by Judith Curry

September 28, 2013
from JudithCurry Website





paradigm paralysis, caused by motivated reasoning, oversimplification, and consensus seeking; worsened and made permanent by a vicious positive feedback effect at the climate science-policy interface.

In a previous post (IPCC Scientists Recommend Having the Earth Put Down), I discussed the IPCC's diagnosis of a planetary fever and their prescription for planet Earth.  In this post, I provide a diagnosis and prescription for the IPCC.


In the 1990's, the world's nations embarked on a path to prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change by stabilization of the concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, which was codified by the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty.


The IPCC scientific assessments play a primary role in legitimizing national and international policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


This objective has led to the IPCC assessments being framed around identifying anthropogenic influences on climate, dangerous environmental and socio-economic impacts of climate change, and stabilization of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.


At the time of establishment of the UNFCCC, there was as yet no clear signal of anthropogenic warming in the observations, as per the IPCC First Assessment Report (FAR) in 1990. It wasn't until the IPCC's Second Assessment Report in 1995 that a 'discernible' human influence on global climate was identified.


The scientific support for the UNFCCC treaty was not based on observations, but rather on our theoretical understanding of the greenhouse effect and simulations from global climate models.  In the early 1990's there was the belief in the feasibility of reducing uncertainties in climate science and climate models, and a consensus seeking approach was formalized by the IPCC.


General circulation climate models became elevated to the central role by policy actors and scientists from other fields investigating climate change impacts and applications - this has in turn has elevated the role and position of these climate models in climate change research.


Very substantial investments have been made in further developing climate models, with the expectations that these models will provide actionable information for policy makers.


In 2006/2007, climate change had soared to the top of the international political agenda, as a result of Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, publication of the IPCC AR4 in 2007, and award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC. 


It was claimed that the science was settled, and that it clearly demanded radical policy and governmental action to substantially cut CO2 emissions.





Symptoms of the disease


Seven years later, with the release of the IPCC AR5, we find ourselves between the metaphorical rock and a hard place with regards to climate science and policy:

  • as temperatures have declined and climate models have failed to predict this decline, the IPCC has gained confidence in catastrophic warming and dismisses the pause as unpredictable climate variability

  • substantial criticisms are already being made of the IPCC AR5 Reports as well as of the IPCC process itself; IPCC insiders are bemoaning their loss of their scientific and political influence; the mainstream media seems not to be paying much attention to the AR5 SPM; and even IPCC insiders are realizing the need for a radical change

  • global CO2 emissions continue to increase at higher than expected rates and a growing realization of the infeasibility of meeting emissions targets

  • failure of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties to accomplish much since 2009 beyond agreeing to establish future meetings

  • Growing realization that you can't control climate by emissions reductions

  • European countries and Australia are backing away from their emission reductions policies as they realize their economic cost and political unpopularity

  • increasing levels of shrillness on both sides of the political debate, with the 'warm side' steeped in moral panic and hyperbole

And finally:

  • after several decades and expenditures in the bazillions, the IPCC still has not provided a convincing argument for how much warming in the 20th century has been caused by humans.

  • the politically charged rhetoric has contaminated academic climate research and the institutions that support climate research, so that individuals and institutions have become advocates; scientists with a perspective that is not consistent with the consensus are at best marginalized (difficult to obtain funding and get papers published by 'gatekeeping' journal editors) or at worst ostracized by labels of 'denier' or 'heretic.'

  • decision makers needing regionally specific climate change  information are being provided by the climate community with either nothing or potentially misleading predictions from climate models.




Diagnosis of the cause of the disease


How and why did we land between a rock and a hard place on the climate change issue? 


There are probably many contributing reasons, but the most fundamental and profound reason is arguably that both the problem and solution were vastly oversimplified back in 1990 by the UNFCCC/IPCC, where the framed both the problem and the solution as irreducibly global.


This framing was locked in by a self-reinforcing consensus-seeking approach to the science and a 'speaking consensus to power' approach for decision making that pointed to only one possible course of policy action - radical emissions reductions. The climate community has worked for more than 20 years to establish a scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.


The IPCC consensus building process played a useful role in the early synthesis of the scientific knowledge.


However, the ongoing scientific consensus seeking process has had the unintended consequence of oversimplifying both the problem and its solution and hyper-politicizing both, introducing biases into the both the science and related decision making processes.


In their 'The Wrong Trousers - Radically Rethinking Climate Policy' essay, Prins and Rayner argue that we have made the wrong cognitive choices in our attempts to define the problem of climate change, by relying on strategies that worked previously with ozone, sulphur emissions and nuclear bombs.


While these issues may share some superficial similarities with the climate change problems, they are 'tame' problems (complicated, but with defined and achievable end-states), whereas climate change is 'wicked' (comprising open, complex and imperfectly understood systems).


For wicked problems, effective policy requires profound integration of technical knowledge with understanding of social and natural systems.


In a wicked problem, there is no end to causal chains in interacting open systems, and every wicked problem can be considered as a symptom of another problem; if we attempt to simplify the problem, we become risk becoming prisoners of our own assumptions.


The framing of the climate change problem by the UNFCCC/IPCC and the early articulation of a preferred policy option by the UNFCCC has arguably marginalized research on broader issues surrounding climate variability and change, resulting in an overconfident assessment of the importance of greenhouse gases in future climate change and stifling the development of a broader range of policy options. 


The result of this simplified framing of a wicked problem is that we lack the kinds of information to more broadly understand climate change and societal vulnerability.


Paradigm paralysis is the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking. The vast amount of scientific and political capital invested in the IPCC has become self-reinforcing, so it is not clear how move past this paralysis as long as the IPCC remains in existence.


The wickedness of the climate change problem makes if difficult to identify points of irrefutable failure in either the science or the policies, although the IPCC's insistence that the pause is irrelevant and temporary could provide just such a refutation if the pause continues.


In any event, there is a growing realization of that neither the science or policy efforts are making much progress, and particularly in view of the failure climate models to predict the stagnation in warming, and that perhaps it is time to step back and see if we can do a better job of understanding and predicting climate variability and change and reducing societal and ecosystem vulnerabilities.





Broader implications of the disease 


Specifically with regards to climate research, for the past decade most of the resources have been expended on providing projections of future climate change using complex Earth system models, assessing and interpreting the output of climate models, and application of the output of climate models by the climate impacts community.


The large investment in climate modeling, both in the U.S. and internationally, has been made with the expectation that climate models will support decision making on both mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change.  


So, are these complex global climate models especially useful for decision makers?  The hope, and the potential, of climate models for providing credible regional climate change scenarios have not been realized. 


With the failure of climate models to simulate the pause and regional climate variability, we have arguably reached the point of diminishing returns from this particular path of climate modeling - not just for decision support but also for scientific understanding of the climate system. 


In pursuit of this climate modeling path, the climate modeling community - and the funding agencies and the policy makers - have locked themselves into a single climate modeling framework with a focus on production runs for the IPCC, which has been very expensive in terms of funding and personnel.


An unintended consequence of this strategy is that there has been very little left over for true climate modeling innovations and fundamental research into climate dynamics and theory - such research would not only support amelioration of deficiencies and failures in the current climate modeling systems, but would also lay the foundations for disruptive advances in our understanding of the climate system and our ability to predict emergent phenomena such as abrupt climate change.


As a result, we've lost a generation of climate dynamicists, who have been focused on climate models rather than on climate dynamics and theory that is needed to understand the effects of the sun on climate, the network of natural internal variability on multiple time scales, the mathematics of extreme events, and predictability of a complex system characterized by spatio-temporal chaos.


New structural forms are needed for climate models that are capable of simulating the natural internal variability of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system on timescales from days to millennia and that can accurately account for the fast thermodynamic feedback processes associated with clouds and water vapor.


Hoping and expecting to rely on information from climate models about projected regional climate change to guide adaptation response has diverted attention from using observational, historical and paleoclimate data from the region to more usefully develop the basis for future scenarios.


Further, increased scientific focus on subseasonal (weeks) and seasonal (months) weather/climate forecasts could produce the basis for tactical adaptation practices with substantial societal benefits.


Securing the common interest on local and regional scales (referred to by Brunner and Lynch as "adaptive governance") provides the rationale for effective climate adaptation strategies.


This requires abandoning the irreducibly global consensus seeking approach in favor of open debate and discussion of a broad range of policy options that stimulate local and regional solutions to the multifaceted and interrelated issues surrounding climate change.


The IPCC needs to get out of the way so that scientists and policy makers can better do their jobs.







The diagnosis of paradigm paralysis seems fatal in the case of the IPCC, given the widespread nature of the infection and intrinsic motivated reasoning. 


We need to put down the IPCC as soon as possible - not to protect the patient who seems to be thriving in its own little cocoon, but for the sake of the rest of us whom it is trying to infect with its disease.  Fortunately much of the population seems to be immune, but some governments seem highly susceptible to the disease.


However, the precautionary principle demands that we not take any risks here, and hence the IPCC should be put down.













IPCC Scientists Recommend Having...

The Earth Put Down
by Judith Curry

September 28, 2013

from JudithCurry Website



Earth is in a lot of pain, folks. 


Time to think about sending it off peacefully, for its own sake.  Look, at the end of the day, Earth is 4.5 billion years old and had a great life.


The last thing you want to do is wait and draw this difficult ordeal out any further.

– The Onion


While trying to find insightful analyses of the IPCC Report in the media, I at least came up with these two, that when juxtaposed, made me laugh but also provide some insights.


Joe Romm writes:  Alarming IPCC Prognosis - 9°F Warming For U.S., Faster Sea Rise, More Extreme Weather, Permafrost Collapse.  



The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now says we are as certain that humans are dramatically changing the planet's climate as we are that smoking causes cancer.


So perhaps the best way to think about the IPCC, which has issued a summary of its latest report reviewing the state of climate science, is as a super-cautious team of brilliant diagnosticians and specialists (who, like many doctors, aren't the greatest communicators).


They are the best in the world at what they do - the climate equivalent of the Cleveland Clinic or Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins - where you and the rest of humanity have just gone through a complete set of medical tests and are awaiting the diagnosis, prognosis, and recommended course of treatment. (It has a big waiting room - called planet Earth.)


The diagnosis is that humans are suffering from a fever (and related symptoms) caused by our own actions - primarily emissions of carbon pollution. Indeed, team IPCC is more certain than the last time we came in 6 years ago and ignored their advice.


They are 95% to 100% certain we are responsible for most of the added fever since 1950.


They explain:

The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.

To clarify the diagnosis, the best estimate is that humans are responsible for all of the warming we have suffered since 1950.


You may ask why team IPCC buried this bombshell at the end of a paragraph on page 12 of their report in very dry language. You might think that with a patient who has as serious a condition as we do but who has simply refused the obvious treatment for two decades (!), they might be a tad blunter.


But like I said, communications is not their strong suit and I am afraid that is a terminal condition. After all, they made you get up at 4 in the morning on a Friday to get this diagnosis! Yes, their bedside manner isn't that great either.


So what is the prognosis? As they told us 6 years ago (and 6 years before that), if we keep ignoring their recommended course of treatment, then, on average, total warming from preindustrial levels by 2100 is headed toward 4°C (7°F).


Of course, for two decades, their patients (humanity) have completely ignored the recommended treatment even though it is quite inexpensive relative to the cost of dealing with the ever-worsening symptoms, many of which are going to be irreversible.


So we have a super-conservative team of doctors who are bad communicators and a patient who, like most addicts, is self-destructive, very bad at listening, and focused on short-term pleasure over long-term health. That is a prescription for disaster.

The Onion carries this to its logical conclusion in Scientists Recommend Having Earth Put Down:

Claiming that it is the humane thing to do, and that the planet is "just going to suffer" if kept alive any longer, members of the world's scientific community recommended today that Earth be put down.

"We realize this isn't the easiest thing to hear, but we've run a number of tests and unfortunately there's really nothing more we can do for Earth at this point. Earth's ecosystems have hung in there for a while, and you have to hand it to the old gal for staying alive this long, but at this point the chances of a recovery are, I'm sorry to say, incredibly unlikely. It might be time to say goodbye."


"Earth is in a lot of pain, folks.  Time to think about sending it off peacefully, for its own sake."


While admitting that the prospect of saying goodbye to the terrestrial planet is very difficult, letting nature take its course would only prolong the inevitable. [I]f Earth is not put down, humanity would ultimately be responsible for its continuing care, which would be "increasingly difficult as time goes on."


"Look, at the end of the day, Earth is 4.5 billion years old and had a great life. The last thing you want to do is wait and draw this difficult ordeal out any further."


"To be honest, there is a chance that had we taken more drastic steps earlier, Earth would have been able to survive for longer - much, much longer, even. But unfortunately, that is now a moot point. Right now, you should just cherish the good times you and Earth had together and give it a gentle and merciful send-off."



JC comment


I guess the anthropocene is regarded as a terminal diagnosis for the Earth. 


Maybe we don't need to put the planet down; perhaps we could just get rid of all the people.