If the climate science community wants their research to be policy-relevant (and under the circumstances this seems pretty important) then they urgently need to change its framing and focus. The current arguments being made by the climate science community, I believe, suffer from three problems of miscommunication or misperception.
When scientists talk about climate science they often speak as if it’s a homogenous research activity. There are different types of climate research that are often discussed under the brand of climate science and that can be pursued with more or less independence from each other. As I explain here, this matters because some research questions are more important to policymakers than others. For simplicity, let’s just distinguish between three types of climate research.
The first type involves the development of increasingly sophisticated projections of future climate change at increasingly higher resolutions. Ideally this type of science would allow us to make decision-relevant predictions about how the climate is likely to change at a variety of scales.
A second and interconnected type involves improving our understanding of existing climate dynamics at regional and local scales and interpreting model outputs to understand potential future climate impacts.
The third type of research seeks to understand the vulnerabilities and enhance the resilience of communities, eco-systems, infrastructure and economies to climate extremes and climate change. In many cases this research does not require the most cutting edge climate science to produce useful policy knowledge. What it does need as a matter of urgency however is the expertise of many other environmental scientists, geographers, urban planners, engineers and social-scientists.
I propose that by far the most important research agenda at this point in time is the last of these research questions, because it can incorporate and justify the other two while focusing on the ultimate goal. Yet, judging from last week’s reaction, climate change experts continue to portray these activities in ways that are neither helpful nor politically astute.
Climate change modelling will probably never be able to sufficiently reduce uncertainties to justify totally optimal preemptive adaptation.
Over ten years ago climate scientist Stephen Schneider warned that we should be careful about relying upon models for climate prediction because they cannot fully account for the abrupt changes possible in the Earth’s climate systems. For much of the noughties, the climate science community made encouraging noises about innovations in probability-based forecasting of future climate change. Even so, in 2009 when the UK’s Climate Impacts Programme released their state-of-the-art projections (UKCP09), they loudly and repeatedly warned users that they should not be used as a means of predicting future outcomes (as an aside, these outputs have also been very problematic for many potential users). UKCIP warned these projections should only be used to understand a range of potential future climates. More recently, a team of mathematicians from the London School of Economics and Oxford University has provided eloquent reasoning for why this is so, no matter how good the models seem, especially at regional and local scales. Climate projections are not predictions; they should not be used to design adaptation solutions specifically tailored to them. Yet, climate scientists in the last week make it sound like scientific advances are once again just around the corner that will allow us to make these types of decisions. This approach to adaptation planning and infrastructure provision would be seriously unwise and based on mathematically faulty premises. What we can do and what is also politically attainable, is to develop adaptation solutions that are robust to a range of potential outcomes and in ways that are beneficial both now and in the future because they enhance the resilience of communities and the environment. These decisions should incorporate, but do not wholly depend upon, increasingly sophisticated climate change modeling.
What is useful or interesting knowledge for scientists is not necessarily useful information for policymakers.
When climate scientists consider the threats of say, flooding or drought, they’re primarily concerned with understanding how those hazards will change in the future; their likelihood, frequency, severity, location and other characteristics. However, a policymaker doesn’t necessarily care about any of these problem characteristics. The political reality is that policymakers are unlikely to make pre-emptive adaptation decisions based upon specific projections of how the climate may change. Policymakers may not have the technical skills of climate scientists, but they intuitively understand that no one can predict the future. However, with a favourable political wind, they will consider evidence describing how the electorate is vulnerable and how they can become more resilient to both existing and future climates. The key for the policymaker is to avoid putting all his eggs in one basket by, say, investing in supposedly optimal adaptation measures on the basis of politically precarious climate change evidence. He certainly avoids getting egg on his face by investing in solutions that may not actually be needed. The key here for scientists, therefore, is how to frame and focus their research accordingly.
The climate science community is playing a political game, whether they know it or not. If they want to participate on the same terms as political decision-makers they need to learn the language of their paymasters. I propose that this requires changing their focus and language from talking about climate science, a politically divisive catch-all that describes a diverse research agenda, to adaptation science, a framing that plays to government’s rhetoric about applied research and innovation. I believe refocusing their efforts in this way will help to maintain the relevance of climate research for government and industry.