Precautions amidst uncertainty

permafrost landscape sinking sea level rise
“A landscape disappears as tundra slips below sea level,” … “Very small changes in sea level or water level will inundate this low tundra and contribute to further thaw subsidence.” / Courtesy NOAA

“The question is not ‘do we know everything?’ it is ‘do we know enough?’ or ‘how can we best make a decision using what we do know?’ ~ Sense About Science publication: ‘Making Sense of Uncertainty’

In cities where heat waves are already becoming more frequent or more intense, the installation of heat watch warning systems can prove an inexpensive and effective step to help safeguard human lives. Policy-makers of those cities needn’t know precisely how hot it will be on a particular date in the future before they act, only that increasing heat makes their population vulnerable. Taking steps to address the problem is the clear choice. Similarly, city planners near earthquake faults incorporate building-stabilizing engineering despite not knowing the date or strength of the upcoming quakes. Air traffic controllers await the warnings of volcano-monitoring agencies, coastal communities advocate for and pay heed to tsunami detection alarms.

There are risks ahead we already know we are vulnerable to. Acting to minimize those risks is logical.

But there’s uncertainty

“For much of the general public, the unknown and the uncertain implies doubt. This effect can be amplified around politically charged issues such as climate change when special interest groups misrepresent uncertainties and unknowns to manufacture doubt in scientific findings.” ~ Amy Luers, director, Climate Change – Skoll Global Threats Fund

Science can inform us of risks ahead. It cannot perfectly forecast them. And yet there are factions pushing, demanding a certain and bleak picture of the future of our planet known with 100% certainty before we take action. Scientists aren’t seers, prophets or time travelers. Science describes anything known with less than 100% certainty as uncertain. Science is about reducing uncertainty … finding the best means we can to explain and understand our astounding universe, refining our understanding, always questioning.

“Uncertainty is normal currency in scientific research.” … “But in public discussion scientific uncertainty is presented as a deficiency of research. We want (even expect) certainty – safety, effective public policies, useful public expenditure. Uncertainty is seen as worrying, and even a reason to be cynical about scientific research – particularly on subjects such as climate science, the threat of disease or the prediction of natural disasters.” ~ Sense About Science publication: ‘Making Sense of Uncertainty’

“‘When are we certain enough?’ is never going to be easy to answer. It depends on the desire to act, robust public discussion, leadership, willingness to address criticism and the risks involved in getting things wrong. Decisions are usually made by policy-makers and officials, not researchers – science doesn’t tell us ‘what to do’ – and what they need is ‘operational knowledge’.” ~ Sense About Science publication: ‘Making Sense of Uncertainty’

global temperature record hottest 2014
2014: The Hottest Year On Record Globally / Courtesy Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA)

Wearing our blinders

Operational knowledge is even sometimes too much. Michael Oppenheimer, professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Geosciences, Princeton University, says at times “Decision-makers don’t want certain information because it makes their life harder.”

In 2012 New York was struck by Superstorm Sandy, which inundated subway tunnels with sea water. Over the course of the century storms like Sandy will become much more frequent (probably 3x as frequent) and will cost coastal communities colossal sums. Yet when NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) provided New York planners with a 30 year forecast so they could act against future storms, they were requested to provide instead a 10 year forecast. Decision-makers can look better to the public if they’re only making preparations against 10 years worth of change.

Oppenheimer describes that the ten major floods which preceded Superstorm Sandy might have provided warning and opportunity to better prepare, had they been acted upon. “If you look at the storms, they were all within a foot, foot and a half of flooding the subway system,” Oppenheimer said. “The worst thing that we’re fighting against with extreme events is that they’re too soon forgotten.”

Can we instead resolve to act on what we know now?

“Striving for certainty in scientific research, even research that affects public policy, can be a waste of effort and resources. What we need instead is to talk about just how much information is enough to make a sound decision, because if we ask whether we really need more certainty, sometimes the answer is a clear ‘no’.” ~ Sense About Science publication: ‘Making Sense of Uncertainty’

“We need to know when a decision is, and is not, affected by whether we know something completely. This idea is beginning to shape the way that scientists and policy makers use and communicate uncertainty. ” ~ Sense About Science publication: ‘Making Sense of Uncertainty’

We’re more than capable

atmosphere earth interactions
“Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system” / Courtesy NOAA

Oppenheimer spoke at a session called ‘Communicating Science to Society in the Face of Deep Uncertainty and the Threat of Manufactured Doubt’. Panelists Andrew Freedman of Mashable, Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, and Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, with moderator Amy Luers of Climate Change – Skoll Global Threats Fund, discussed the challenges of communicating scientific uncertainty to the public. The session was hosted at the American Geophysical Union 2014 Fall Meeting. This year’s #AGU14 Fall Meeting brought together 25,000 attendees – the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world. The session was part of of an effort to reinforce and spread ideas about sharing science.

“Each of us as humans deals with uncertainty all the time,” said Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor, Department of Political Science; and director, Climate Science Center, Texas Tech University, Lubbock. “We make decisions every day on the basis of largely uncertain information,” and “Uncertainty is an essential component of human existence.” Despite uncertainty, it often pays to take action. Climate preparedness can be approached immediately.

We need a shift in perspective. Hayhoe says that for Western civilization the climate has been remarkably stable for the last thousand years. Yet that has led to a feeling of security now showing false; think of all the big cities built on coastlines. Our societies are facing more extreme weather events, more heatwaves and wildfire, heightened flood risk, stronger hurricanes. “Our society and our infrastructure is built on the assumption of a stable climate,” Hayhoe pointed out, and those ‘climate normals’ have been used as a basis for planning. Now they cannot be – the assumption of stability is no longer valid. We’re not certain which projection of our planet’s future is 100% correct, but we do know the projections forecast change and challenges.

She recommends that scientists open by presenting those projections as warming per degree … what will happen per increment? That can put the uncertainty in the hands of those who make decisions for us.

snow cover decade below average 2014
“At end of spring 2014, Northern Hemisphere snow cover below average for tenth year in a row” / Courtesy NOAA

Public health, world health

Future changes pose public health risks. Even if there is uncertainty regarding when milestones of dire trouble will be reached, we see trends carrying us in that direction. Before we get to ‘when’, organizations like NOAA are working to prepare our nation, and trying to learn the best way to communicate the risks ahead.

They have goals like improving community resilience and encouraging the development and protection of ‘green infrastructure’, called ‘nature’s own defenses’. For example, sea-side dunes can help protect houses against powerful storm surges created by hurricanes, yet there’s little precedent to assigning value to these ecosystem services.

Alaska chum salmon
Alaska chum salmon / Courtesy NOAA

Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, talked about Alaska fisheries at another #AGU14 session, ‘Building Resilient Communities.’ Alaska fisheries are acutely vulnerable to rising ocean acidity caused by global warming. Roughly 17% of Alaska residents rely on subsistence fisheries for most if not all of their dietary protein; global warming is a threat to food security. Further, Southeast Alaska is a hub for commercial fisheries, pointing to the economic consequences of ocean acidification off Alaska’s shores.

Threats like this can infiltrate communities across the world. The detrimental effects will likely inflict the heaviest consequences on low-income countries.

Oceans of fear

“The amount of heat stored in the oceans is one of the most important diagnostics for global warming, because about 90% of the additional heat is stored there,” … “The increase in the amount of heat in the oceans amounts to 17 x 1022 Joules over the last 30 years. That is so much energy it is equivalent to exploding a Hiroshima bomb every second in the ocean for thirty years.” – Stefan Rahmstorf, physicist, oceanographer, Potsdam University professor

That sounds scary. And it’s a complicated line to walk. Give a message too full of doom and gloom, and many will shut down – stop thinking about it. Don’t emphasize that message enough, and it may not look like a problem worth dealing with right now.

“Specificity can help reduce the numbing complexity of climate change to something that we can all understand — and fear. And perhaps that is the first step in mobilizing to fix the problem. But scientists speak in probabilities.” ~ Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman

Gernot Wagner, lead senior economist, Environmental Defense Fund, and Martin L. Weitzman, economist and Harvard University professor, speak of uncertainty and climate projections in their op-ed ‘Inconvenient Uncertainties.’

Talk of uncertainty and probability lets some folks ignore or downplay risks. Disasters happen but their message doesn’t last long; in contrast, preparing for disaster and working to mitigate disaster are each long-term tasks. How can the scientific community inspire and support decision-makers willing to tackle those challenges?

Breaking solutions into manageable steps might make the problem appear more surmountable … or like an onerous list of sacrifices.

“We estimate that without further action to reduce emissions, the planet is on track to see the eventual global average rise by at least 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. This is most likely past the point when we will see the melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica,” … “What is scarier still is the uncertainty about the truly extreme outcomes. Our own calculations estimate that there is a roughly 5 percent to 10 percent chance that the eventual average temperature could be 6 degrees Celsius higher, rather than 3. What this would mean is outside anyone’s imagination, perhaps even Dante’s.” ~ Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman

XKCD 4.5 Degrees - how big a change is that?
XKCD comic ‘4.5 Degrees’ / Comic by Randall Munroe,

A moral argument

Before a scientist even puts forward data, Hayhoe argues, he or she should take steps to try to ensure the information will be acted on. That means first finding shared values and forging connections. If those steps can be completed, then the science has more impact as it is shared and solutions are be offered.

It sounds hard … it probably is hard. Yet it’s an idea that encourages a different perspective. Maybe a unifying one. Acting to minimize risk from the changing climate will be costly and hard to do. Yet it can be posed as a moral imperative.

Care for your fellow man? Support the things you believe in? Think of the children?

If we as a society take no steps, then large segments of the world population – already numbering over 7 billion – will face detrimental conditions. (The strongly impacted may not include us, though the Industrial Revolution our nation benefited so profoundly from was a major player in pushing the system to this state.) Don’t we want to better the lives of other human beings? Protect biodiversity and vulnerable ecosystems? Stabilize water resources? Don’t we want to improve conditions for our children, and theirs?

The impacts of climate changes caused by humans and influenced by natural variation alike will vary across the world’s regions, but the risks are many. We can expect to see increases in the frequency of warm temperature extremes, increases in heat waves’ (and therefore droughts’) length, frequency and intensity. We’ll face rising sea levels and extreme coastal high waters. The average maximum wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase. And the frequency of heavy precipitation or total rainfall will increase. Extreme events. Storms. Droughts. Food insecurity.

How extreme? How deep a flood? How long a drought? How much starvation?

It doesn’t matter, does it? We are already vulnerable. Let’s adjust by reducing those vulnerabilities.

Jane Lubchenco, environmental scientist and marine ecologist, said during the 2012 Union Agency Lecture at #AGU12: “Of course, intelligence is only as useful as the capacity to use it.”

No matter how precisely science is able to predict the conditions of the future, this powerful forewarning is of little use if our society can’t be persuaded to act on it.

Let’s say it to our representatives on both sides of the aisle: ‘Love your neighbor.’

Laura Nielsen

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

Climate Change Watch project

  • ‘Communicating Science to Society in the Face of Deep Uncertainty and the Threat of Manufactured Doubt,’ Michael Oppenheimer, Katharine Hayhoe, Gernot Wagner, Andrew Freedman, Amy Luers, #AGU14 AGU Fall Meeting 2014, San Francisco, CA (December 17, 2014)
  • ‘Building Resilient Communities,’ Kathryn Sullivan, #AGU14 AGU Fall Meeting 2014, San Francisco, CA (December 17, 2014)
  • ‘Making Sense of Uncertainty: Why uncertainty is part of science,’ Sense About Science publication (June 27, 2013)
  • ‘Inconvenient Uncertainties,’ Gernot Wagner, Martin L. Weitzman, op-ed, New York Times (October 10, 2013)
  • ‘Scientific Known Unknowns and Uncertainties: Vital Information or Achilles Heel?’ Amy Luers, guest post, The Bridge: AGU Blogosphere (December 11, 2014)
  • ‘What ocean heating reveals about global warming,’ Stefan Rahmstorf, Real Climate (September 25, 2013)
  • ‘Arctic Ocean Primary Productivity,’ Arctic Report Card: Update for 2014, NOAA (2014)