When Professor Shapiro (of Case Western Reserve University) recently derided sceptics for being unable to grasp the basics of reasoning under uncertainty, he certainly wasn’t the first. The evaluation of the scale, nature and significance of uncertainty is central to understanding climate change, so such accusations are tantamount to refusing sceptics a voice in the debate. Furthermore, Professor Shapiro is a psychotherapist, and so it is unsurprising that his criticisms included comparison to his patients, thereby pathologizing the sceptical position. Whilst debating the Shapiro article with a CliScep colleague, I was asked to provide some resources on the subject of uncertainty analysis. I repeat my response below and, as you read it, I invite you to treat it as the clinical testimony I would offer to Professor Shapiro, should I ever be unfortunate enough to be lying on his couch.
My interest in uncertainty analysis began way back in my project leadership days when I questioned the validity of using risk management tools to estimate completion dates for software development projects. These tools employ Monte Carlo Simulation. One has to understand its limitations, so my first reference is:
It transpired that my misgivings were justified, since a tool that was developed to deal with aleatoric uncertainty was being used to model epistemic uncertainty. For a good account of the importance of this distinction when modelling uncertainty, see this paper.
In turning away from Monte Carlo based modelling, I became more interested in using Bayesian techniques to capture and evaluate uncertainties within predominantly epistemic settings. Since, at the time, I was still working in the field of software development, I gained my understanding of Bayesian methods by reading the output of the likes of Professor Norman Fenton. See his website for a number of valuable resources:
You might also be entertained by reading a historical narrative of the development and acceptance of Bayesian methods in the face of fierce opposition from frequentist statisticians.
I have since come to appreciate that Monte Carlo methods retain a relevance in providing a basis for determining the a priori probabilities used in Bayesian inference, but I remain concerned that their application in climate modelling may be resulting in an inaccurate propagation of uncertainty. This suspicion is based upon the tendency to underestimate uncertainty when restricting oneself to purely probabilistic techniques (perhaps I should say ‘restricting to precise probability’). Since my thoughts on this matter started when I was currently involved in transport analysis, this led me to the following paper:
A good example of the application of possibility theory in climate modelling is:
Other non-probabilistic techniques that have found application in climate modelling include Dempster-Schafer Theory. See:
You may also be interested in this application of Info-Gap Decision Theory:
Thus far in this account, I have concentrated upon variability and incertitude as the prime sources of uncertainty. The third source is vagueness. This has led to the development of Fuzzy Logic as a means of capturing uncertainty when modelling systems and evaluating uncertainty in decision frameworks. There are many sources of information on this subject—just steer clear of Bart Kosko. He may know his stuff but he is also a jerk.
For an example of fuzzy logic’s application in climate modelling, see:
On a related subject, I can highly recommend this overview of the philosophical and linguistic implications of vagueness and its importance in the modelling of uncertainty.
Finally, on the subject of uncertainty in climate modelling, I found the following quite informative as a general overview:
Click to access Uncertainty%20in%20Climate%20Modelling.pdf
You will note in the above that reference is made to ontological uncertainty (the unknown unknown). I like to think of this as a second-order epistemic uncertainty. The impact of the unknown unknown has been popularized by Nassim Taleb in his book, The Black Swan.
Naturally, given his distrust of a purely stochastic appraisal of uncertainty, Taleb is an advocate of applying the precautionary principle for tackling climate change. I think too much has already been written on the subject of the legitimacy of the precautionary principle. I advise that you restrict yourself to the clarification paper provided by UNESCO, and then make up your own mind:
My involvement in project leadership, quality assurance and various aspects of corporate governance required that I gain an understanding of Decision Theory and Decision Analysis (the distinction between the two is not always clear, but it suffices to say there are prescriptive and descriptive elements to the study of decision-making). I found that these subjects provide useful insights into the nature of risk and uncertainty (and the subtle relationship between them).
There are several methodologies that prescribe the logic that should be followed in making a decision. See, for example, Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA):
Click to access Multi-criteria_Analysis.pdf
Other strategies for dealing with situations characterized by ‘deep uncertainty’ include Info Gap Decision Theory (see above) and Robust Decision Making (RDM), see:
If you become interested in this area, you will find yourself getting sucked into Game Theory, in which you will encounter strategies such as Minimax (to minimize the maximum loss) and Maximin (to maximize the minimum gain). See:
The descriptive study of decision-making addresses how decisions are actually made (as opposed to how they should be). This invariably involves an understanding of cognitive science. In gaining an understanding of this area, I was influenced by the seminal work undertaken by Tversky and Kahneman. A good introduction to this can be found in Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow.
Another important contributor was Daniel Ellsberg, who drew attention to the irrationality that can arise when decision-makers allow their ambiguity aversion to influence their perception of risk. See:
Given my interest in risk, uncertainty and decision-making, I was intrigued to see that the IPCC had devoted a whole section to these subjects in their Fifth Annual Report:
Click to access ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter2.pdf
Unfortunately, I found the IPCC document to be surprisingly uninformed on formalisms (it covers expected utility theory, cost benefits analysis, and that’s just about it) and unduly concerned with the benefits of psychological trickery to gain the public’s support for the alarmist agenda.
Finally, although too many within climate science are determined to downplay uncertainty, I found one person who certainly seems to have understood what is going on and is not afraid to point it out:
I appreciate that this very brief synopsis of my educational journey leaves out a number of important topics (no mention of measurement theory, basic statistics or the neuroscience of decision-making, for example). But I still hope I have provided enough information to justify asking the following question:
Professor Shapiro, is there any hope that you might be able to cure me of my dichotomous thinking?
Can you summarise the point you’re making here? I’m not really seeing what you’re suggesting. The argument that those who think we should address AGW might make would go something like: “if we continue dumping CO2 into the atmosphere, we could substantially change the climate. The changes could lead to impacts that could be severely negative, for us in particular. Maybe we should be thinking of ways to address this so that the changes are less substantial and the impacts less severe.”
I’ve put lots of “coulds” in the above, but that’s because we can’t be certain as to how much the climate will change, or precisely what the impacts will be. However, this doesn’t stop us from making decisions.
What is your basic argument against the above?
The point, as clearly stated in the first paragraph, is
“to provide some resources on the subject of uncertainty analysis.”
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As usual, ATTP is not afraid to dive in the pool even though he is fully clothed, doesn’t know the depth of the water, and doesn’t even know whether it is actually water he is diving into. The alarmist approach to the climate seems to follow exactly the ridiculous approach I have just characterised.
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Okay, apologies, I thought there might have been some broader point.
Well I can see the point. Thanks to John’s article, I’ve spent a good bit of the morning clicking on the “Look Inside “feature on Amazon for van Deemter’s “Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness” and Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s “The Theory that would not Die.” (This will make me very unpopular at dinner parties – well it would, but luckily I’m not invited to any.)
The point is that you can be quite approximate in what you say, as long as you’re not completely off-topic. Precision is something you can creep up on softly softly, as long as you start with a minimum of interest in the subject. You don’t need a fixed point to move the universe, sometimes a stain on the wallpaper will do. Of course, if you start from the point that you don’t see the point, then you’ve got nothing even fuzzy that might come into focus.
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As one of those castigated for being unable to grasp the basics of reasoning under uncertainty I would like to respond and thank John for this useful summary. In my opinion the uncertainty of the impacts of continued dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere must be weighed against the certainty of the value of continued use of fossil fuels. Were it not for fossil fuels our lives would be brutal and short. See for example the Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (http://www.moralcaseforfossilfuels.com/). In addition, a previous post on this site described another situation where certainty and uncertainty collide in climate policy. Ridley’s Paradox states: “Economic damage from man-made ‘climate change’ is illusory whereas damage from man-made ‘policies’ to fight the said change is real.” https://cliscep.com/2017/10/10/tony-abbott-daring-to-doubt/
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There’s a mention of climate change in relation to the sorites paradox on p12 of van Deemter”s book.
Reading through ths links will take awhile, so please accept a simple “thank you” at this time.
….and on cue ATTP works hard to deceptively avoid the point and divert the conversation.
ATTP’s writing style and point are never uncertain.
Thank you for your response.
As you have already accepted, the main point of the article was simply to share with others (having similar interests) some of the more useful or interesting resources and research papers I have come across over the years. If there is a broader point, it is just to illustrate that the phenomenon of climate scepticism is more nuanced and multi-faceted than the psychologists would have you believe.
You ask: “What is your basic argument against the above?”
I think I recognize the point you make. It is similar to that made in UNESCO’s clarification of the precautionary principle:
“We can only judge the relative probability [between two hypotheses] when we have sufficient evidence to make this determination. When we lack sufficient evidence about both hypotheses, we should suspend our judgement about which hypothesis is true because we are ignorant about that. But we should not suspend our practical judgement, because we still must decide how to act with respect to these possible hypotheses.”
UNESCO proceeds to argue, therefore, that there are circumstances where action can be justified in the absence of a formal risk assessment. I respect that argument but would warn against its implications: Such rationality (in the form of precaution) requires the abandonment of rationality (in the form of risk assessment). It’s a tough call.
I wasn’t really suggesting avoiding some kind of more formal risk assessment. I was simply suggesting that one can consider the available information and decide that there are reasons why we might want to consider trying to avoid (or, minimise the chance of) some outcomes. If we then discover that there are huge risks/costs associated with doing so, we might then decide that it would be better to carry on and hope that these outcomes don’t materialise.
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A belated thank you John. You soon will have a blog containing the best educated contributors in the matter of risk and climate change. Soon to dominate the Nonversation, tomorrow the world!
“It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.”
The Uncertainty Monster is a dwarf named Sleepy or Happy, or, at worst, Grumpy. I can’t see the issue – we’re doomed if we don’t decarbonise, according to the best climate brains at the IPCC. Or am I engaging in extreme binary thinking?
ATTP you don’t seem to grasp the fact that rising CO2 emission is caused by poor people who are escaping poverty. The science fiction spectre of the alarmists is a picture of overcrowded dirty Manchester in 1870, whereas it is more likely to be like clean Singapore in 2018.
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Alan, stop it! You’re fuelling my megalomania. At my age one will do a fist pump following a good poo. If I suspected I was becoming at all fashionable, I would have to go and have a good lie down.
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Sometimes when I read aTTP’s comments I do wonder if so much really divides us. Today he has said:
“I was simply suggesting that one can consider the available information and decide that there are reasons why we might want to consider trying to avoid (or, minimise the chance of) some outcomes. If we then discover that there are huge risks/costs associated with doing so, we might then decide that it would be better to carry on and hope that these outcomes don’t materialise.”
As a statement of basic principle, I find it hard to disagree with that.
Probably the main difference between us, I suspect, is that he thinks the risk of the feared outcomes is greater than I suspect it is; while I suspect that the costs of trying to mitigate the outcomes are too great compared to the risk, and he probably doesn’t. In addition, I doubt our (by which I mean humanity on the planet’s) practical ability to achieve what is often said to be necessary – especially given that the Paris Agreement has built into it (via the free pass to developing countries and the content of their INDCs) a guaranteed substantial increase in GHG emissions over the coming years.
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Mark, that conclusion of yours is the real point. It is unknowable and very uncertain, especially since the efficacy of the CO2 control knob is unknown. The correlation of CO2, captured by various labs, against a sub-optimal global temperature index is at best poor. One goes up while the other goes down or flatlines. It makes Mark Carney’s forward guidance seem good… For non economists, Carney is known as the unreliable boyfriend. A promised interest rate cut or rise never happens. And he gives us guidance to help us make decisions…
My dad went to Case Western back before the internet of all things- slide rules were used by STEM students to do math back then and he went there before the Cuyahoga River caught fire (for the last time). Case was well funded by the Rockefeller foundation, or maybe it was only Standard Oil of Ohio, back in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s.
Things have changed over the last 60 years. The school may not be rated highly in the STEM areas anymore (many of the former fortune 500 companies that called Cleveland home back in 40’s to the 70’s haven’t done to well) so donations may be down. If memory serves me dad presented funding checks to CASE for a chair in chemistry for a few years. The social sciences didn’t get any of his organizations limited funds.
He might of funded work like this- The Fallacy of Placing Confidence in Bayesian Salvation (1)
Great list of references John.
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Actually, there is another point I would wish to emphasise. Within my article I make this point as a personal conjecture, though it is enunciated with greater authority within one of the referenced papers:
“Uncertainty analysis is becoming a fundamental part of ﬂood risk analyses , , . Aleatory (or objective) uncertainty arises from the variability of natural phenomena while epistemic (or subjective) uncertainty results from incomplete knowledge about the system; it can then be reduced by collecting additional data. Whereas probabilistic models can naturally handle aleatory uncertainty, their use for modelling epistemic uncertainty is more debatable. In particular, there exist many situations where the available information is incomplete and not rich enough to allow a full probabilistic analysis. A probabilistic representation is then generally unfaithful as it hides the imprecision pervading the data and the true state of knowledge by making subjective assumptions (the choice of a uniform prior, for instance, in the case of total ignorance). Lately, alternative uncertainty models have been advocated in situations of vagueness and imprecision. One can mention Imprecise Probabilities , Possibility theory , and Dempster-Shafer (DS) theory , . All these well-established theories have proved suitable for modelling uncertainty in diverse types of applications and risk analyses.”
I put it to you, that the IPCC’s heavy reliance upon probabilistic techniques, premised as they are upon the Boolean logic that underpins standard probability theory, betrays a profoundly dichotomous thinking. It is therefore hugely ironic that those of use that suspect such analyses fail to fully capture and propagate uncertainty should be labelled as binary thinkers.
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“…those of us that suspect…”
I do wish I would learn to read back my comments before I post them, rather than immediately afterwards!
As I understand it, some of what is presented by the IPCC does take epistemic uncertainty into account. Also, the use of uniform priors (at least in the context of climate sensitivity) is no longer the norm (if used at all).
“As I understand it, some of what is presented by the IPCC does take epistemic uncertainty into account.”
Well, that is reassuring to hear, although, given the nature of the beast, one might expect there to be so much more. Take, for example, AR5 Chapter 2. On the one hand, one reads that epistemic uncertainty is recognized and captured using techniques such as Weight of Evidence Narratives and Structured Expert Judgment. But on the other, the mathematical instruments then used to propagate the uncertainty seem to be entirely probabilistic (the probability distribution curve is ubiquitous and non-probabilistic methods are notable by their absence). By then applying bog-standard expected utility theory and cost benefit analysis one may be deluding oneself that the uncertainties have been tamed. I suspect they are not. The IPPC strategy seems to be, “if all else fails, apply the precautionary principle, possibly within the framework of Robust Decision Making”. Fine, but you can’t do that and at the same time tell the public that the climate science uncertainties are no longer fundamental.
“Also, the use of uniform priors (at least in the context of climate sensitivity) is no longer the norm (if used at all).”
I couldn’t agree with you more. It would surely be overstating the uncertainties to use uniform priors under such circumstances.
The problem that I can see if that if you want to highlight/promote epistemic uncertainties, then alarmism should become much more acceptable. The changes could be much smaller and have much less impact than we expect, or they could be much larger and have a much greater impact than we expect. My own view is that much of what is presented by the IPCC is probably about right. There is a chance that some of the changes could be outside the ranges presented by the IPCC, but I would expect the probability of this to be small, which is already incorporated into these ranges because none of them are presented as being 100% ranges.
Except, it isn’t the job of scientists to highlight or promote anything. One looks to them to accurately represent. You say that ‘much of what is presented by the IPCC is probably about right’ in this respect. Well, I am certainly not going to blithely dismiss the huge body of work that has been marshalled by the IPCC. Nevertheless. I suspect that I would share your confidence to a greater extent if the IPCC had hitherto done more to recognise the full range of tools available for the analyse of uncertainty.
It is often said that uncertainty is not the sceptic’s friend, since its resolution is likely to expose an even greater environmental threat. On the contrary, uncertainty is nobody’s friend.
Thank you for the fascinating reference. I was intrigued to see that it mentions a certain Rink Hoekstra, to whose research, into the lack of statistics theory proficiency amongst psychologists, I have previously drawn attention on this forum. I have to say, statisticians are not usually the best of bedfellows at the best of times, so it comes as no surprise that, on this occasion, one pulls the sheets back to see a good old-fashioned frequentist vs bayesian bun fight. It’s just amusing to note that the debate seems to be about ‘why we psychologists are so crap at statistics”.
I wasn’t suggesting that it was.
“I wasn’t suggesting that it was”
Good. Then we understand each other then.
While I’m grateful to John for enlightening us as to the difference between aleatory and epistemic uncertainty (unknowable and unknown unknowns?) I wonder if it isn’t taking a hammer to crack one of ATTP’s low hanging nuts.
I liked ATTP’s comment at 25 May 18 at 4:34 pm because in conceding that in certain circumstances “we might.. decide that it would be better to carry on and hope that these outcomes don’t materialise” he seemed to be conceding everything we could ask of a warmist. But when I read it again I realised that ATTP is being a bit binary in suggesting that its a case of either “trying to avoid (or, minimise the chance of) some outcomes” or doing nothing.
If you look at concrete cases, it’s never like that. If London is liable to flooding, you build the Thames barrage, and it makes no difference whether you’re preparing for a once a century or once a decade event. Will the Haitians thank us if we spend trillions reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in order to reduce deadly hurricanes from every five to every fifty years? Wouldn’t it be better to build the hospitals and infrastructure to reduce the fatalities from a weather related disaster from the thousands experienced in Haiti to the dozens experienced in nearby Florida?
Are the IPCC being too Boolean here, or just obtuse?
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Thank you for making the important point in your last comment. If the more extreme and unthinking alarmists, who simply categorise all sceptics as “deniers” were to visit this site and particularly this thread, they might find that far from “denying” climate change, many thoughtful sceptics make important points about the lack of wisdom in much of the mainstream and alarmist position regarding how we should respond to the situation.
Many sceptics accept the claims regarding climate change and humankind’s impact on the planet, while perfectly reasonably considering that many of the proposed responses make little sense, or at least might have the effect of mis-deploying scarce resources. Others accept the point to a degree, while having reservations about the extent of the change that is claimed – e.g. based on doubts about the homogenisation of data and querying whether enough weight is given to adjusting for the UHI effect, etc. Sceptic positions cover a wide range, and most are wrongly impugned by the ignorant types who write at the Conversation and elsewhere, categorising us as binary deniers.
It is extraordinary, in my view, that climate alarmists almost universally support the Paris Agreement and most of the fellow-travellers, who almost certainly haven’t read it or any of the INDCs submitted under its aegis, think it’s a wonderful thing that is essential to dealing with the dangers of global warming. The reality is that the Agreement, as currently drafted, and based on the INDCs, will have the effect of massively increasing GHG emissions. However, on many alarmist websites, and in most of the MSM media, if you point out this obvious truth, you are likely to be dismissed as a denier retard in the pay of big oil.
There is a debate to be had, and it’s disappointing that much of the MSM, political establishment, and academia seem keen to stop it from happening by refusing to acknowledge that sceptics might make more than just the odd good point. The Conversation is a case-in-point, and the irony of its name is profound.
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To be clear, aleatory uncertainty is due to the inherent variability of the system of interest. Epistemic uncertainty arises when information relating to the system is incomplete. It is normal for both to be present. Importantly, however, aleatory uncertainty is irreducible and is therefore objective. Gaps in information will differ according to the individual involved, hence epistemic uncertainty is subjective.
Different techniques are appropriate for the modelling of each type of uncertainty. The problem occurs when the degree of epistemic uncertainty is so great that there is no basis (objective or otherwise) upon which probabilities may be calculated (i.e. one is uncertain how uncertain one is). This is problematic since risk, whilst predicated upon uncertainty, is actually a function of likelihood and impact. Without an understanding of likelihoods one cannot calculate risk. Uncertainties that render the risks unknown are sometimes referred to as ‘Knightian’.
Even worse are situations where the unknowns are unknown. This is a profound epistemic uncertainty sometimes referred to as ontological uncertainty. By definition, these uncertainties are intractable. They are the blight of those problems that are subject to unknowable future changes in requirement (problems referred to as ‘wicked’). Predicting future climatic conditions is a good example of a wicked problem.
Since risk is a function of likelihood and impact, there are (in principle) always two strategies available for its reduction: reduce likelihood (i.e. risk avoidance) or reduce impact (i.e. risk mitigation). Annoyingly, most people refer to ‘risk mitigation’ when all they mean is ‘risk reduction’.
When deciding upon the risk reduction strategy one should always consider ‘risk efficiency’, i.e. how much risk reduction can be achieved for your buck. Sometimes it is better from a risk efficiency perspective to concentrate upon mitigation of impact, e.g. invest in adaptive measures in the face of climate change. People who object to such a strategy usually do so because they posit the impacts to be too severe and irreversible, so instead they advocate application of the precautionary principle. This is often viewed as risk aversion, but in practice it is uncertainty aversion (also known as ambiguity aversion) because one is only supposed to invoke the precautionary principle in situations of Knightian uncertainty.
It is also important to appreciate that risks will often exist within a connective network. In these situations the cost of risk reduction may be to increase another risk. Both positive and negative feedbacks may be possible in such networks. The name of the game is to ensure that the net risk is reduced following any intervention. A risk should never be viewed in isolation.
Another strategy for dealing with risk is ‘risk transference’. Transference can be either intra-generational or inter-generational. It is a strategy replete with ethical issues. But that would be a subject for another day.
Upon reflection I may be slightly misrepresenting ‘risk efficiency’ by describing it purely in terms of value for money in risk reduction. More broadly, it represents the optimisation of risk and the benefits of taking a risk. Risk management is not about removal of risk; it is about seeking such an optimum.
What do you mean by this? Massively increased relative to what?
…AND THEN THERE’S PHYSICS (27 May 18 at 1:33 pm)
Take John’s advice and be a little fuzzy for once. It really doesn’t matter whether emissions are measured relative to the present, future projections, or to what they might have been in some other circumstances (cheap carbon capture and storage? Lord Deben being elected master of the universe?) Paris says emissions are going up. Get over it.
Yes, I realise that emission are going up, but I was interested in Mark explaining what he meant by the Agreement having the effect of massively increasing GHG emissions.
I think it was Einstein who said something like god didn’t need statistics as he could essentially freeze space and time at will. Hence with 100% accuracy he/she/it is able to tell you exactly where that subatomic particle is now (t=0) and since he understood lots of physics and math he could tell his fellow multidimensional associates(1) were it would be in any given future t- all one had to do was ask.
I never took the red pill, lsd?, so like you I have had to struggle with statistics. Long ago I figured it was better for me to ask the experts in numerology for their input before I set up any experiments rather than afterword.
The A. Huxley “The Scientific Dictatorship” referenced in the post reminded me I need to make sure our supply of canned food is up to date. My boss is likely going to check on it soon and she will likely notice that I eat some of the ham hash.
Posit: We cannot know reality by observing one instance or example of a phenomenon so we have to resort to studying multiple samples (i.e., do statistics). In other words, statistics is a crutch. In the perfect world or instance, we would achieve perfect prediction directly from first principles.
Reality: It is the opposite of what’s posited above. *Everything* is statistical (i.e, all phenomena are derived from aggregates only). The instances in nature where things conspire in a way to confer high predictability to the point where we formalise their behaviour into ‘laws’ (of physics, chemistry, etc) are mere accidents. The laws of physics are simply special cases where the way the smaller particles come and act together remain hidden from view.
By the way, only one who hasn’t read the IPCC AR4 WG2 report (among others) could have a high implicit trust in the IPCC.
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Sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve been enjoying the lovely weather – making the most of it after our unusually long and cold winter. 🙂
I read the Paris Agreements with a lawyer’s eye (admittedly I have never practised international law) and noted the complete lack of any meaningful binding obligations contained in them. I then read and analysed (in very modest detail, admittedly, and in some cases based on use of my limited French and Spanish, since in some cases no English translation was offered) the INDCs submitted thereunder, and noted that the vast majority of the submissions pay lip service only to the idea of reducing GHG emissions. They use the sort of buzz words that might appeal to the UN climaterati, while promising next to nothing(except emissions increases), in the majority of cases.
The developing countries have had a free pass built into the system for many years (since the Kyoto summit, I believe). Maybe they SHOULD have a free pass – after all, why should the developed countries emit a lot of GHGs while undergoing their own industrial revolutions, then deny the same benefits to those with less developed economies? But if the developing economies (and they include, as defined by the agreements, China and India) are to have a free pass, then there’s nothing the developed world can do to reduce, or even control the rate of increase, of GHG emissions globally.
The developing countries’ INDCs almost all posit massive increases in their GHG emissions to 2030 (the end date required to be covered under the agreements). Some offer tiny reductions against a “business-as-usual” scenario, on an unconditional basis, and say they’ll try to make bigger reductions (against that scenario) on a conditional basis – i.e. on receipt of massive funds from the developed countries. They don’t actually “promise” anything, and even if they receive the funds (which they won’t) there is no binding obligation on them to produce the “reductions” they’re offering. And those “reductions” are against a scenario of massively rising emissions, and still amount, in the vast majority of cases, to significant increases from the start date of the INDCs.
Even developed countries, having offered to reduce emissions, are in fact increasing them currently – the likes of Germany and Norway being star examples. If they increase their emissions, rather than achieve the promised reductions, there will be no sanction, The agreement contains no legally binding obligation. But you know all this. And yet, despite that, I’ve not noticed you offer any meaningful criticism of the failure that the Paris Agreement represents. (Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong – if you HAVE criticised it, then our positions in the discussion will be inching ever closer). I do not understand how people who claim to be concerned about the potentially awful consequences of rising GHG emissions can support the Paris Agreement, based on the above, and yet most of the “climate-concerned” DO support it.
As you probably know, I opened a discussion thread about the Paris Agreement on the Bishop Hill website almost a year ago:
It offers my views on the Agreements and the individual INDCs in rather more detail than is appropriate here. Having worked through them all, the only conclusion I could arrive at was that GHG emissions are set massively to increase.
Now I assume that your question is based rather more on semantics. I said that the Paris Agreement is causing this massive increase. And I will acknowledge that the Paris Agreement is not of itself causing the emissions to rise (they would rise anyway if nothing was done). So, yes, fair question on your part, and indeed a fair criticism of my incautious use of words. But the bottom line is that the Paris Agreement does nothing to deal with that massive increase, and yet it is paraded by the “climate-concerned” as though it does. And, arguably, it is responsible for creating a mindset in the international community along the lines that it’s all the fault of the developed world, and the developing world (which includes China and India, as defined) needn’t bother doing anything except ask for lots (and I mean, lots) of money.
If the Paris Agreement was going to achieve anything, it should, in my opinion, have included, as well as binding obligations (which it completely lacks) an ability on the part of the UNFCCC to reject INDCs which are unacceptable. Read Iran’s INDC if you want to have a laugh. But it doesn’t, and if it wasn’t so serious (given how much this farce of a process is costing), it would be funny to see INDC after INDC submitted to the UN, containing lots of buzz words, claiming to be from yet another country that is among the most-affected by climate change, asking for lots of money, and then seriously and solemnly committing significantly to increase said country’s GHG emissions.
So, I take your implied criticism on the chin, and accept it graciously. I should have chosen my words more carefully. But the basic criticism of the Paris Agreement holds good. Where is the debate in academia, MSM, and among our political class about the failure that Paris represents? And when sceptics raise the subject, much of the climate-concerned world denigrates us as deniers equivalent to flat-earthers for daring to do so. It’s that lack of intelligent engagement that constitutes a significant obstacle to any meaningful discussion – and, at the risk of repeating myself – there is a meaningful discussion to be had.
So, aTTP, and others, thank you for your intelligent engagement on this thread.
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Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses
To make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world. The process of doing so means that much of what is known about the world needs to be excluded from those versions, and in particular that knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is ‘uncomfortable knowledge’. The paper describes four implicit strategies which institutions use to keep uncomfortable knowledge at bay: denial, dismissal, diversion and displacement. It concludes by suggesting that ‘clumsy’ arrangements may need to be constructed to ensure that uncomfortable knowledge is not excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’ where the accepted version excludes knowledge that is crucial for making sense of and addressing the problem.
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Thank you for your contribution.
Steve Rayner’s conception of ‘unknown knowns’ does not work for me as an extension of the classification of uncertainty (as a term it is simply an oxymoron, and as a concept it has no mathematical basis). It doesn’t even appear to represent a single phenomenon, since he applies it to situations of unconscious competence as well as consciously manipulated ignorance.
However, Rayner makes a good point by drawing attention to the various forms of wilful ignorance that are often (perforce?) employed when tackling wicked problems. For example, one cannot fail to be impressed by the contrast existing between the vagaries that feed into the IPCC and the simplistic certitude that it somehow manages to construct. In the IPCC’s defence, one should recognise that too much information can obscure the central issues and so the simplistic summary is not necessarily to be distrusted. However, one does suspect that ‘inconvenient truths’ can often be judiciously pruned when striving to convert a wicked problem into, what Rayner refers to as, a ‘clumsy solution’.
Ironically, in this instance one of the ‘knowns’ that becomes ‘unknown’ is that fact that not enough is known. The other is that the chosen solution could not possibly work.
Thanks, I think we broadly agree. The Paris agreement will probably achieve little. My own view is that reaching that level of agreement is itself impressive (in some sense) but that it will probably not achieve very much in terms of actually reducing emissions. My question wasn’t intended as a criticism.
“But the bottom line is that the Paris Agreement does nothing to deal with that massive increase, and yet it is paraded by the “climate-concerned” as though it does. And, arguably, it is responsible for creating a mindset in the international community along the lines that it’s all the fault of the developed world, and the developing world (which includes China and India, as defined) needn’t bother doing anything except ask for lots (and I mean, lots) of money.”
My previous citation to Steve Rayner’s paper was in reply to this point. That the Paris Agreement does nothing is ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ at the moment. Everyone knows it but dances around it, pretending as though it were not so.
The more insidious effect of the agreement is something I’ve tried pointing out in my blog several times. Paris produces a cognitive shift. It makes you go ‘but it doesn’t do anything’ as though we all expect and want it to do something, as though we want something done. In reality Paris is harmful to both developed and developing countries alike, though for slightly differing reasons.
The central paradox of the climateer’s objective has not gone anywhere since the day their movement started: poor countries are not going to take a hit, nor are rich countries going to take a dive, in order to save the climate. It is indeed a testament to the capacity of human bureaucratic obfuscation that so many countries can come together in an ‘agreement’ without fundamentally resolving the paradox.
I found a second interesting article Citing Rayner’s paper: The Anti-Politics of Climate Finance: The Creation and Performativity of the Green Climate Fund by one Sarah Bracking of the University of Manchester. Written with a sympathetic eye toward the ‘global left,’ no doubt, the paper nevertheless makes several observations pertinent to why we have a reached a situation where there is a Paris agreement that is utterly useless (for its self-stated purpose) but yet thrown about as though it were something valuable and worthy. She characterizes moves made by actors as though toward a target when underlying everything is a true impasse: ‘anti-politics.’
For all of you who have expressed their gratitude for the links provide, I would just like to point out that it was a pleasure.
There is in fact an active research area of “Uncertainty Quantification”, or UQ for short.
A six-month research programme at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences is working on this topic.
“In areas as diverse as climate modelling, manufacturing, energy, life sciences, finance, geosciences and medicine, mathematical models and their discretisations into computer models are routinely used to inform decisions, assess risk and formulate policies. How accurate are the predictions made using such models? This crucial question lies at the heart of uncertainty quantification (UQ).”
Paul, that’s a good link that you provide.
To be fair to the IPCC, they make a half-hearted stab at the subject in AR5, Chapter 2, when they mention (and I do mean, just mention) Quantitative Uncertainty Analysis (QNUA). There is no effort to properly expand upon it or explain how, in practice, it has underpinned the proclamations made in the IPCC’s executive summaries. All we get is a reference to a paper that discusses “the prospects” for its application and a very old quotation taken from the US NRC outlining the issue at stake:
“The simplest quantitative measure of variability in a parameter or a measurable quantity is given by an assessed range of the values the parameter or quantity can take. This measure may be adequate
for certain purposes (e. g., as input to a sensitivity analysis), but in general it is not a complete representation of the analyst’s knowledge or state of confidence and generally will lead to an unrealistic
range of results if such measures are propagated through an analysis”.
For the avoidance of doubt, may I make it clear that I seek to damn the IPCC with faint praise.
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Not knowing anything about the neuroscience of climate change scepticism, I decided to research the subject by putting the following into my search engine:
“The neuroscience of climate scepticism”
Unfortunately, rather than finding a set of erudite papers on brain chemistry and neural networks, all I got was the usual, half-baked dissertations on the supposed cognitive biases in which we ‘deniers’ indulge.
That is, until I came to the tenth article listed. Here I encountered a rather intriguing paper entitled:
“A Cry for Help: Uncertainty, Risk and Decisions”
It’s a poor show when the best expert on something you know nothing about turns out to be yourself.
Funnily enough, when I changed “climate scepticism” to “climate change denial”, I was nowhere to be seen!
Congratulations John on being TENTH !! But isn’t it hubris to rank your contribution as BEST? Before you get too high and mighty, remember you may be eligible to skeptisize but have yet to reach the high peaks of true denial.
If I continue to contribute to this forum you will get to learn that ‘hubris’ is my middle name.
On this occasion I managed to elevate my article to ‘best’ by dint of disqualifying the preceding nine. This is because they all promised to say something about neuroscience but then didn’t!
I, on the other hand, had made it onto the list because my article went out of its way to point out that it said nothing about neuroscience.
But it could have done 🙂
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We now await an article on the jurisprudence of climate change… There is a hefty literature published by OUP on the topic. Lawyers against CO2… I am thinking of writing the Matador’s Guide to Climate Change. Any advances? Chapters on the changing consistency of sand, altered muscle ratios in fighting bulls, changes to grass calorific values, changing densities of shady oak trees… Is this a flyer?
¿Cómo es su español