Paris agreement: A risk regulation perspective

Written by Judith Curry

The Paris Agreement and, more generally, climate change policy, almost perfectly illustrate the contradictions of the post-modern industrialized world risk society, characterized by perceived threats confirmed by politicized science and governed by sub-politics beyond democratic control. – Lucas Bergkamp

The Journal of Environmental Risk has a special issue related the Paris Agreement [link].  There are two articles by Lucas Bergkamp, which are highlighted here.

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The Paris Agreement on Climate Change:  A Risk Regulation Perspective.  Excerpts:

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which was concluded at COP-21 in December 2015, . . . has been called the ‘world’s greatest diplomatic success’ and a ‘historic achievement,’ but also an ‘epic failure’ and even a ‘fraud’ and ‘worthless words.’  Disappointed with the Paris Agreement, a group of eleven climate scientists signed a declaration stating that it suffers from “deadly flaws” and gives “false hope;” they argue that the time for “wishful thinking and blind optimism” is over, and “the full spectrum of geoengineering” should be considered.

The broad disagreement over the outcome of COP-21 in Paris (in particular, over its binding effect) illustrates not only the diverging expectations of interest groups, but also the antagonisms that arise in all areas of policy-making between the dogmatic and the pragmatic, the idealistic and the realistic, and the internationalists and nationalists.

Objectively viewed, the Paris Agreement would appear to be not much more than a procedural framework for future, flexible “bottoms-up” climate policy- making by the parties to it, dressed up with some non-binding language that emphasizes ambition and progression. To meet the US government’s desire to avoid Senate approval, the agreement does not impose any binding substantive obligations, but it does set forth the ambitious objective of limiting the global average temperature increase to well below 2 °C or even 1.5 °C. Put differently, the text that came out of Paris represents yet another example of a target- or performance-based voluntary agreement, the results of which are hard to predict.

The essay’smain thesis goes beyond a rejection of the claimthat the ‘science is settled,’which is a contradiction in terms in any event. They posit a ‘scientistic’ tendency in climate science, by which they mean a belief that the entire climate can be explained and controlled by reference to one single parameter. Such a scientistic tendency manifests itself in the climate models, which make all policies dependent on computational projections, rather than available empirical knowledge. Although the authors acknowledge that models are an accepted and useful method in many areas of science, the key issue with climate models is whether they meet either the ‘hard’ test of their predictions’ (orprojections’) conformity to observations, or the ‘softer’ test of fitness for purpose.

Even if climate models are useful for purposes of research, that does not mean they should be used for policy applications. Despite the models’ inherent limitations, they are deemed to fully capture the future of the Earth’s climate. The Paris Agreement implicitly legitimizes the scientistic thinking underlying the use ofmodels in climate policy- making. More critically, it contributes to the further codification of the putative causal relations between anthropogenic emissions and global temperature increase, between temperature increase and climate change, and between climate change and adverse impacts. No matter what climate science will show, the policy direction for this century has been set. In our post-modern world, climate science is not powerful because it is true: it is true because it is powerful.

The Paris Agreement and, more generally, climate change policy, almost perfectly illustrate the contradictions of the post-modern industrialized world risk society, characterized by perceived threats confirmed by politicized science and governed by sub-politics beyond democratic control. Climate change is the ultimate precautionary, distributive justice issue. There is a tendency to subsume all policy issues in the climate change movement, so climate justice can be pursued as holistic, global, social justice. Indeed, climate change is deemed to penetrate all areas of social policy- making, from energy to agriculture, and fromimmigration to personal choices, such as how to travel and what to eat. After Paris, climate change will remain ‘hot’. It is where the money is and will be; pursuant to the COP-21 Decision, developed nations should collectively contribute at least USD 100 billion a year from 2020 to help poorer nations dealwith climate change.

The ‘Best Available Science’ and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  Excerpts:

Recognising the importance of science to climate policies, the ParisAgreement on Climate Change stipulates that ‘an effective and progressive response to the urgent threat of climate change’ should be based on ‘the best available scientific knowledge.’ The terms ‘best available scientific knowledge’ or ‘best available science’ are used in several places throughout the agreement. The parties should undertake emission reductions and achieve carbon-neutrality (zero net emissions) in the second half of this century in accordance with ‘best available science’, which seems to accommodate scientific progress. Despite these references to science, the relation between the ‘best available science’ and the Agreement is ambiguous at best and calamitous at worst.

In the area of climate policymaking, there are four interlocking issues that imperil policies’ scientific basis. First, the definitions of ‘climate change’ that circulate within the Paris Agreement’s policy and science sphere are inconsistent and apocryphal, which impedes the scientific enterprise of climate research. Second, the predictive ability of climate science is driven by modelling, making all policies reliant on computational projections rather than available empirical knowledge. Third, as a result of these deficiencies, climate science is policy-led instead of climate policy being science-led, as the Paris Agreement seems to require. Finally, under these circumstances, the concept of ‘best available science’ allows the pursuit of politically convenient policies that interact with the computational projections.

From the Conclusions:

Although the ParisAgreement entertains the concept of science-based policy-making, its ability to ensure that policies are accurately informed by science is severely hampered. The Agreement’s unspecified concept of ‘best available science’ allows policy-makers to pursue politically expedient policies supported by climate model projections to their liking.

In an early stage, an activist policy community, operating under the weak democratic controls of the international policy-making system and outside national structures for policy-making and judicial review, has set the objective that climate science ‘had to’ support. Their thinking was driven by the precautionary principle and the reversal of the burden of proof. By implied agreement, the default assumption has been that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions cause dangerous climate change, and that the safety of such emissions would have to be proven. Through the use of these default assumptions and predictive models, climate science is able to supply ‘helpful’ information to policy-makers. Consequently, rather than the policy being science-based, the science has become policy-based.

As the issue of the global temperature ‘hiatus’ illustrates, the ability of climate science to self-correct and properly inform policy-making is hampered by an inability to reexamine the fundamental assumptions driving the scientific enterprise and its relation to policy-making. Given climate policy’s objectives, funding agencies, scientists, and scientific advisors, in turn, are encouraged to provide ‘policy-relevant’ science supporting the policies pursued by the politicians.

Rather than attempting to reverse this trend, the Paris Agreement aggravates the current problems by reinforcing the scientistic thinking underlying climate policy-making: it codifies the putative causal relations between anthropogenic emissions and global temperature increase, between temperature increase and climate change, and between climate change and adverse impacts. It even intensifies and extends this thinking to make the temperature increase limitation goal more ambitious and to require net zero emissions by the second half of this century.

With the Paris Agreement, the relation between climate policy-making and science has become even more strained and entrenched. As Kuhn observed, the scientist is ‘a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.’ Unfortunately, at this juncture, the revolution that is necessary to change the state of affairs requires not only a scientific, but also a political and policy paradigm shift.While the former is already difficult enough to achieve, the Paris Agreement made the latter even harder by increasing the stakes through coupling very substantial financial streams with the dominant hypothesis of human-induced climate change.

None of this will matter, if innovative science comes up with new sources of energy-conversion technologies that will render the issue of human induced climate change moot. Thus, despite the debacle in Paris, there is hope.

JC reflections

In these two essays, Lucas Bergkamp has provided some remarkable insights into the utter disfunction an the interface between climate science and policy.

I have no idea how to push the ‘reset button’ here and salvage climate science.  As for energy policy, one can only hope for technological breakthroughs in energy generation, storage and transmission that make all this a moot issue.

Read more at judithcurry.com