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.

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February 19, 2021 at 03:04AM

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