Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

New Climate Commission – a reflection

with 4 comments

Complex problems like climate change are so contentious because of the many different ways that people view issues and apply their own brand of reasoning to them. Take the different cultural values and world views people have, combine them with very different ideas of causality, then it’s no great wonder that people come to very different conclusions.

The world of globalised communications has become a big marketplace of ideas. We’re into the territory of “there are no right answers, but there are some very wrong ones”. This is because complex problems do not have single, simple solutions; they have messy ones. After reviewing the range of arguments over climate change, I’ve been very disappointed to realise (on reflection) how little formal training in reasoning people get. Applying simple reasoning to complex issues does not lead to good decisions, except by accident. People can go through school, negotiate university and come out the other end with no particular skills in decision-making beyond their narrow training (this includes science education). Apparently in a post-modern democracy to teach decision-making is undemocratic, in an autocratic system you are told what to think and in a traditional system you think the way your forbears did. Ideas are communicated via social means where confidence, reputation and small-world trust networks can be more effective than their content. This is dangerous where the limits of a range of social-ecological systems are being reached. Narratives can amplify or dampen ideas – a powerful narrative is able to promote almost any idea – for example that somehow the vast majority of the globe’s natural scientists have deluded themselves and others into thinking the climate is changing.

A new entry into the Australian marketplace of ideas is the launch of the Climate Commission by the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet. It is headed by Professor Tim Flannery, who is named as a leading science communicator. Other commissioners are Professor Will Steffen, Professor Lesley Hughes, Dr Susannah Eliott, Mr Gerry Hueston and Mr Roger Beale. It is backed by a science advisory panel Professor Matt England, Professor David Karoly, Professor Andy Pitman, Professor Neville Smith, Professor Tony McMichael, Dr Helen Cleugh, Dr Lisa Alexander and Professor Brendan Mackey.

Its tasks are to:

  • Explain the science of climate change and the impacts on Australia.
  • Report on the progress of international action dealing with climate change.
  • Explain the purpose and operation of a carbon price and how it may interact with the Australian economy and communities.

And it will:

  • Hold a series of public outreach events to explain:
  1. the science of climate change and issues raised by climate scientists;
  2. the magnitude of the challenge to address climate change;
  3. the role of a carbon price in effectively tackling climate change;
  4. what contribution other policy mechanisms are making;
  5. how a carbon price works and its interaction with the economy and the community; and
  6. the opportunities for Australian firms and communities in moving to a low carbon future
  • Draw on their expertise and that of the other relevant experts and organisations to prepare targeted information products to help inform the public and build community support for climate change efforts.
  • Engage in other community forums and public debate as required.

This commission is already attracting opposition. The Opposition’s climate spokesman Greg Hunt said in a statement “The Climate Commission is just another piece in Labor’s jigsaw puzzle to try to justify their plan for an electricity tax.” Andrew Bolt is already on the attack, trawling through Flannery’s past comments on climate risk on order to reduce the effects of reputation on the commission’s effectiveness.

The trickiest part of the whole task is that the Commission is independent from government but will not comment on policy matters nor provide policy advice or recommendations. In two of the tasks that the Commission has been given, to report on the progress of international action and to explain the purpose of a carbon price, the commission will need to stick to generalities without providing specific policy advice or recommendations. Given the importance of framing of climate change as a policy issue, matters like interpreting progress in international action will be very tricky. I suspect it means that interpreting progress in Australian action – not included in the terms of reference – would be even trickier. The purpose of a carbon price in principle can be readily explained through the benefits of avoided damages, but the details of tax versus market-based schemes are not so simple. Gerry Hueston and Roger Beale will be key in this regard and have a great deal of experience in science–economics–policy interface.

The strength of the Commission and its advisory body is in the science of climate change and its impacts. The challenge will be to actively communicate the science and not be caught on the back foot responding to oppositional messages intended to confuse and delay.


Written by Roger Jones

February 13, 2011 at 11:28 am

4 Responses

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  1. I’m glad to see you have entered the blogging field Roger. Your comments on climate at LP have been invaluable.


    February 13, 2011 at 1:19 pm

  2. Hi Roger, just come across from the LP climate change thread.

    I’m very interested in your thoughts on what the best way to communicate scientific reasoning to the general public. I guess traditionally research scientists (as opposed to technicians) have been trained by (a) university courses which emphasise autodidactic rather than rote learning, and (b) by doing independent research through late undergraduate and postgraduate studies. My feeling is that the most valuable thing this training provides is a highly refined bullshit detector which allows you to cut noise from signal, and gives you a gut feeling of ‘what to trust’ when it comes to science.

    Obviously you can’t expect the general public to have these same skills, so your communication of good vs bad science ultimately has to rely on some kind of appeal to authority. And the denialists know this, given Bolt’s attacks on Flannery. What do you think is the most effective way of helping people identify what makes ‘good science’?


    March 5, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    • Jess,

      I think a nested approach, where communication at a basic level can be followed through to a philosophy of science grounding (a pedagogy) is the way to go forward. I should start a thread on this to try a discussion – it might be too wonky for LP. But the appeal to authority has definite limits which the ontological approach (this is what we know) cannot breach. That said there are real differences between scientific reasoning and what passes for reasoning in ordinary debate. The epistemology of both and how that interact with psychology, social construction and risk perception (the combination of the two) is where the action is.

      Roger Jones

      March 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm

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