Thursday, August 18, 2016

Wickedly simple

I wasn't planning on writing anything about the Grundmann letter in Nature (paywalled of course, but you aren't missing much) as it seemed to be a pretty trivial “what about meeeeee” whine. ATTP put it best:
Both there and at the Onion, I haven't seen anything much to revise my previous jaundiced opinion as to the value of social science. I hope to be proved wrong but won't be holding my breath in the meantime.

One thing that I did find useful in the letter was a clear definition of what he thought it meant for a problem to be wicked: “Most importantly, wicked problems do not have a stopping rule. [...] Climate change does not have a stopping rule.”

I think that's pretty much flat out wrong. I know that people like to add on their favourite hobby horses of climate variability and social vulnerability etc, and some of the wording is vague, but the basic problem that has motivated and dominated the research agenda for many years is due to us pumping out millions of tonnes of fossil-fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere. Cut net emissions to about zero and the problem is solved. Sure, if you choose to define “climate change” sufficiently broadly, then you can always find something else to worry about, but stopping the global-scale experiment that we are currently performing would suffice for practical purposes. As they say, “good enough for govt work”.

For my next trick, I'll consider the problem of model independence.

30 comments:

Richard S J Tol said...

Grundmann is correct that we've been more successful in solving the problem of the ozone layer than the problem of climate change. He argues that this is partly because climate policy is modelled on ozone policy, even though the problems are structurally different. He further argues that these structural differences were recognized in the social sciences in the early 1990s, and that the subsequent failure of climate policy was both predicted and preventable.

I would agree with Grundmann, although I think that acidification policy was more influential in shaping climate policy -- and just as inadequate.

Grundmann argues that it would be better to style climate policy on education policy or crime policy. I think that is correct, but I would add health and pensions policy to the mix.

You are of course free to dismiss Grundmann and the whole of the social sciences. Fact is, natural scientists have strongly influenced climate policy since Bellagio 1985. Emissions have gone up since (although not nearly as fast as the climate research budget). After 30+ years of trying and failing, perhaps it is time to try something different.

andthentheresphysics said...

Richard,
At it's simplest level, there isn't really a difference between the ozone problem and climate change. We're pumping something into the atmosphere that is acting to produce changes that may have negative consequences. As James's post says

....the basic problem that has motivated and dominated the research agenda for many years is due to us pumping out millions of tonnes of fossil-fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere. Cut net emissions to about zero and the problem is solved.

Simple.

Of course, the complexity comes in when we consider how society responds to the implications of such information. The objection I have to Grundmann's article (which you appear to have read with very rose-tinted glasses on) is the argument that because of this societal response, we should now treat it as only a social problem, and not a science problem. Of course the social aspect is very important and means that how we solve problems may differ, even if their fundamentals are similar. It doesn't mean, however, that we should somehow essentially ignore that there are fundamentally simple solutions, even if achieving them is very difficult in reality.


He further argues that these structural differences were recognized in the social sciences in the early 1990s, and that the subsequent failure of climate policy was both predicted and preventable.

The only way that I can see this being true is if we re-defined climate policy in a such a way that we are now able to successfully implement this thing we've decided to call climate policy. The obvious problem with this is that it doesn't mean that we've actually solved the problem. Ideally, the goal of policy should be to actually solve problems (or come as close as is possible) not redefine things so that it appears that we have, when we really haven't.

Richard S J Tol said...

@wotts
Indeed. CFC and CO2 emissions are both global, long-term, uncertain externalities. But that is where the similarity ends. These are inherently different problems, requiring structurally different solutions.

andthentheresphysics said...


These are inherently different problems, requiring structurally different solutions.

This may well be true, but this does not mean that climate change is a social problem and not a scientific problem, which was the crux of Grundmann's article. Redefining something so that it becomes potentially soluble does not mean that we've necessarily solved the problem. It probably means we've solved an entirely different problem.

Richard S J Tol said...

Greenhouse gas emission reduction is a social problem, just like the reduction of substances that deplete the ozone layer.

James Annan said...

Richard,

If Grundmann came up with a concrete proposal and some credible argument that it would work better, I'd be all for it. Simply saying "what about meeeee" doesn't cut the mustard.

Do you disagree that there is an obvious stopping rule of (close to) zero net CO2 emissions?

Richard S J Tol said...

Reiner can speak for himself, but I doubt this is a "what about me" message.

I don't know what's a stopping rule in this context. Zero emissions are not the end of climate policy, though, as we'll still have plenty of fossil reserves at that point.

He does offer an alternative approach, though, namely to organize climate policy like crime and education policy.

I don't know much about crime policy. Education policy is cool, though. In the UK, the Elementary Education Act was passed in 1880 and 136 years later primary education is still going strong. That's the time scale we need for climate.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Thanks to Richard for doing a good job defending the social sciences, not just economics. And I agree health and education policies would provide good analogies to climate policy.

One point seems worth special attention from the original post, above. James wrote about my definition of a wicked problem, applied to climate change ("Climate change does not have a stopping rule”):

"I think that's pretty much flat out wrong. I know that people like to add on their favourite hobby horses of climate variability and social vulnerability etc, and some of the wording is vague, but the basic problem that has motivated and dominated the research agenda for many years is due to us pumping out millions of tonnes of fossil-fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere. Cut net emissions to about zero and the problem is solved. Sure, if you choose to define “climate change” sufficiently broadly, then you can always find something else to worry about..."

We had some discussion about this over at Klimazwiebel and ATTP made a similar point.
https://klimazwiebel.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/climate-change-as-wicked-social-problem.html

Both you and ATTP seem to be unaware of the fact that "climate change" is defined in a different way by the IPCC and the UNFCCC. Roger Pielke has pointed this out long ago
http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/resource-479-2004.10.pdf

If you want define CC as the anthropogenically caused change only, you are on territory of UNFCCC, not IPCC.

There are three main drivers of anthropogenic CC: GHGs, aerosols, and changes in land use. Focusing on one definition of the three (GHGs) seems arbitrary, Leaving out adaptation seems arbitrary. Leaving out geo-engineering seems also arbitrary, And leaving out natural drivers of CC, and unintended consequences of our interventions, seem even more arbitrary,

The simple point I tried to make (but which did not get across) is that wicked problems do not have a stopping rule. They are embedded in other problems, and the expression of other problems. In the ozone case, all drivers of ozone depletion were industrially produced. The policy problem was still complex and daunting (industry resistance). But the ultimate stopping rule was clear, and it clearly expressed in Susan Solomon et al 2016. No such thing exists for "climate change", as defined by the IPCC.

Over to the simplifiers ;-))

Richard S J Tol said...

Reiner: Even if you define climate change as carbon-dioxide-induced climate change, then you will need to maintain climate policy until fossil fuel reserves are no longer commercially viable. That is a long time, as there is plenty of cheap coal out there.

andthentheresphysics said...

Reiner,

Both you and ATTP seem to be unaware of the fact that "climate change" is defined in a different way by the IPCC and the UNFCCC.

I've already told you that I know this, and it would be surprising if James didn't, so it's hard to see why would claim this.


The simple point I tried to make (but which did not get across) is that wicked problems do not have a stopping rule.

You did get this across. That people don't agree with you that it is a wicked problem (as you defined it) doesn't mean you didn't get it across.


There are three main drivers of anthropogenic CC: GHGs, aerosols, and changes in land use.

Indeed, aerosols are probably masking about 1/3 of the GHG warming. Changes in land use are less than one-tenth of the net change in anthropogenic forcing. So, yes, there are 3. GHGs dominate. If we continue as they are, they will dominate even more.


Focusing on one definition of the three (GHGs) seems arbitrary

Noone involved in this discussion is, as far as I can see, doing this.


Leaving out adaptation seems arbitrary.

Who would do this? It's a bizarre thing to suggest. Of course adaptation will be required.


Leaving out geo-engineering seems also arbitrary,

Indeed, this is one possible alternative. It, however, carries risks. So, yes, we could keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and then hope that we can geo-engineer our way out of it in future, if necessary. If, however, you think climate models are insufficient for understanding how our climate changes in response to changing anthropogenic forcings, then they're definitely not good enough to help design geo-engineering solutions.


And leaving out natural drivers of CC

I'm assuming that you're not suggesting that natural influences probably produced a substantial fraction of our observed warming. It's not impossible, but it is regarded as highly unlikely.


and unintended consequences of our interventions, seem even more arbitrary,

Again, I don't think anyone is actually suggesting this.


But the ultimate stopping rule was clear, and it clearly expressed in Susan Solomon et al 2016. No such thing exists for "climate change", as defined by the IPCC.

Solar variability is around 0.1% and could produce changes in global temperature of a few tenths of a degree C. On centennial scales, we expect other internally driven processes to produce warming of, at most, a few tenths of a degree C. If we carry on emitting CO2 along our current trajectory, we could produce changes of a few degrees C; in fact, current views seem to be that it's going to be difficult to keep below 2C, and we're likely heading for somewhere between 3 and 4C. In other words, anthrogenic influences (mainly CO2) are likely to be the dominant (by an order of magnitude) driver of climate change in the coming century.

So, yes, by the IPCC definition, there are multiple drivers of climate change, but there is likely one that will dominate in the coming decades, which is us.


Over to the simplifiers ;-))

As I think I've already pointed out, I certainly don't claim that it is simple. However, the fundamentals themselves are simple; stop emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. Deciding whether or not we should do so, how we should do so, how fast we should do so, etc are all very complex issues and clearly involve a lot of information from the social sciences as well as from the physical/natural sciences. That doesn't mean, however, that we don't understand what is driving the current changes and what it would take to address this.

So, in my view, your basic position would seem stronger if it didn't require misrepresenting those who don't immediately agree with everything you've said. It would also help if it didn't appear that it's also based on a number of pretty fundamental misunderstandings about our current scientific understanding.

Bas van Ruijven said...

"Deciding whether or not we should do so, how we should do so, how fast we should do so, etc are all very complex issues and clearly involve a lot of information from the social sciences as well as from the physical/natural sciences. "

Which is exactly why climate change is a wicked problem.... Thanks for defining is in natural scientist language.

andthentheresphysics said...

Which is exactly why climate change is a wicked problem.... Thanks for defining is in natural scientist language.

That does not appear to be how it was defined in Reiner's article. Also, difficult doesn't necessarily mean wicked.

Paul Matthews said...

I used to share your contemptuous attitude towards the social sciences. I think it is shared by many, if not most, physical scientists. But then I learnt more about it and started listening to them, talking to them, learning more about it and going to some of their meetings, and revised my opinion of the subject and some of the people in it (particularly Reiner Grundmann and Warren Pearce at Nottingham).

Of course, there is some real nonsense in the social sciences and it's fun to laugh at it (remember the feminist glaciology story?).

But there is plenty of laughable nonsense in climate science too. Have you read the new book by Peter Wadhams?

Richard S J Tol said...

Indeed Paul

James neatly illustrated that. He walked into a specialist workshop and did not understand a word, therefore all of the social sciences must be wrong. Guess what? If I walk into a specialist workshop on a neighboring subdiscipline -- say labor economics -- I do not understand a word either. That's not because they talk nonsense, but because they are superspecialists talking to other superspecialists about their superspecialisation.

andthentheresphysics said...

Richard,
I believe that what James's earlier post actually said was

We were sitting next to a social scientist, let's call him Bob (because his real name was Ian). jules asked him pointedly what the purpose of social science was, as it never seemed to say anything of substance to us, i.e. concrete advice. IanBob admitted rather frankly - proudly, even - that it wasn't supposed to have a point.

Somehow you've interpreted that as "didn't understand a word". Ironic?

Richard S J Tol said...

@wotts
I refer to James' description of the talks rather than his conversation during the break.

As to IanBob's remark, I wasn't there so I do not know what he meant. Maybe be was channeling Derrida, Foucault, or Arrow; maybe he expressed his disillusion with the academy; maybe it was a rhetorical device; or maybe he was pulling James' leg.

andthentheresphysics said...

Richard,
Okay, but I'm still looking for the bit where he said he didn't understand them.

Richard S J Tol said...

"waiting for the punchline"

Either the speakers were uniformly bad, or James did not recognize the punchlines for what they were.

andthentheresphysics said...

Ahh, I see. You've interpreted an acknowledgement that maybe he didn't understand the punchline as "did not understand a word"?

Richard S J Tol said...

Well James acknowledged that he recognized when people started talking and stopped, which is about as far as I get when I listen to presentations in Chinese. (My Chinese is limited to a few words.)

James Annan said...

Richard, it was a joint climate/social science workshop, I think it had some public/journalists there. Nothing too esoteric, and IIRC the talks were little more than recitation of the history, which I was pretty familiar with. Hence waiting for the punchline (point).

Richard S J Tol said...

Ah, James, and it did not occur to you that the point of a historical description is to describe history? I've often sat through physicists, biologists and chemists talking about the data they collected -- and even with my arrogant economist hat on (we outsource data collection) I understood that the point of data collection is just that.

Hank Roberts said...

Meanwhile,

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v536/n7617/full/nature19082.html

of any importance to sensitivity estimate?

Hank Roberts said...

Oh, ah, hat tip to:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/08/24/human-caused-climate-change-has-been-happening-for-a-lot-longer-than-we-thought-scientists-say/

Richard S J Tol said...

@Hank
This would imply an upward revision of the climate sensitivity.

EliRabett said...


Bit late to the party, but Reiner Grundmann's understanding of the ozone issue is lacking. When he says " In the ozone case, all drivers of ozone depletion were industrially produced. " he is leaving out methyl chloride and methyl bromide, produced in great amount by biological processes as well as being manufactured. As with CFCs, the stopping rule is stop burning fossil fuels, the other sources are not nearly as important.

Graeme said...

I think the big problem is the number of actors involved. For ozone, the refrigeration suppliers. For Co2, whole countries eg Saudi Arabia etc, industries such as gas, oil, coal, second order industries such as steel, cement etc etc. You are dealing with thousands of agencies plus whole nations. Without oil, what happens to the Gulf States? Please pretend to look concerned on their behalf.

Graeme said...

A late glimmer that Eli might understand the point?

EliRabett said...


The problem with methyl bromide includes its broad use in agriculture which gave rise to no end of bleating. Also the dire threat of the Montreal Protocols to kill the poor. Stuff like this

"A breakdown in refrigeration occurs when the required replacement of the refrigeration equipment with expensive new units is not feasible. As there are no direct replacement chemicals available to take the place of the CFCs all the equipment must be replaced the world over with new equipment that is specially designed to work with a different type of chemicals. In other words, a complete replacement of every refigeration system is required when normally a simple repair would suffice. The global cost for replacing all existing refrigeration systems prematurely is estimated to be in the five trillion dollar range. Since most nations cannot afford to pay even the interest on their debt, much less capital expenditures on such a huge scale, it is most likely that refrigeration gradually disappears for the economic and social landscape with corresponding losses in food products that refrigeration currently protects. The inevitable result will be a total breakdown in refrigeration capability across the world, especially in the poor nations where increased losses of food are intollerable. This breakdown is estimates to increase the global death rate by an additional 20-40 million deaths per year after the year 2000"

James should remember

Russell Seitz said...

If The Onion 's parody of PoMo Social Science discourse doesn't make you weep, The real thing will:

http://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2016/08/its-naive-little-monster-but-you-may.html