Judith Curry: Framing of the climate change problem

Posted: February 14, 2011 by tallbloke in solar system dynamics

This is a draft by Judith Curry of section 2 of her paper she is writing for a special adition of ‘Climate Change’. The heading for the other sections are:

Reasoning About Climate Uncertainty

1.  Introduction

2. Framing of the climate change problem

3.  Uncertainty, ambiguity, indeterminancy, and ignorance

4.  Consensus, disagreement and justification

5.  Reasoning about uncertainty

6.  Conclusions



2: Framing of the climate change problem

An underappreciated aspect of uncertainty in climate change is associated with the questions that do not even get asked because of the way that the climate change problem has been framed. Frames are organizing principles that enable a particular interpretation of a phenomenon (e.g. de Boerg et al. 2010). De Boerg et al. (2010) state that: “Frames act as organizing principles that shape in a “hidden” and taken-for-granted way how people conceptualize an issue.” Risbey et al. 2005 state that decisions on problem framing influence the choice of models and what knowledge is considered relevant to include in the analysis. De Boerg et al. (2010) further state that frames can express how a problem is stated, who is expected to make a statement about it, what questions are relevant, and what range of answers might be appropriate.

The decision making framework provided by the UNFCCC Treaty provides the rationale for framing the IPCC assessment of climate change and its uncertainties, in terms of identifying dangerous climate change and providing input for decision making regarding CO2 stabilization targets. In the context of this framing, certain key scientific questions receive little attention. In the detection and attribution of 20th century climate change, Chapter 9 of the AR4 WG1 Report all but dismisses natural internal modes of multidecadal variability in the attribution. Further, the impacts of the low level of understanding of solar variability and its potential indirect effects on the climate are not explored in any meaningful way in terms of its impact on the confidence level expressed in the attribution statement. In the WG II Report, the focus is on attributing possible dangerous impacts to AGW, with little focus in the summary statements on how warming might actually be beneficial to the climates of Canada, Russia and northern China.

Further, the decision analytic framework associated with setting a CO2 stabilization target focuses research and analysis on using expert judgment to identify a most likely value of sensitivity/ warming and narrowing the range of expected values, rather than fully exploring the uncertainty and the possibility for black swans, dragon kings, wild cards, and not to even mention the prospect of natural climate variability. The concept of “imaginable surprise” was discussed in the Moss-Schneider uncertainty guidance documentation, but consideration of such possibilities seems largely to have been ignored by the AR4 report. The AR4 focused on what was known with certainty and on narrowing the uncertainties and raising the confidence levels in an attempt to identify a most likely future scenario. The most visible failing of this strategy was the neglect of the possibility of rapid melting of ice sheets on sea level rise in the main summary conclusion in the Summary for Policy Makers (e.g. Oppenheimer 2007; Betz 2009). An important question to ask is what is the true black swan risk of climate variation (warmer or cooler) under no human influence. Without even asking this question, there seems little to base a judgment upon regarding the relative risk of anthropogenic climate change.

The presence of sharp conflicts with regards to both the science and policy reflects an overly narrow framing of the problem. Until the problem is reframed or multiple frames are considered by the IPCC, these conflicts are not going to resolved, and the scientific debate will continue to ignore crucial pieces of the puzzle and the policy deliberations will likely continue to be stymied.


  1. P.G. Sharrow says:

    Judiths’ framing of the problem reminds me of a “science” problem posed in grade school. “If a tree falls in a primeval woods is there a sound?” The solution is predetermined in the definitions of the facts. Rego no sound in a primeval woods. Arguably correct but very wrong. Therefor no one is smart enough to understand science.

    Except for a few simple minded folks that are too dumb to except the “presented” facts. 😎 Nice essay Judith, I look forward to the total. pg

  2. tallbloke says:

    This is my favourite sentence:

    “Further, the impacts of the low level of understanding of solar variability and its potential indirect effects on the climate are not explored in any meaningful way in terms of its impact on the confidence level expressed in the attribution statement. ”

    Hurrah! We’re getting somewhere at last.

  3. Tenuc says:

    Thanks to Lorenz, climate science has known since the 60’s that long-term weather regime is driven by deterministic chaos. Why do the IPCC cabal of climate scientists continue to use global mean temperature as the main KPI of climate when linear trends have no meaning and averages cannot exist?

    As in all aspects of science, the position of the observer is vital and an understanding of the reference frame of the events being observed is essential.

    Looks like the penny is starting to drop at long last!!!

  4. Tufty says:

    I don’t just see a framing problem, I also see a related problem in accepting the value of competitor theories. Some decades ago, Paul Feyerabend wrote an interesting paper on the need for competing theories if science is to make progress and if data is to be correctly identified as potentially relevant.

    Essentially he argued that without at least two competing theories and given human nature, weaknesses in the accepted theory will remain undiscovered and potentially relevant data will be ignored. It has always surprised me that consensus is seen as so desirable for climate science, especially when we consider how young the science is. At this stage, scientific consensus in climate change is probably the last thing we need.

  5. tallbloke says:

    Spot on Tufty, this is what I was arguing at Lisbon. See also the multiple hypotheses thread.

    I really liked Feyerabends books: Against Method and Science in a Free Society. Can you remember the title of the paper you are referring to?

  6. Tufty says:

    Tallbloke – it was “How to be a good empiricist – a plea for tolerance in matters epistemological”. I came across it in The Philosophy of Science edited by P H Nidditch and published by Oxford University Press in 1968, a collection of papers on the philosophy of science by various philosophers. Feyerabend’s is the first paper in the collection and in my view makes the others barely worth reading.

  7. tallbloke says:

    Thanks, I’ll see if I can track down a copy.

  8. vukcevic says:

    GOES W135 satellite’s magnetogram ?
    It looks it blew-up around 9.30 pm this evening, by last night’s solar flare which reached it around 3pm today.

  9. Roger Andrews says:

    To find out why climate change science isn’t working we need only look at two documents. The first is UN General Assembly Resolution 43/53 of 6 December 1988, which established the IPCC. (Full text at http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/43/a43r053.html). Here are two specimen quotes from this Resolution. The General Assembly is “Convinced that climate change affects humanity as a whole”, and it “notes with concern” that “… global warming … could be disastrous for mankind.” In other words, we knew CAGW was real before we even began to study it.

    The second is the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (Full text at http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/1355.php). The UNFCCC agreed that CAGW was real (“The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind”) and it also provided guidelines for dealing with uncertainty: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing (action).” In other words, saving the world from global warming is far more important than getting the science right.