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January 14, 2005

The Uncertainty Trap

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Risk & Uncertainty

Scientists are being played expertly in the ongoing political debate about climate change. Here is how the game works. Those opposed to acting on the options currently on the table, like Kyoto or McCain/Lieberman, invoke "scientific uncertainty" about climate change as the basis for their opposition. Of course, the basis for opposition for most of these folks has nothing to do with scientific uncertainty and everything to do with their valuation of the costs and benefits of taking action. As George W. Bush said in 2001, "For America, complying with those [Kyoto] mandates would have a negative economic impact, with layoffs of workers and price increases for consumers." The projected economic impacts of Kyoto are of course uncertain because they are the product of complex computer models based on numerous assumptions and parameterizations. But this uncertainty is not an obstacle to the Bush Administration taking decisive action.

Even though the basis for President Bush's opposition is grounded in how he values expected outcomes, he nonetheless raises scientific uncertainty about climate itself as a basis for his decision, "we do not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on warming. We do not know how much our climate could, or will change in the future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it. For example, our useful efforts to reduce sulfur emissions may have actually increased warming, because sulfate particles reflect sunlight, bouncing it back into space. And, finally, no one can say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided." But his invocation of such uncertainties is just a distraction. Consider that Senator John Kerry who also opposed the Kyoto Protocol, but never invoked scientific uncertainty as the basis for his opposition (he claimed that the fact that developing countries did not participate was the basis for his opposition). Because Bush and Kerry shared opposition to Kyoto but had different views on the science of climate change, this suggests that ones views on climate science are not deterministic of one's political perspectives.

While there is ample evidence that scientific uncertainty is not the main reason behind opposition to action on climate change, advocates of Kyoto and emissions reduction policies more generally have seized upon claims of scientific uncertainty as the linchpin of their advocacy efforts (Why? Read this). In this way, the political debate over climate change takes place in the language of science, with some invoking "scientific uncertainty" as the basis for their preexisting ideological and political views, and others invoking "scientific certainty" (often in response to those invoking "scientific uncertainty"). Whether one likes it or not, claims of uncertainty map onto one political agenda and claims of certainty onto another political agenda. In climate politics there is no such thing as objective or unbiased science, it is all viewed through the lens of the political conflict.

The great irony here is that the debate of certainty and uncertainty is largely disconnected from the real reasons for political debate over climate change, which is based on a conflict over values. There may of course be those few folks whose political perspectives undergo "data-induced transformations" based on science but as Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay have observed "people generally come to their beliefs about how the world works long before they encounter facts."

If this assertion is close to being right, it means that opponents to action on climate change have already taken a big step toward winning the political debate when advocates of action take the bait on uncertainty. By raising uncertainty as a red herring advocates for action spend considerable time and effort trying to disprove allegations of uncertainty as the centerpiece of their efforts, but no matter how this sideshow winds up, it will do little to change the underlying political outcome, as the opponents can just switch their justification to something else while maintaining their political commitment to opposition. This is an exceedingly difficult line of argument for environmentalists and scientists to accept because the former have hitched their agenda to science and the latter's claims to authority lie in science.

The experiences of a new weblog run by a group of climate scientists,, provide a great example of this dynamic. The site claims to be "restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science." This is a noble but futile ambition. The site's focus has been exclusively on attacking those who invoke science as the basis for their opposition to action on climate change, folks such as George Will, Senator James Inhofe, Michael Crichton, McIntyre and McKitrick, Fox News, and Myron Ebell. Whether intended or not, the site has clearly aligned itself squarely with one political position on climate change. And by trumpeting certainty and consensus, and attacking claims to the contrary, it has fallen squarely into the uncertainty trap.

So if opponents to action on climate change want to distract the attention of some prominent climate scientists, they need simply write the occasional opinion article or give a speech in which they invoke uncertainty about climate change. Meantime, business as usual pretty much gets a free pass.

It would be wonderful if opponents to action on climate change would stop hiding behind science. But the efforts of those scientists who take them on the basis of science are what allow then to hide in plain sight. The way out of this situation is not to engage in endless debate about climate science, but to question whether science is in fact the right battleground for this political conflict.

Posted on January 14, 2005 10:53 AM


I have no problem with any of your analysis of why the climate science and it's inherent uncertainties have become a battle ground. It is very similar to the evolution vs. creation debate. People are arguing about details that are unimportant in and of themselves, but whose percieved implications impinge in some way on peoples values.

However, (as you might have expected) I do not agree that trying to make the science clearer to the lay public is therefore a waste of time. The principal reason is that there is a huge mass of people in the middle who have not formed any opinion on the subject. If all they read are the WSJ or Washington Times op-eds or watch the Day after Tomorrow, all they hear are the dissemblers. People who know better (like real scientists) have to (at least occasionally) stand up and say what they think. That we can do this on the web in a way that reaches more people than me talking about it at a cocktail party is a good thing.

We obviously don't believe that we're going to convince Myron Ebell or Senator Inhofe to change their minds. We are not going to change the terms of the debate on Kyoto. However, we might help educate people who would not otherwise have seen any actual discussion of these topics outside of their talk radio station.

Let me make one more thing clear: we are not taking a political stand on this. That someone else decides to support their political point by using bogus science is not our fault. If we correct their errors it is because we don't want to see bogus science used at all. It does not necessarily imply that we are taking a stand against their political premise.

Of course the science is not the right battleground for political issues. Those who want to push forward the policies would be well advised to say this as often as they can. But leaving the popular science field to the those who would mislead, distort and dissemble is an abdication, not a step forward.

Posted by: Gavin Schmidt at January 14, 2005 08:48 PM

Roger has posted a length response at

Posted by: Tind Shepper Ryen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 15, 2005 11:49 AM

"Of course, the basis for opposition for most of these folks has nothing to do with scientific uncertainty and everything to do with their valuation of the costs and benefits of taking action."-->

How do you determine that the basis for their opposition is not what they say it is?

Do you "look into their souls?" Or you have them take lie detector tests?

Posted by: Mark Bahner at June 9, 2005 08:09 PM

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