2011-04-21 02:03:48Flipping uncertainty on it's head


As SkS gets more involved with policy and ethics in the climate debate, the community is likely to have to take on more complex issues from more refined arguments.  The shift from "it's a hoax!" to "it's uncertain" is pretty significant scientifically, but policy-wise, makes little difference.  It's just formed another camp where policy becomes softened and is only indirectly "supposed" to work towards emissions targets.  For reasonable risk analysis and precautionary types, these steps are either non-starters or meaningless.  But can the concerned use that tool that the skeptics have used, not only in climate science, but all policy arguments?  Can uncertainty get flipped and used, IMO, appropriately to convince those people who are shifting from "it's uncertain so we can't do anything" to "it's uncertain so we better do something"?  Use their last failing argument against them?

Micheal Tobis wrote a good blog post about it, concluding:

If, by some chance, you wanted to make a coherent skeptical case you would need to argue

  1. climate is well understood
  2. greenhouse gases matter very little on Earth for some reason
  3. the recent warming is well understood and attributable to other forces, including in the vertical and horizontal distributions which match climate model predictions

I haven’t seen any serious effort to do that.

Alternatively there is this simpler goal. Demonstrate that it is possible to construct a climate model of comparable or better quality to what we have that has dramatically lower greenhouse gas sensitivity. Computers are cheap these days and decent compilers are free. Go to it.

Delusionists take neither of these paths. Instead, their arguments are almost invariably specious. There is only one way to understand this that I can see, and it has two simple parts. 1) They are wrong and 2) they don't seriously care whether they are wrong or not. The second part is very disturbing, though. It's hard to understand people taking such risks with the future consciously.

At best they have convinced themselves of their nonsense. It's worth thinking about how that is possible.

I also commented on the Muller #4 thread:

The uncertainty argument gets flipped on it's head, and in this instance especially. It is our uncertainty surrounding sensitivity and aerosols and UHI (which, I believe he is looking at differently than others) that make the statement about 'having time' so wrongheaded. His study is merely another thermometer, has no attribution modeling, AFAIK, and doesn't really speak to how each degree of temperature rise changes the planet, or each W/m2 of forcing changes the energy that drives the atmospheric systems or how heat effects the hydrological cycle, etc. Those are the realities that we will be dealing with, not numbers on a stick. Our policy time table will be set by real-life effects because policy is about real people, what we value, and how willing we are to put what we value at risk.


There are lots of ways to attack this problem, but the risk is that we make climate science look like a juvenile science that is too uncertain, of course, which reasonable also know is not true.

Just wondering what people thought of that line of reasoning.

2011-04-21 03:03:37yes
Dana Nuccitelli

Yes, I think I've made this point in a post or two.  Uncertainty is not our friend because it's just as likely to be worse than we think as better.  It's why these uncertainty inflators like Curry and Muller don't really help the "skeptic" case.  The more uncertainty there is, the less we can rule out the really bad scenarios.  For example, Curry has said climate sensitivity could be anywhere between 0 and 10°C for 2xCO2.  Well, if it's anywhere near 10°C, we're completely f*cked.  It's only if you can say with certainty that it's low that you can really argue for taking no action, if you're a halfway competent risk assessor/manager.  Of course, "skeptics" tend to know jack squat about risk management.

2011-04-21 07:36:13Uncertainty rebuttal
John Cook

We have a myth "there's too much uncertainty" which could probably be refined to something like "we need to reduce uncertainty before acting". Would be good to write a definitive rebuttal to this. And a Basic Rebuttal with a clear, short metaphor useful for converdation (and interviews). Eg - something the average person understands - "we always make our children put on a seat belt even though the risk of an accident is so small - why are we so cavalier with the world we're handing over to our children?"
2011-04-21 07:56:22analogy
Dana Nuccitelli

I used a similar analogy in Prudent Risk:

"Consider the following analogy: you're driving your car, and you start to feel that the brakes aren't working quite properly.  Most people would agree that the prudent path involves spending a modest amount of money to take the car to a mechanic, because if the brakes go out, it presents a potentially catastrophic scenario.  This sort of preventative action is good risk management.

In this case we're dealing with the global climate, on which every living thing on the planet relies, and we're facing a disaster in the most likely scenario if we continue on the business-as-usual path which the "skeptics" tell us is "prudent".  The "skeptics" would have us continue driving the car in the blind hope that the brakes will never give out.  After all, we haven't gotten into a wreck so far, so continuing to drive with faulty brakes must be safe!"