The IPCC on Risk, Part 5: Leaving no Room for Doubt

At the end of Part 4 in this series, I speculated that the authors of AR5, Chapter 2 may have dropped the ball when developing the manifesto for the declaration of a climate emergency. Having argued forcibly that the public perception of climate change risk is based upon unreliable intuitive thinking, the IPCC went on to describe a number of supposedly deliberative tools for decision making that would help avoid the pitfalls of intuition. However, despite highlighting the evaluation of weather events as an area particularly prone to intuitive error, the IPCC failed to mention that D&A is a deliberative approach available to address that problem. Instead, the authors of section 2.5 of AR5 Chapter 2 seemed satisfied in further promoting a precautionary approach (which they mistakenly characterised as ‘robust’) and emphasising the role played by scenarios, climate model ensemble output and structured expert judgement. This led me to speculate upon the possibility that, whilst the readers all knew where the document was headed, its authors did not.

The failure of section 2.5 to mention the formal methods of extreme weather attribution certainly comes across as an oversight, particularly since the section overlooks so many other important decision-making methodologies. However, it is important to point out that nowhere within AR5 is there a narrative of imminent climate catastrophe, or any calls for declaring a ‘climate emergency’. Yes, urgency was called for by the IPCC, but only because of the accumulative and non-linear impacts of greenhouse gas emissions; it wasn’t because there were already unacceptable damages arising from extreme weather caused by climate change. Having claimed that the intuitive decision makers’ fixation upon weather is an example of flawed thinking, and in the absence of a narrative of imminent catastrophe, even the authors of AR5, Chapter 2 couldn’t bring themselves to include, in section 2.5, the very same fixation amongst their deliberative methods. But it didn’t stop them returning to the value of co-opting availability bias when, in section 2.6, they describe their so-called ‘prescriptive analysis’ of climate change policy-making.

The Birth of a New Narrative

As a guideline for developing climate change policies, section 2.6 covers a lot of ground, most of which does not bear directly upon the question as to whether or not climate change is already evident in extreme weather. For example, much of it is concerned with the use of Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) in support of long-term social planning. As such, uncertainties appertaining to scenario development are discussed (e.g. questions regarding the linearity of damage functions, irreversibility and thresholds). Difficulties in forming national and international agreements are also covered, as are the uncertainties associated with technological developments and the likely responses to the implementation of climate change policy. All of this is very interesting, but the real nub of the issue, as far as my thesis is concerned, is not covered until section 2.6.6, ‘Public support and opposition to climate policy’. It is there that one is finally left in no doubt were the IPCC’s interests lie:

“In this section, we review what is known about public support or opposition to climate policy, climate-related infrastructure, and climate science. In all three cases, a critical issue is the role that perceptions of risks and uncertainties play in shaping support or opposition.”  

And if there were any doubt whether the IPCC understood the importance of tapping into emotion and exploiting intuitive responses born of personal experience, they are dispelled with:

“There is substantial empirical evidence that people’s support or opposition to proposed climate policy measures is determined primarily by emotional factors and their past experience rather than explicit calculations as to whether the personal benefits outweigh the personal costs.”

The relevant emotion, of course, is fear of a present or imminent danger. It is that emotion that needs to be triggered. It is at this point that the IPCC explicitly declares an interest in factors that can ‘influence concern’:

“One of the major determinants of popular support for climate policy is whether people have an underlying belief that climate change is dangerous. This concern can be influenced by both cultural factors and the methods of communication (Smith, 2005; Pidgeon and Fischhoff, 2011).”

Such emotions can be played upon through judicious language but, once again, consideration of immediate and local impact is deemed key:

“The use of language used to describe climate change — such as the distinction between ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ — play a role in influencing perceptions of risk, as well as considerations of immediate and local impacts (Lorenzoni et al., 2006).”

Thus, the reporting of immediate disaster is deemed paramount. It turns out that when it comes to getting people on board the climate alarm bandwagon, immediate and local impact (weather) is more influential than abstract arguments about climate trends. The availability heuristic can be the IPCC’s friend after all. Despite all of this, some concerns were expressed by the IPCC as to whether invoking disaster scenarios might be counterproductive:

“An important question related to climate change communication is whether the popular reporting of climate change through disaster scenarios has the effect of energizing people to support aggressive policy intervention, or to become dismissive of the problem.”

Fortunately, they were able to find encouragement, at least within certain groups:

“Other studies found interactive effects: those with a low awareness of climate change became concerned about being exposed to disaster scenarios…”

So what did the IPCC propose as the best way forward in order to engender the emotions conducive to accepting climate change policy? The answer to that question is provided in section 2.7 of AR5, Chapter 2. It lurks within a list of actions proposed to fill ‘gaps in knowledge and data’:

“Characterize the likelihood of extreme events and examine their impact on the design of climate change policies.”

And with that, a whole new narrative was born; for ‘characterize’ just read ‘demonstrate’. Once demonstrating the likelihood of extreme events became a major factor in enabling climate change policy, it was only a matter of time before it would become a political and media obsession.

No Need for Conspiracy

I’ve taken some time over the last five articles to convince the reader that the increasing media and political interest in extreme weather event attribution represents a key change of direction in the formulation and acceptance of climate change policy and that the roots can be found in the IPCC’s AR5, Chapter 2. It’s a strategy that plays upon the intuitive thinking within which we all engage and taps into the emotions we all share. I took my time because I felt it was important to set the story within a broader framework in which the IPCC had become increasingly concerned that cognitive biases, such as availability heuristics and loss aversion, were acting against policy acceptance – and yet, with the ‘right’ perception of risk, such biases could be re-employed in the service of climate change policy.

This new position wasn’t enabled by recent advances in cognitive psychology any more than it was inspired by new developments in causal reasoning. All it required was an IPCC that had realised that the presentation of a future risk was too abstract to inspire the majority of people. So much better to engage your audience with salient tales of natural disaster. A single news story telling of a storm, a flood, or a bushfire, accompanied by a journalist delivering a finger-wagging piece to camera, would be ten times more effective than a set of graphs purportedly implying an uncertain future disaster. Once such a portrayal of climate change as a present danger had captured the public’s imagination, it was a small step to invoke the concept of a climate emergency. And with an emergency to contend with, all manner of new order is enabled, as has been abundantly demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

You might think this a conspiracy theory but there was nothing conspiratorial about what the IPCC did. I trust that I have demonstrated that the evidence of the IPCC’s thinking is laid out in full view for anyone who is interested. All you need to do is read the IPCC’s AR5, Chapter 2 and preen away the smoke and mirrors.

Where do We Go From Here?

This has not been an attack on the field of Detection and Attribution. D&A is a legitimate attempt to apply our current understanding of the factors that determine climate change in order to discern the anthropogenic contribution. It is relevant to this series of articles because it has been used to determine the extent to which such contributions can be said to be the cause of extreme weather events. As such it is an attempt to apply the precepts of causal analysis, done so in pursuance of a question of importance to those who would wish to insure against the ravages of disaster or even determine culpability. It should be remembered, of course, that any such calculation is based upon comparison of model outputs, and so it inherits the structural and parametric uncertainties from which these models suffer. However, I have previously highlighted this problem in a Cliscep article and so it is not the main subject of concern here.

The need to determine the extent to which anthropogenic contributions increase extreme weather event risk was not fabricated by the IPCC in AR5. However, insofar as the IPCC had become increasingly concerned with the perception of risk and how that could be manipulated to facilitate acceptance of climate change policies, there can be no doubt that D&A represents a deliberative approach to decision making that conveniently plays to the intuitive thinking of the vast majority. D&A is not an example of the availability bias in action, but its results can be exploited for that purpose – and it is clear that the IPCC understood that from the outset.

It has to be acknowledged that there is nothing in AR5 Chapter 2 that explicitly calls for the exploitation of the emergency paradigm in order to clear the way forward for climate change policies. For example, there is no mention of the concept of declaring an emergency as a pretext for implementing legislation that takes away personal choices that the IPCC would consider sub-optimal. Indeed, there was no narrative of impending climate catastrophe at all. Instead, the narrative in AR5 was of a future demise that may be too abstract for the intuitive thinker to appreciate. Nevertheless, when one reads AR5, Chapter 2, and sees how strong was the desire to exploit cognitive biases, one cannot be in the least bit surprised to see that the crisis catastrophe storyline, fuelled by notions of present-day damage has now taken hold across the world. The name of the game, as far as the IPCC was concerned, was to use ‘instruments’ for policy implementation because, after all, ‘The choice of climate policies can thus be viewed as an exercise in risk management’.

As long as risks to our future wellbeing are evaluated within the all-encompassing risk framework of detrimental climate change, then the range of instruments that are deemed legitimate in the pursuit of climate policy is bound to be very wide. Psychological manipulation? Yes. Removal of civil liberty? Yes. The misrepresentation of uncertainty as risk? Yes. All of these things and more are deemed both necessary and desirable. And it’s all done earnestly and with the best possible motives. That’s how these things always work.

This series of articles has been published on the eve of the publication of the IPCC’s sixth annual review (AR6). A lot has happened since AR5, and it will be interesting to see just how much of it is assimilated within the pages of AR6. One can expect a greater emphasis on extreme weather events, with a lot of effort expended in demonstrating their novelty and frequency. In particular, I foresee considerable effort in attributing current economic damage to climate change, as a counter-argument to those who would point to the economic costs and risks associated with accelerated transition pathways. There will also be lot more regarding the economics of non-linear damage functions. I wouldn’t even be surprised if more is said regarding the successes of ‘social amplification of risk’, in the guise of climate assemblies and similar political stunts. One thing for sure is that the days of arguing for action now, in order to avert a distant, though uncertain catastrophe, are long gone. And none of this transformation is the result of advances in science.

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February 21, 2021 at 07:58AM

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