take this surprises/abrupt change issue and take it too far?”

Schneider: “I am, John, we have to frame it very carefully. But I am at least equally worried that if we don’t tell the political world the full range of what might happen that could materially affect them, we have not done our jobs fully and are substituting our values on how to take risks for those of society – the right level to decide such questions.”

According to Schneider, “despite the worry that discussions of surprises and non-linearities could be taken out of context by extreme elements in the press and NGOs [but apparently not by the IPCC], we were able to include a small section on the need for both more formal and subjective treatments of uncertainties and outright surprises in the IPCC Second Assessment Report in 1995….”

“Thus, John did not object to the few sentences on those topics in Chapter 11, Advancing our Understanding. As a result the very last sentence of the IPCC Working Group 1 1995 Summary for Policy Makers addresses the abrupt non-linearity issue. This made much more in-depth assessment in subsequent IPCC reports possible, simply by noting [that is assuming, not proving] that: ‘When rapidly forced, non-linear systems are especially subject to unexpected behaviour.”

This was a pivotal moment. Schneider and Houghton had smuggled a Trojan horse into the IPCC, with a contrived “language for risk” inside it. It was a language derived from Schneider’s personal (and the IPCC’s) “value frame” and was adopted in subsequent reports. They now had, he wrote triumphantly, “licence to pursue risk assessment of uncertain probability but high consequence possibilities in more depth; but how should we go about it?” How, indeed?

It took a long time for him to “negotiate” agreement with climate scientists on precise “numbers and words” in the Third Assessment Report cycle. “There were some people who still felt they could not apply a quantitative scale to issues that were too speculative or ‘too subjective’ for real scientists to indulge in ‘speculating on probabilities not directly measured’. One critic said: ‘Assigning confidence by group discussion, even if informed by the available evidence, was like doing seat-of-the-pants statistics over a good beer.’”

Schneider’s Royal Society essay nevertheless emphatically concluded: “Despite the large uncertainties in many parts of the climate science and policy assessments to date, uncertainty is no longer a responsible justification for delay.” Yet how can one seriously argue the more uncertain a phenomenon, the greater is the risk to us?

The rest, as Thomas (and John McLean) documents, is history: the history of how dodgy “post-normal” science joined up with a pseudo-scientific “precautionary principle” (and increasing government funding) to corrupt the IPCC evaluation process and create a global decarbonising monster.

Michael Kile. May, 2012


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