GAVIN SCHMIDT: How can we make climate policy in the face of uncertainty?

GAVIN SCHMIDT, NASA climatologist and founding member, RealClimate

Scientists almost by definition spend their time researching uncertainties. They rarely write papers on what is well known because they are supposed to be doing something new. Indeed, it is hard to see why any scientist would remain in the field if they thought everything important was already known.

For topics like climate change, though, the focus on uncertainties dominates not only the technical literature, but also the media. Perhaps nine out of 10 stories that get mass attention are related to new papers in Nature or Science that are right at the edge of what is known. This tends to skew public attention away from the fundamental science that everyone agrees on. I would argue that it is this far broader knowledge that should inform policy-making, rather than the hot-off-the-press new result that has not been evaluated by the broader community and can occasionally be quite wrong.

Policies should aim to be robust to the remaining uncertainties, and they mostly are. But it is important to note that all policy-making, being concerned with the future, always has to deal with uncertainty. This is not an alien concept to policy makers, and climate science is not unique in having uncertainties.

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