The IPCC on Risk, Part 2: Framing the Framework

In part 1 of this series of articles I argued that the recent preoccupation with extreme weather events owed more to the IPCC’s desire to create a perception of risk that was amenable to implementation of its climate change policies than it did to any enabling developments in causal analysis or cognitive science. In this article I will develop that idea by looking more carefully at what the IPCC deems to be the first element of its ‘risk management framework’ (as described in section 2.3 of AR5, Chapter 2). It is an element in which the IPCC lays out the pertinent areas for policy choices, identifies the various levels of decision making that have to operate within those areas, and categorises the uncertainties that will influence such decision making.

As a portrayal of the landscape within which decisions are taken, there is little in section 2.3 with which to take issue. However, it has to be remembered that the IPCC had said in its introduction for AR5, Chapter 2 that ‘The choice of climate policies can thus be viewed as an exercise in risk management’. Of course, the risk to which the IPCC refers is that of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, and the policy choices to be taken are all deemed to be necessary for the management of that risk. If groups, organisations or individuals fail to take decisions that reduce that risk then they are deemed to be incorrect decisions born of a failure to understand. The reality, however, is that the decision making will always take place within the context of the agenda of the decision taker, and this will invariably cover more than a desire to tackle climate change. This complicates the landscape and creates situations in which risks are second-guessed, transferred, translated and set in competition with each other. If the management of a supposedly overarching risk is to take precedence then the landscape requires simplification, and what better way to simplify this than through the declaration of an emergency.

Outlining the Landscape

In brief, according to the IPCC, when dealing with climate change risk there are five relevant categories of policy choice:

  • Long-term targets
  • The transition pathway
  • Policy instruments to be used
  • Resource allocation
  • Lifestyle and behaviour

Set against this backdrop there are decisions to be made relating to, and in accordance with, policy. To a greater or lesser extent (depending upon policy area) these decisions will be taken at five different levels:

  • International
  • National government
  • Local or regional government or interest group
  • Industry or firm
  • Household or individual

When taking such decisions the decision maker will be confronted to a greater or lesser extent by one of five sources of uncertainty:

  • Climate response and associated impacts
  • Stocks and flows of carbon and CHGs
  • Technological development
  • Market behaviour and regulatory actions
  • Individual and firm perceptions

How these areas of uncertainty impinge upon the various areas of policy choice and level of decision making is illustrated in section 2.3, Figure 2.2, Taxonomy of levels of decision making and climate policy choices.

The Focusing Effect

As a framework in which to discuss the issues arising, the above is probably as good as any other. There is nothing in the IPCC’s taxonomy, as far as I can see, that would have the effect of skewing the debate. What does skew the debate, however, is a treatment of risk management that focuses purely upon the management of risk from a single perspective, i.e. the IPCC’s perspective in trying to tackle the risks associated with anthropogenic global warming. Much is said in AR5 Chapter 2 regarding cognitive bias (more on that in the next article) but the one bias that it doesn’t highlight is the so-called focusing effect, in which utility-based decisions are taken from the perspective of a single factor of interest. This is ironic given that the document is guilty of that bias. As a consequence of this focus, the uncertainties confronting decision makers are considered important by the IPCC only insofar as they may impede the taking of ‘correct’ decisions, i.e. the implementation of options that are aligned with the objectives that lie behind climate change policies. As the IPCC puts it when introducing their five important categories of uncertainty:

“Choices are sensitive to the degree of uncertainty with respect to a set of parameters that are often of specific importance to particular climate policy decisions.”  

This focus on uncertainty as being relevant only to the establishment and implementation of climate policy is underlined by the three examples provided by the document:

  • Designing a regional emissions trading system
  • Supporting scientific research into solar radiation management
  • Renting an apartment in the city versus buying a house in the suburbs

The last-mentioned example is of particular interest since it acknowledges the existence of non-climate-related factors in the making of a decision, whilst at the same time indicating how the decision making can be manipulated:

“When families and households face this choice, it is likely to be driven by factors other than climate change concerns. The decision, however, can have major consequences on CO2 emissions as well as on the impacts of climate change on future disasters such as damage from flooding due to sea level rise. Hence, governments may seek to influence these decisions as part of their portfolio of climate change policies through measures such as land-use regulations or the pricing of local transportation options.”  

The truth is that tackling climate change involves the taking of risk, and each party involved in making decisions will do so in accordance with their own risk profile. There is no reason to assume that, once all risks have been considered, the risk-optimal decision will be the one that minimises climate change risk, and this applies at all levels of the decision-taking scale.

That’s not to say that the IPCC fails to recognise that its risk management comes with a cost. As section 2.3 states:

“The policy options are likely to be evaluated with a set of criteria that include economic impacts and costs, equity and distributional considerations, sustainable development, risks to individuals and society and co-benefits. Many of these issues are discussed in Chapters 3 and 4.”  

Be that as it may, all such issues should be encapsulated in a unified risk management framework and it should not be taken for granted that, from a societal perspective, the optimal risk-taking decision is the one that minimises the risks that concern the IPCC. And this is not just about a cost benefits analysis.

Of course, a broader perspective on risk should lead to a debate in which all risks and perceptions are taken into account, but the IPCC is not interested in such debates. As far as it is concerned, climate change risk is the only existential risk and so it is the fundamental risk that requires management. Perception of that risk is all that matters – the rest is just about incurring cost. Broader risk profiles are only considered relevant insofar as they can cause individuals to take ‘incorrect’ decisions.

One can readily see that, for the IPCC’s purposes, a solution to this dilemma would be to align the risk profiles of the various stakeholders so that the decisions they might take in their own best interests also happen to be the decisions that suit the IPCC. That being the case, the primary tools in the climate change activist’s arsenal would be the manipulation of risk perception, together with the contrivance of stakeholder risk profiles such that their set of risk management options is judiciously narrowed. A focus upon extreme weather events as a justification for declaring a climate emergency should be seen in this light.

Introducing the Psychological Angle

One might expect that an organisation that has latterly seen a value in understanding and manipulating risk perception would start to see the decision-making process in psychological terms. It is therefore not in the least bit surprising that AR5, Chapter 2 wastes little time in getting to that point. As stated in section 2.3:

“…compared to AR4, where judgment and choice were primarily framed in rational-economic terms, this chapter reviews the psychological and behavioural literature on perceptions and responses to risk and uncertainty.”  

Indeed it does; it is the subject matter of the second element of its risk management framework and is covered in section 2.4 of Chapter 2. So it is to that section that I turn my attention in the next article in this series. It is when one sees what the IPCC has to say about ‘the literature on perceptions and responses to risk and uncertainty’ that the new and important role of weather event attribution becomes obvious.

18 thoughts on “The IPCC on Risk, Part 2: Framing the Framework

  1. John. Interesting that you use the word “decision taker” rather than “decision maker”. This seems appropriate given your introduction that points out that all decisions under discussion are within a framework that presupposes CACC and need to be taken as an avoidance strategy. A decision maker is free to ignore a framework or modify it, whereas a decision taker cannot ignore the framework within which the decision is placed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This paragraph was particularly interesting to me, in the context of an individual family choosing where to live:

    “When families and households face this choice, it is likely to be driven by factors other than climate change concerns. The decision, however, can have major consequences on CO2 emissions as well as on the impacts of climate change on future disasters such as damage from flooding due to sea level rise. Hence, governments may seek to influence these decisions as part of their portfolio of climate change policies through measures such as land-use regulations or the pricing of local transportation options.”

    The claim that families’ and households’ decisions on where to live “can have major consequences on CO2 emissions as well as on the impacts of climate change on future disasters such as damage from flooding due to sea level rise” contrasts spectacularly with Michael Mann apparently get upset in his recent book about people criticising noble climate scientists for regularly flying around the world, because emissions from aircraft account for “only” 3% of all GHG emissions.


  3. Alan,

    Shortly before you posted your comment, my wife had asked me if I wanted cauliflower cheese with my fish tonight or whether I would prefer a tomato and chorizo sauce. As a decision taker I chose cauliflower cheese. As a decision maker my answer would have been fish and chips. Of course, my wife was engaging in what the IPCC call ‘choice architecture’. It’s a major element in their climate policy strategy, and something that is very evident in AR5 chapter 2.

    I have to admit that I hadn’t intended anyone to pick up on the nuance of terminology, but I am pleased that you had. It suggests that my message is not too obscure. On reflection, I should have been saying ‘decision taker’ throughout, but ‘decision maker’ is the term used in AR5 and so that is what I adopted. Just goes to show how subtle the brainwashing can be.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mark,

    I suppose that’s one of the beauties of choice architecture. The architect doesn’t need to live in the hovel they design for others.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The WordPress viewing statistics for this article have confirmed what I very much feared: The vast majority of Cliscep readers are not terribly interested in what the IPCC has to say. I did promise that this would be a series of articles on the subject and, if only for the benefit of the very small number who remain interested, I will fulfil that promise, otherwise I really shouldn’t be bothered.


  6. @ John, I only just had the chance to read part 2 so you can add 1 to the tally. It’s certainly interesting and there’s no reason why the series should not serve as a reference in the future. However, it is “uncategorized” and on my screen of the cliscep homepage, I can’t see or click on categories anyway. The ability to cross reference posts would be useful (filter by multiple tags), because while some don’t stand the test of time (topical posts), others assuredly do or should do. It would be useful if posts could be resurrected by new interested visitors from the front page.

    (As a frequent visitor and one who enjoys the relative absence of information-free commentary on cliscep, there are yet things that I would change were I the architect.)

    The way you have outlined your objections to the IPCC’s stance, albeit not stating them too baldly, makes it possible for a casual reader who is never going to wade into WG3 to actually bring into focus what is hidden behind the verbiage. So please continue. I am finding what your reports are uncovering increasingly sinister…………

    The grain of decision making has relevance to the shenanigans of XR and co. For me such things should be left to the individual. For them, a few individuals can force a national government to make decisions for all their citizens. (My strong belief is that people should be left alone unless they are causing measurable harm to others, to themselves, to animals or the shared environment. Since the effect of one person on climate (see final point below) is too small to measure, they should leave us the hell alone. Indeed I would be surprised if on average climate sceptics have a larger environmental footprint than alarmists.)

    @ Mark I was also struck by that passage, because it is factually wrong. The choices of an individual have no effect on anything climate related. To say even a million individuals might have an effect would be pushing it.


  7. John. I tend to read multiple times and at various times of the day written material that I know I haven’t fully appreciated and/or understood. Your latest opus is no exception. And I reread comments and responses. That is why I’m bringing up again your Feb 19: 11.46am which has as its last sentence: “Just goes to show how subtle the brainwashing can be.” This I belatedly realise is ambiguous as to who has been brainwashed. Are you implying that the authors have written in a state of brainwashment, or it is the intent of the authors to cause this condition in the reader, or perhaps both? Logically, since they are writing for specialists and not those starting from scratch to understand the subject, then apart from the unusual person like yourself, they are preaching to the already converted (= already brainwashed) so what’s the point, other than to fully document the brainwashing done by others?

    I do hope that somewhere you will introduce us to those who have constructed this confection. Chefs of their calibre need recognition and suitable praise.


  8. John, I’m very much interested in what the IPCC has to say, but to my shame I haven’t yet put aside the team to read it all. The service you provide is a valuable one, since you have saved me a lot of time, and have zoomed in on some of the absurdities most obvious to someone with your skill-set (just as one of my past-times as a lawyer is zooming in on the absurdities of the Paris Agreement, which I have taken the trouble to read in its entirety, along with the various NDCs submitted under it).

    I agree with JIT that your work is a useful reference point, and it would be good if the cliscep website allowed easy cross-referencing and allowed visitors the ability to search at a glance for articles on different topics – Paul Homewood’s website might offer a useful example of the way this could be done.

    Please keep up the good work.


  9. Alan,

    I was referring to the extent to which even someone such as I (someone who is deliberatively looking for signs of brainwashing) can still be lulled into accepting language that has the seeds of it. I don’t think the authors themselves are brainwashed — they know exactly what they are doing — but there is a certain degree of bias blind spot, in which they can readily identify cognitive bias in the thinking of others but not in themselves.


    Thank you for the words of encouragement. I do feel, however, that I am indulging in what for many is a niche subject, and the tumbleweed is becoming a distraction 🙂



    The WordPress viewing statistics for this article have confirmed what I very much feared: The vast majority of Cliscep readers are not terribly interested in what the IPCC has to say.


    Patience John. IPCC AR5 WG3 chap2 is 50 pages long. We’re gathering our thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Geoff, the top 10 posts ordered by number of viewings in the last 90 days have very little to do with the IPCC, climate change or climate change science; most are observations on social issues, psychology, posts about Covid or the presidential election, with the odd nod in the direction of climate policy or framing. Makes me wonder what Cliscep’s readers are really looking for. Maybe the situation will change when (if) we get out of this never ending Covid dystopia and the focus moves firmly back to the government attempting to convince us all that Thermageddon is nigh (you only have to look out the window) and we must therefore abandon our cars and our gas boilers as a matter of (international) urgency.


  12. JAIME
    [Off topic but important]

    I just wanted to assuage John’s disappointment. It takes longer to gather one’s thoughts on an important and complex series of posts like John’s than to fire off a burst of shock horror about Lew, Ferguson, Trump etc. What Cliscep readers are looking for is one consideration, but one which sometimes must take a back seat. According to our stats everyday people come to Cliscep looking for articles on Jordan Peterson. One day I’ll satisfy their curiosity. But not now.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. John. Patience mon brave. I have probably thought longer, harder and used Google’s dictionary more frequently than I have in a long time reading and considering your latest series. It’s possibly not the number of people viewing your work that is important, but the degree of thought you cause that is the important factor. You have to recognise that the range of subjects you have written upon, from the highly technical, through humour to the just outright interesting, is greatly appreciated.

    So this current series is not attracting as much interest as you had hoped or you thought it should have. And you wonder if you were wise to expend so much time and effort writing it. But think, when you first began considering writing it, did you think it would be worthwhile organising and writing your thoughts down? Of course you did. Because there have been fewer people than you would have liked reading your words, does this diminish your efforts? Again, of course not. There must be few, if any, other people who have your experience and interest in investigating the not-so-hidden biases of IPCC. If you hadn’t done it, probably no one else would have done it. Was it worth putting into print your conclusions? Of course it was. Chin up mon brave.


  14. Thanks for the words of encouragement but now I feel as though I came across as that needy guy who is always fishing for compliments. That really wasn’t my intention. I had actually anticipated low viewing figures that would basically peter out to nothing by the time I reached the final instalment. Notwithstanding, I went ahead and published work that I believed in and felt had merit. That said, I now fear I am coming across as that conceited guy who thinks his work is somehow important. And before you come back at me with ‘Oh John, but it is’, please remember I spent 10 years as a quality manager writing documents that nobody ever read and so were important to no one but myself. You’ll be surprised how good I became at pleasuring myself.

    There are not many who have provided any feedback so far, but those who have are people whose opinions I have learnt to respect. And I’m happy with that.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. JOHN
    It matters not a jot how you come across. What makes these articles important is that they are written by someone who has ploughed through an entire chapter of IPCC AR5 and extracted the sense of it. Very few people can say as much.

    My only criticism is that in dividing them into four you risk getting a scattered response. I suggest we address our considered responses to the fourth and last one.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Geoff,

    I accept your criticism regarding the serialisation. However, I was also concerned that a single 10,000 word article would be a major turn-off. This way, people can read only one part of it and still get something from it. I tried to write something that worked as a whole but also could be cherry picked.

    There are actually 5 parts to my opus, I’ll try and get the final movement published later today so that it is all done with. Perhaps then, as you say, would be the time to pass comment.


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