Minding the Sciences—Wicked Science and Understanding Climate Change: Uncertainty, Risk, and Pragmatics

Wicked problems need wicked science to, minimally, frame what is puzzling. Wickedness is not a moral judgment. Instead, it is tied to the limits of knowing—when rationality is encumbered by ambiguity and uncertainty and when control over the variables is limited or currently impossible. Predictions that emerge from modeling, especially those that reach decades into the future, cannot be adequately evaluated in the present, thus affecting whether such predictions have low, middling, or high confidence. The policymaker is left to choose between effective or ineffective programs based on blind faith, ideology, and hope. This is the arena where Judith Curry offers enlightenment about the stumbling blocks to robust climate science. As a seasoned climate scientist, she asks us to dwell on the uncertainty and risk in predicting climate change and, equally important, to understand the different policy principles used to enable programs to affect climate and its effects.

When I first studied climate in the 1980s, it was limited to air pollution policy in the San Diego-Tijuana air basin. The focus was on measurable pollutants, air transport, and stationary versus mobile sources. It was also about what a developed nation—United States—could address versus a developing nation—Mexico. The physical context aided policymakers in their transborder efforts at cooperation.

Over the decades, environmental policy concerns have shifted focus in a major way to climate change. Multiple disciplines are required—from ocean dynamics, volcanic activity, atmospheric processes, radiative activity from the sun to human activity along with geological, historical, and contemporary data sources to predict climate and its distributive manifestations next year, ten years, fifty years, and more into the future without, unfortunately, being able to include significant technological fixes. Indeed, a very different order of measurement and global understanding from my early experiences of a local, transborder location.

I am often surprised how California state and local entities craft policies they believe would put us on the path to addressing the complex dynamics of what we label climate change. Whether these efforts—a bullet train to and from small cities, banning the sale of gasoline cars by 2035, limiting the use of gas appliances, and similar aggressive policies—make real-world sense or whether they are a virtue-signaling crystal ball without a feasible way of measuring those efforts remains to be seen.

The question should be how a policy maker, and more importantly, the general public, can rationally judge whether the expenditure of large funds and regulating the daily lives of its citizenry are effective. This question requires metrics of whether CO2 is the primary cause of human-made climate change; whether the efforts in California and elsewhere make any measurable difference in a planet-wide climate; whether the costs in lifestyle and economic activity are equal to the benefits; whether policy efforts prove to be lawful within the legal framework of local, state, and national laws; whether innovative technology may prove to be a more straightforward and more cost-effective approach, and similar questions. Judging the “answers” to these questions requires an understanding of certainty and risk. Certainty, and the humbler approach of uncertainty, require metrics we can be confident about. And depending on those metrics, decisions require a gamble on what objectives are attainable and at what cost. Risk is a matter of perception—of individual residents, academics, policymakers, journalists, and pundits. Here, in the climate change arena, we need transparency about which metrics and risks deserve to be seen as scientific or simply guesses.

Judith Curry’s book, Climate Uncertainty and Risk, provides an important entry point into this discussion. She addresses a methodology for assessing risk, one that is generally avoided and misused. Instead, we often find policy and punditry based on slogans, memes and stereotypes. This latter approach makes it easier to argue for a policy X than for a policy Y. It also avoids understanding how “facts” emerge from a complex methodology.

It is worth taking Curry’s point of departure, acknowledging that climate and climate change require a sense of wickedness. Key to Curry’s approach is a dynamic adaptive decision-making approach than one based on static plans that are nearly impossible to implement.

Under conditions of deep uncertainty, static plans are likely to fail, become overly costly to protect against failure, or incapable of seizing opportunities. Alternatively, flexible plans can be designed that will adapt over time. In this way, a policy can be responsive to an evolving knowledge base and technologies.[1]

Curry provides the example of Germany and how its energy policies became counterproductive over time. The seemingly correct decision to phase out its nuclear plants by 2022 in the face of the Japanese Fukushima disaster in 2011 resulted in fairly rapid—given the crystal ball prediction of much greater timelines—negative consequences from having to restart coal fired plants to geopolitical instability with Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.

While that example is well-known, Curry folds it into what ought to be fundamental to the contours of climate change—a wicked problem given the multiple physical systems involved in its analysis—and the contours of policymaking—given the wickedness of uncertainty and risk entailed by factors inside and outside of policies that aim to fix questionable predictions about the current and future environment. Curry provides a careful history and understanding of risk analysis with attendant cautionary and precautionary principles and how these are weighted to problems with different degrees of confidence of what is actually and what is poorly known, and perhaps even guesses. The problem of policymaking becomes even more wicked once one moves from memes and slogans to scientific inquiry.

Curry does not leave us with a Hamlet-type problem of tragic delay of whether to act or not to act. She is not using the thoroughness of risk analysis as a partisan tactic in the face of uncertainties. Unfortunately, scientists who speak of wicked climate change problems are painted as denialists rather than what they are—climate pragmatists. Climate pragmatism offers adaptive solutions that can address local effects. Bjorn Lomborg, author of False Alarm, is well-known for this approach.

Curry provides a useful section illustrating climate pragmatism with several examples of adaptation and maladaptation. Bangladesh has a longstanding problem with flooding and rising sea levels—partly understandable as land subsidence from groundwater withdrawal, partly from land reclamation that creates a funneling effect—and the damage from storm surges during tropical cyclones. With technical assistance from CFAN, the company Curry is with after leaving the academy, a flood forecasting system was developed for the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers that was incorporated into a cell phone warning system. The result was evacuation and early harvesting efforts. Curry notes that Bangladesh has also chosen a fruitful development path against the advice of NGOs and global environmental groups by continuing to use its natural gas resources, thereby extending the time framework with which it can eventually implement an energy transition and not undermine the well-being of its citizens in the interim.

One would be naïve if this book was accepted as a rational and thoughtful approach to a useful policy and science interface. As anyone mildly familiar with climate change analysis and policy, there are barriers that Curry and similar climate pragmatists face—delusion, illusion, hysteria, manipulation, implausibility, and bad actors. Curry resists such characterizations. At most, Curry shows that a better-to-be-safe-than-sorry mindset can end up with one that makes us more sorry than safe. How does that common-sense wisdom get expressed in risk analysis? Compare two guiding principles: the proactionary principle and the precautionary principle. These are two mindsets at play in how we see climate change hazards and risks:

The proactionary principle is designed to bridge the gap between no caution and the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle [safety at all costs] enforces a static world view that attempts to eliminate risk, whereas the proactionary principle [openminded, innovative] promotes a dynamic worldview that [in turn] promotes human development and risk-taking that produces the leaps in knowledge that have improved our world. The proactionary principle allows for handling the mixed effects of any innovation through compensation and remediation instead of prohibition. [citation] Rather than attempting to avoid risk, the risk is embraced and managed. The proactionary principle [values a] calculated risk-taking as essential to human progress.[2]

Curry’s robust approach that underwrites her climate pragmatism makes sense to many, and yet, there is a mindset that acts as a psychological barrier—one that has underwritten international treaties and goal setting out of proportion to the risk analysis laid out by Curry. Curry draws on the work of Cass Sunstein, a behavioral economist and legal scholar, to identify “cognitive mechanisms” that channel thinking into a narrow instead of a broad perspective about risk. This narrow view plays out in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where precaution overwhelms a balanced judgment:  “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures . . . ensur[ing] global benefits at the lowest possible cost.”[3] (Emphasis added).

The psychological barrier to climate pragmatism has yet to overwhelm all nations—witness aggressive fossil fuel development in China and India—or popular sentiment that rejects climate extremism. This barrier deserves more extensive treatment since it forms a significant wedge against climate pragmatism.[4]

Reading Curry’s analysis could lower the anxiety of those who cling to untested, and possibly, illusory solutions. A close reading of Climate Uncertainty and Risk could temper the overreach of climate justice warriors, leaving room for needed appreciation for climate pragmatism.

I recently observed a climate justice warrior propounding an end-of-the-world eschatology.  The facts—actually a proposed hypotheses—were sufficient to move several teenagers in attendance to express their anxiety about what would happen in the near future. The climate justice advocate dwelled on the “tipping points” we apparently faced. It was a beguiling end-of-the-world prediction. The actual scientific assessment of this scenario was not disclosed nor open to discussion.

The IPCC AR5 considered a number of potential tipping points, including ice sheet collapse, collapse of the Atlantic overturning circulation, and carbon release from permafrost thawing. Every single catastrophic considered by the IPCC AR5 has a rating of very unlikely or exceptionally unlikely and/or has low confidence.[5] (Emphasis in the original).

Curry’s approach stands in stark contrast to the overreach and catastrophizing by climate justice warriors. Those warriors and their acolytes are unlikely to be persuaded by Curry’s pragmatic, but seemingly slower, approach to a changing climate.

There is no magic wand, no scientific alchemy, that can easily upend cognitive catastrophizing about weather events.

The disconnect between historical data for the past 100 years and climate model-based projections of worsening extreme weather events presents a real conundrum regarding the basis on which to assess risk and make policies when theory and historical data are in such disagreement.[6]

Curry’s book could offer an antidote to the extremes in public thought, to the pundits who misinform them and to those policymakers who fail to address climate change issues in a robust and informed way. Despite this pessimistic outlook, Curry has planted the flag on the ground of what climate science ought to be.

[1] Curry, 221

[2] Curry, 198

[3] Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Principle 15, U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 151/26 (Aug. 12, 1992)

[4] Note that Curry has written about this separately on her blog, Climate Etc. Victims of the faux climate crisis, Part 1: Children

[5] Curry, 11

[6] Ibid.

Photo by toa555 — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 493571805


3 thoughts on “Minding the Sciences—Wicked Science and Understanding Climate Change: Uncertainty, Risk, and Pragmatics

  1. I will look at Curry’s book. I suggest that people also read drawdown, which is data rich on technology we have that reduces carbon footprints and improves economies.

    With regard to risk and certainty no one can argue that models predict based on assumptions and data. Garbage in Garbage out. I take issue with the statement below simply because this perspective would preclude all simulation modeling. So what’s the point of trying to predict if this is the case?

    “Predictions that emerge from modeling, especially those that reach decades into the future, cannot be adequately evaluated in the present, “

    Bottom line technological fixes do exist to economically lower carbon discharge. Or do we need to decide if carbon discharge should be decreased?

    Stan Green
    PROF emeritus Anthropology

  2. Curry’s thoughtful, reasoned approach has made her a target of the wild-eyed mainstream climate activists and researchers. Unable to critically refute her methodology and arguments, her critics have engaged in vicious personal attacks to discredit her educational and professional achievements; that’s the game her opponents play to diminish any and all criticism of what they represent as the consensus.

    I’ve followed her for over ten years and appreciate the openness with which she presents her ideas and welcomes contrasting thoughts. Moreover, she hosts other writers on her website where they contribute information on the challenges of designing and maintaining the energy infrastructure, delving into the arcane issues of maintaining current load and frequency across the distribution network, distribution failures in Germany and Australia, and so forth.

    She, Roger Pielke, Jr., and too few others provide important information that those in charge of climate consensus purposefully ignore.

    1. The problem I have is that I reject ALL of this human-caused climate change hysteria as a new-age Marxist religion. If the same level of proof that is used to justify worship of the goddess carbon were applied to the 2020 election, Donald Trump would currently be finishing his second term because there is more evidence supporting Trump’s claims than there is that Carbon Dioxide (without which all life on this planet would cease to exist, and that includes human life) is destroying the planet.

      People view climate in terms of a human lifespan and you can’t. Geologically speaking, there was a mile of ice over Boston and NYC only last week, and then the glaciers receded and they are still receding — and humanity had nothing to do with that.

      Storms are “worse” now because of “climate change.” Storms may be worse than they were than they were 30 years ago, but not 300 — or even 100 years. Take the Northeast and hurricanes (including Winter NorEasters which essentially are hurricanes). We haven’t had any serious ones recently, but during the middle third of the 20th Century, we had a LOT. The Hurricane of 1938. Hurricanes Carol & Edna in 1954. Hurricane Donna in 1960. The Blizzards of 1978. Etc.

      The Great Portland Gale was in 1898 — 126 years ago…

      Yes, damages from storms has increased greatly, but that’s only because (a) there is more to damage and (b) way to much stuff has been built on exposed land that should never have been developed. It was trees that blew down in 1938 — today it would be houses — that’s not climate change.

      Second, even if it is true that the climate is changing, I still use the “Donald Trump” standard of evidence for proof that humanity is doing it. He makes a credible argument
      that the election was stolen, and they make a credible argument that this is all being done by human generated carbon dioxide — but if we gave Trump the same presumption of validity that we give climate change, he’d be President.

      The earth wobbles on its orbit, the sun is an uncontrolled hydrogen bomb with wildly varying amounts of energy output, the magnetic north pole is racing towards Siberia and we know that the poles have reversed in the past. And yes, the glaciers are receding — we don’t know what caused them to advance in the first place.

      It’s a Marxist hatred of human freedom — what was first global cooling and then global warming and now climate change is more of a religion than science. And I chose to be agnostic to it’s beliefs.

      And third, so much of this is downright asinine. The Titanic and Fukushima disasters were both caused by human arrogance. An arrogant decision that the “unsinkable” Titanic would never need her lifeboats anyway (so why ruin her lines with a second row) and an equally arrogant decision that as the Fukushima plant could always pull power off the grid, why bother putting its emergency generators on high ground.

      The Japanese know about tsunamis — “tsunami” is a Japanese word — and they know how high they have been in the distant past. And if they’d put the generators on higher ground, maybe even built the plant itself on higher ground, nothing would have happened.

      But Germany has to worry about tsunamis? What were they thinking — that a tidal bore would go a thousand miles up the Danube? Do they have any idea how many countries would have to flood first or how totally impossible it would be for this to happen?!?

      This is asinine — there is no other word. And I’m supposed to take this stuff seriously?

      There’s actually more evidence that the Red Sea parted for Moses than there is for human-caused global something and I’m not mandating that people believe the King James Bible….

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