The IPCC on Risk, Part 1: New Developments?

There can be no doubt that those who consider anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to be a problem worthy of the epithet ‘emergency’ have increasingly invoked extreme weather events in support of that view. It is not my intention here to argue whether or not such events confirm the critical level of risk posited for AGW. Instead, I wish to place such arguments within the context provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its observations regarding the perception of risk. In particular, I wish to remind the reader of what was said in Chapter 2 of the IPCC’s Assessment Report 5 (AR5): Integrated Risk and Uncertainty Assessment of Climate Change Response Policies. I shall argue that, whilst developments in causal analysis have undoubtedly enabled a more scientific assessment of the significance of extreme weather events, it was the IPCC’s declared desire to manage perceptions of risk that provided the prime motivation for the recent emphasis on weather event attribution.

Since I wish to undertake a reasonably thorough analysis of a substantial document, this article will be the first of a series that maps broadly onto the section headings of AR5, Chapter 2. In this first of the series, I will be commenting upon the chapter’s executive summary and introduction. In subsequent articles I will elaborate upon my proposition by covering each of the document’s various detailed sections; namely:

2.3: Risk and uncertainty in climate change

2.4: Risk perception and responses to risk and uncertainty

2.5: Tools and decision aids for analysing uncertainty and risk

2.6: Managing uncertainty, risk and learning

You will note that I will not be covering section 2.2 (Metrics of uncertainty and risk). This is because I have previously dealt with its shortcomings in a previous article (The Confidence of Living in the Matrix).

What the IPCC Wants Executives to Know

The first indication of the IPCC’s strategy for persuasion is provided in the opening paragraph of the executive summary for AR5, Chapter 2:

“The scientific understanding of climate change and the impact it has on different levels of decision-making and policy options has increased since the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). In addition, there is a growing recognition that decision makers often rely on intuitive thinking processes rather than undertaking a systematic analysis of options in a deliberative fashion. It is appropriate that climate change risk management strategies take into account both forms of thinking when considering policy choices where there is risk and uncertainty.”  

The odd thing about the above statement is that the ‘growing recognition that decision makers often rely on intuitive thinking processes’ had already entered the mainstream of decision theory well before the publication of AR4. Therefore, it seems strange that the authors should be claiming new developments in the psychology of decision-making as the reason why they should now be so preoccupied with the relevance of intuitive thinking processes (having previously shown no such preoccupation). What we are seeing here, therefore, is a storyline that covers up the reality. The more plausible explanation for AR5’s new focus is that the IPCC had come to realise that its previous efforts of persuasion had not been sufficiently effective, largely due to a failure to fully recognise how decision-making takes place in practice, and it had therefore failed to exploit the already well recognised methods by which risk perception can be manipulated. As coyly explained in the next paragraph:

“By understanding the systematic biases that individuals utilize in dealing with climate change problems, one can more effectively communicate the nature of the climate change risk. An understanding of the simplified decision rules employed by decision makers in making choices may be helpful in designing policies that encourage the adoption of mitigation and adaptation measures.”  

This is an explicit declaration of the intent to use insights into how people think in order to ‘encourage’ acceptance of propositions and policy through ‘effective communication’. Of course, whilst one is dealing with efforts to overcome harmful cognitive bias, such an approach could be considered nothing more than benign and practicable. The declaration becomes more problematic, however, when one considers the extent to which cognitive biases can affect all those involved in a debate, and the extent to which psychological manipulation can be used for the promulgation of both truth and faith.

The executive summary continues with this cognitive theme, making statements such as, “Decision processes often include both deliberative and intuitive thinking” and “Laypersons tend to judge risks differently than experts”. Claims are also made for the effectiveness of formal expert judgement and elicitation processes for the characterisation of uncertainty. I will be covering such matters later in this series of articles but, in the meantime, there are two further points made in the executive summary that are worth highlighting now. Firstly, there is the following:

“Individuals and organizations that link science with policy grapple with several different forms of uncertainty. These uncertainties include absence of prior agreement on framing of problems and ways to scientifically investigate them (paradigmatic uncertainty), lack of information or knowledge for characterizing phenomena (epistemic uncertainty), and incomplete or conflicting scientific findings (translational uncertainty).”  

In my professional capacity I have seen many different taxonomies of uncertainty, but I have to say this is by far the most obscure and idiosyncratic. Firstly, it is difficult to see how ‘incomplete or conflicting scientific findings’ is substantially different from a ‘lack of information or knowledge for characterising phenomena’; they are both epistemic uncertainties that amount to the same thing. Furthermore, whilst one could see how such epistemic difficulties could lead to disagreement over the framing of a problem, the confusion this may cause cannot be justifiably cited as a new category of uncertainty; it would simply be a misperception caused by inconsistency. Even more strange is the failure to acknowledge what the rest of the world seems to believe is the most fundamental dichotomy lying at the heart of uncertainty, i.e. that existing between the epistemic and the aleatory. Indeed, it is most odd that the innate variability of the subject under study (i.e. climate) should go unmentioned, given how much interest the scientific community and policy makers have shown in tipping points and feedback loops.

To my mind, this phoney portrayal of the framing of problems as if it were a legitimate source of uncertainty, combined with a failure to identify a major source of true uncertainty, rather betrays the tendentious purpose that the authors had in mentioning uncertainty at all. Ostensibly, uncertainty may be the subject, but a favoured problem framing seems to be the objective.

Having thus offered their characterisation of uncertainty, the relationship between uncertainty and the imperative for action is then made by the IPCC as follows:

“If one sets a global mean temperature (GMT) target, then normative analyses that include uncertainty on the climate response to elevated GHG concentration, suggest that investments in mitigation measures should be accelerated. Under the assumption of nonlinear impacts of a GMT rise, inclusion of uncertainty along the causal chain from emissions to impacts suggests enhancing mitigation.”  

It is ironic that this statement should follow on directly from the IPCC’s declaration of the importance of problem framing, since this is indeed a highly problematic framing of the importance of uncertainty. It is basically the assertion that uncertainty is not the sceptic’s friend – a mantra that has since been used very prominently by the likes of Michael Mann and Stephan Lewandowsky. However, it is an argument that relies heavily upon the assumption that all uncertainty can be captured in a probability density function and thereby combined with non-linear impacts to demonstrate the imperative for a precautionary approach. Unfortunately, this is a simplistic framing that treats epistemic uncertainty as though it were somehow unscientific.

The IPCC’s Idea of a Risk Management Framework

The introductory section of a document normally provides a summary of what is to be addressed by its various sections. Having been provided with such information, the reader may then focus upon those sections that are of particular interest. In that regard, the introduction to Chapter 2 of AR5 is no exception. However, in the case of Chapter 2, this precis of section content serves a further purpose, since each section is deemed to describe an element of a ‘risk management framework’; or, as the document puts it:

“There is a growing recognition that today’s policy choices are highly sensitive to uncertainties and risk associated with the climate system and the actions of other decision makers. The choice of climate policies can thus be viewed as an exercise in risk management (Kunreuther et al., 2013a). Figure 2.1 suggests a risk management framework that serves as the structure of the chapter.”

Once again, the IPCC presents the argument that the new focus of AR5 is a result of ‘growing recognition’, though one might reasonably observe that it is a recognition that should have been fully formed at the outset. Furthermore, to say that ‘The choice of climate policies can thus be viewed as an exercise in risk management’, rather than to simply point out that choosing policy is an element of risk management, calls into question just exactly what the IPCC really thinks its framework is designed for. Figure 2.1 is an ambiguous diagram showing text boxes linked by arrows in such a way that it is not possible to discern whether it is to be interpreted as a flow chart or an entity-relationship diagram (or both). At first glance it may look like the framework is a plan-do-check-act cycle designed to manage risk but it is, in fact, nothing of the sort. It is simply a framework for thinking about how the implementation and setting of climate policy is likely to pan out when it encounters the rational and irrational responses of the various decision-makers with their various agendas. So rather than describing the processes, phases and activities required for the effective management of risk and uncertainty, the IPCC is concentrating upon a tuning cycle for the application of cognitive techniques and interventions required to promote compliance with the authoritative world view. This focus may be why the document frames uncertainty in purely epistemic terms. Or, as the introduction to Chapter 2 puts it:

“‘Uncertainty’ denotes a cognitive state of incomplete knowledge that results from a lack of information and / or from disagreement about what is known or even knowable.”  

A framework that uses a definition of uncertainty that omits the inherent variability resulting from the behaviour of the subject under study could not purport to be a framework for the management of the actual risk presented. As far as AR5, Chapter 2 is concerned, risk management is the management of cognitive states. It matters a great deal, therefore, to know just what else the IPCC believes it can achieve by such management. In particular, one has to wonder what the impact might be of inculcating a sense of emergency.

These are matters that I intend delving into within the remainder of this series of articles. I shall start in the next by taking a more detailed look at what the IPCC considers to be the taxonomy of uncertainties confronting the decision maker, how these influence the decision-making process and how, in general, such influence may be tamed or exploited.

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February 18, 2021 at 04:10AM

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