Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Archive for the ‘Risk perception’ Category

Wicked, epic fail problem

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Two strategies used in problem solving are reframing and rebadging. A problem can often be reframed or looked at in a different way. Any parent who uses reverse psychology to turn a chore into a game knows that one – Tom Sawyer getting his friends to whitewash the fence for fun is a classic example.

Expert and operating languages around a problem-solution sequence has one or more specific grammars. These terms become the labels for a particular narrative that contains a problem, a process and an outcome. So when Paul Harris, Deputy Director of the HC Coombs Policy Forum at the ANU has a go at wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973) for being, well, wicked – is he rebadging, reframing or is a he just erecting a straw man and flaying it to bits in an attempt to change a prevailing narrative?

straw man THE STRAWMAN ILLUSION

Harris’ complaint is about wicked problems. They are everywhere and their number is constantly growing: Read the rest of this entry »

Provoking comment and framing risk

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A couple of my recent forays into the media have provoked comment below the articles themselves and in emails sent querying particular points. They are worth unpacking because they reflect on the different between the straight communication of science and framing risk.

One was in reference to a recent op-ed in The Age. In it, I said:

If people accept the 0.0038 and 0.02 degree benefits as valid then they also accept the science behind a 5.3 degrees warming for business as usual (As in the emission scenario created by Treasury for the 2008 Garnaut Review). Who wants to live in a world warming by 5 degrees or more? Major food crops could not be grown in many parts of the world, projected sea level rise would be tens of metres, most of the shelled species in the ocean would not survive, ecosystems would be disrupted as the pace of change outstripped their ability to adapt and millions to billions of people would lose environmental security leading to mass migrations never before seen.

That prompted an email from an earth scientist wanting to know what peer-reviewed reference I was using for the projected tens of metres of sea level rise. I sent back this now famous diagram and a note saying that I wasn’t putting it on a timetable. He then replied suggesting that people could be misled into thinking that the date was 2100 (because that was tied to the two temperature measures) and that I was being alarmist. Because it would take thousands of years to be realised. Read the rest of this entry »

Where are the economists?

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For those who didn’t catch it, during the week an op-ed of mine was Climate Policy will Stay a Mystery until Silent Specialists Join the Debate was published in The Age. It was based on an earlier post where I detailed the benefits of Australia’s climate policy and the tricks used by opponents to make it look more ineffective than it is likely to be. In the op-ed I ask where are the barefoot economists who will challenge untrue statements about climate and the economy? Text reproduced below (with small edits for clarity).

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Benefits of Oz climate policy on The Conversation

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Little by little: the benefits of Australian climate policy

By Roger Jones, Victoria University

A catchment threatened by salinity can’t be repaired by one or two landholders. Revegetation designed to lower watertables has its greatest ecological benefit where the plants are, but its net impact on salinity is small and spread over a much larger area. To achieve catchment-wide benefits, many good neighbours need to pay a small amount towards revegetation, with everyone contributing according to their capacity. Landcare – an idea invented in Australia and exported overseas – works exactly on that basis. It is supported by all major political parties, and many Landcare programs are funded by the taxpayer.

For climate, any action to permanently reduce greenhouse gas emissions in one region spreads the benefits across the globe. A global effort requires many good neighbours amongst countries who may not know each other well or trust each other very much. Read the rest of this entry »

Nope – I can’t change your mind on climate

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So after last night’s ABC program I Can Change Your Mind on … Climate live blogged here, the answer is a resounding “No, You Can’t”. Minchin in an op-ed in The Age/SMH:

I’m sure I did not change her mind, but I hope she saw that not all sceptics are mad, bad and dangerous; that there remains a lively scientific debate about the drivers of climate change; and that scaremongering about global warming is backfiring on the warmists.

He goes on to say that of Lomborg’s cornucopian solution:

Lomborg instead advocates significant global investment in green energy research and development in order to make green energy so cheap that everyone will want it.

Now, that I can support. If there is to be any common ground between sceptics and warmists, this surely must be it. Let’s work to make green energy a realistic, affordable alternative, instead of stupidly trying to make conventional energy so incredibly expensive that we will stop using it.

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I can change your mind on climate – live blog

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Welcome to the live blog for I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate on ABC1 from 8:30 pm AEST. From the show’s blurb:

Separated by a generation, and divided by their beliefs, two passionate, intelligent and successful Australians go on a journey of mutual discovery to see if they can change each other’s minds about the most divisive issue in Australia today: climate change.

It’s a pity we don’t have cards for climate change bingo to mark off squares for “It hasn’t warmed since 1998”, “scientists are only in it for the grant money”, “the temperature record cannot be believed” and so on. Likewise, I don’t recommend drinking games. You’ll be on your ear by 9. Read the rest of this entry »

Can the ABC make its mind up about climate?

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Tonight the ABC is broadcasting  the battle between science and belief in the minds of ex Senator Nick Minchin and Australian Yoof Coalition founder Anna Rose. This will be followed up by a Q&A on climate change (yep, another one) with panelists

Oh goody – not a climate change scientist amongst them, though there will be a few in the audience.

I’m going to live blog the show here.

Stefan Lewandowsky and colleagues will be doing an expert live blog here: http://myresearchspace.grs.uwa.edu.au/events/icanchange and tweeting under the hashtag #qandascientists

Clive Hamilton at Crikey has already concluded that by framing it as a debate, the ABC has handed a win to the doubters. The picture below showing that the largest poll group on the ABC site is dismissive of climate change shows the site is being gamed. My inside intelligence says the program is pretty interesting.

ABC Climate Change Poll 7:45 pm April 26

If you want to have fun in my sandpit, come along and join the fun here online and with the TV on from 8:30 Eastern Australian Standard Time.

The pink surfboard conundrum

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The pink surfboard conundrum: calculating risk v a social licence to operate

by Professor Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies (CSES) at Victoria University and FAQ Research writer. Cross-posted at Crikey.

Coal seam gas issue presents a wicked problem. Wicked problems are hard to define, have competing values and cannot be definitively solved. For wicked risks, perceptions are just as important as the risks themselves.

So when a wicked risk becomes a hot political issue how do you know whether you’re being reliably informed or being sold a pink surfboard?

Recently, Ben Cubby reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on the public relations challenges discussed at an industry conference:

“A consultant, Daniel Tormey, recounted his experience with the development of oil drilling off California’s coast, and drew parallels with opposition to the coal seam gas industry in Australia.

“Environmental concerns were addressed, and the public had not logged any major objections, he said, but then the Hollywood actor Daryl Hannah was photographed carrying a pink surfboard and protesting about oil drilling. At that point, support for the industry collapsed, and he warned gas executives that the same thing could happen here. ‘Once you see the pink surfboard you know you can’t win.’”

Advocates, both pro and con CSG, are trying to capture public opinion and create their own pink surfboard moment, while preventing their opposition from getting the upper hand.

The CSG industry and a social licence to operate

The coal seam gas industry is seeking a social licence to operate.

Part of that social licence is tacit, where the community recognises the benefits of an industry and accepts that it is acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Another part of that licence is exercised by government in permitting the activity and ensuring that a range of conditions are met on behalf of the community.

Here’s what the Australian coal industry says about their social licence:

“The Australian coal industry respects that its long-term future relies on its ‘social licence’ to operate. This means that the majority of the community remains supportive of Australia’s coal mining industry once aware of the economic and employment the industry provides; the essential products that it produces for domestic and overseas markets for energy, steelmaking and other industrial processes; and the impacts it can have on the environment and some local communities.”

They also state:

“The Australian coal industry places premium value on maintaining its social licence to operate. In order to do so, the industry promotes the pro-active steps that it is taking to address impacts on the environment and some local communities, and works with those communities and governments to address concerns as they arise. The objective is to ensure the responsible, long-term development of Australia’s coal resources in a manner that is accepted and supported by the Australian community.”

The industry’s licence to operate is focused on maintaining a healthy coal industry. This is also relevant to other fossil fuel resources including coal seam gas. Continuation of the industry is a core part of their social LTO. Transforming the industry away from fossil fuel extraction to another form of energy resource is not on the table.

Other players would like to see this licence suspended or even cancelled because of the risks from fossil fuel emissions to groundwater and to agricultural productivity.

So the stakes are high.

Wicked risks

Three areas of risk are particularly relevant to negotiating wicked risks: calculated risk, perceived risk and political risk.

Calculated risk

Calculated risk is the estimate of risk calculated by expert assessment.

This combines science and values to estimate the likelihood of risk and assess the costs and benefits of various options for risk management. Aspects of calculated risk surrounding CSG include the identification of reserves, exploration and extraction, the interaction of CSG and groundwater, the greenhouse gas footprint of the production and consumption cycle, land-use and land planning, onsite environmental impacts and broader social and environmental outcomes.

Critical environmental issues include the extraction and injection of groundwater, the chemistry of the coal seam gas and groundwater, the chemical agents used to extract the gas, and the volumes  and quality of groundwater consumed in the process.

Perceived risk

Perceived risk is how a risk and risk management options are seen by an observer.

It includes how that person frames that risk via their personal values, but is also affected by a number of heuristics, or mental rules of thumb. For example, the short-term framing of economic gains from fossil fuel extraction is very different to long-term values attached to the sustainable use of groundwater. The value that a farmer puts on their livelihood is often very different to how a mining company will maximise shareholder return.

If external costs are to be allowed for, utilitarian economics will put a dollar value on all commercial, social and environmental aspects of risk, claiming that costs and benefits can be balanced this way.

Broader measures of welfare suggest these different viewpoints are very differently balanced. For perceived risk, emotional, rather than analytic, decision-making is likely to dominate.

Political risk

For political risk, the rubber hits the road on calculated versus perceived risk.

Good policy requires credible estimates of calculated risk, whereas good politics has to navigate the emotional currents of perceived risk. Much of this takes place in the rough and tumble market of public opinion, dialogues of power and privilege, and social discourses describing personal and institutional aspirations.

Pink surfboards can be game breakers.

How these come together is shown in the following cartoon. It combines calculated and perceived risks in “good” policy making where the various economic, social and environmental interests in a complex risk are combined. The prize is a social licence to operate.

Risk and pink surfboards

Reading the material being presented to the public via the social, print and broadcast media the debate on CSG is clearly dominated by the pink surfboard aspects of risk management. The main links are between perceived and political risk. That’s not to say that efforts aren’t being made to calculate the technical aspects of risk, it’s just that this is mainly taking place behind the scenes.

In the time it takes to assess things like the long-term effect of widespread CSG on groundwater, the socio-economic  balance between agriculture and CSG in rich fields, strategies for environmental management, how to substitute CSG for higher-emitting fuels rather than just add to them, the argument could be won or lost (depending which “side” it is viewed from).

Also, it is not a good strategy to admit to areas where the level of knowledge, therefore the ability to calculate risk, is low. It’s easier and cheaper for the media to report on pink surfboards. It’s cheaper and more politically effective to influence perceived risk, which requires a working knowledge of the psychology of selling, of pink surfboards and purple pachyderms. Look over there – a big shiny thing!

But if CSG is to be extracted sustainably, then good policy is vital.

In future articles we will look at how risk is being assessed and contrast that with appeals to risk perceptions. A pink surfboard on an astroturf background may be eye-catching but it’s not informative.

Professor Roger Jones is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies (CSES) at Victoria University. Read more about FAQ Research writers here.

Manne on Bad News

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Robert Manne, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, authored the latest Quarterly Essay, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation. He thesis is that The Australian has jettisoned the traditional newspaper role of reporter–analyst to become an active participant in federal and state politics. By becoming one of the most powerful political forces in the country, the paper enjoys “power without responsibility”.

The Australian and the rest of the News media stable leapt to the Oz’s defence against that-bully-Manne with a swathe of articles. They repeatedly defended their right to free speech; exclusive to themselves, of course. Chris Mitchell, editor of The Australian and key Manne target:

To paraphrase another high-profile commentator on media, I say to editors at Fairfax and the ABC, don’t publish crap just because it’s written by Rob Manne. Can’t be that hard (HT Mercurius).

Deltoid was mentioned by Manne for his long running The Australians War on Science series and has already summarised the Australian’s response; here’s a more in depth look at the chapter on climate change. Chris Mitchell, the editor since 2002, defends the paper’s stance of climate change, claiming:

The Australian in the past 10 years has published 29 pieces by climate change “deniers” — that is, three a year. In that period it has published thousands of news stories, opinion pieces and editorials on the issue. This paper has accepted man-made climate change since the 1980s.

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Written by Roger Jones

October 6, 2011 at 11:49 pm

The risk perception paradox on The Conversation

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The perception paradox: understanding risk is key to selling the carbon tax

Science is strengthening its view that business-as-usual emissions of greenhouse gases will result in serious risks while the Australian public’s perception of climate change as a risk erodes.

A recent Lowy Institute Poll shows the proportion of the public who say “until we are sure global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic effects” has risen from 7 to 19% between 2006 and 2011.

81% believe climate change to be a problem, but support for a serious/gradual response has shifted from 68%/24% to 41%/40%.

75% think the federal government has done a somewhat to very poor job of addressing climate change. And in current political polling, a majority of Australians are opposed to a “carbon tax”.

This shows an increasing gap between the calculated and perceived risks of climate change, although a majority remained concerned.

It also shows a gap between the perceived risks of climate policy and benefits of implementing that policy. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Roger Jones

July 26, 2011 at 7:24 am