Featured Research

Complexity and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Environmental Research by Dan Kammen

As we await the full details of the Fifth Assessment report (AR5), it is worth looking at the evolution of science assessment, policy evaluation, and normative action on climate.

The climate change Conference of the Parties meeting (COP), most recently in Doha in December 2012, has now come and gone. As has been dissected in the press, very little was accomplished. Some will see this as a failure, as I do, and others will reasonably enough note that this meeting was never intended to be a milestone moment. The current plan, in fact, is for a ‘post-Kyoto’ international climate agreement to be adopted only at the COP 20 summit in December 2015.

The science of climate change only continues to get clearer and clearer, and bleaker.

A summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings from the First Assessment Report (1990) to the latest report is presented in Figure 1. This graphic is specifically not about the scientific record alone. What is most important about this figure is the juxtaposition of the language of science and the language of … language.

Note, in particular that as the physical climate change metrics have progressed, the words — shown at right — have slowly but surely progressed. In 1990, at the time of the first assessment report (FAR) the strongest scientific consensus statement was that another decade of data would likely be needed to clearly observe climate change. Through the second to fourth (SAR, TAR, and FAR) reports, increasing clarity on the science of climate change translated into a consensus of overwhelming blame on human activities. The key statements from each report are not only about the growing evidence for anthropogenically driven climate change, but they have moved into the ecological and social impacts of this change. AR4 critically concluded that climate change would lead to climate injustice as the poor, globally, bear the brunt of the impacts. Despite this ‘Rosetta Stone,’ translating science to language we have failed to act collectively.

One area where a deeper policy discussion can rapidly advance the overall conversation is on this science/action interface. As AR5 emerges, the climate change/ climate response interface will need deep, substantive action that responds rapidly to new ideas and opportunities. The rapid publication and open access features of ERL are particularly critical here as events such as Hurricane Sandy, economic or political advances in climate response made by cities, regions or nations, all warrant assessment and response. This is one of many areas where ERL has been at the forefront of the conversation, through not only Letters, but also commentary pieces and the conversation that Environmentalresearchweb can facilitate.

This process of translating proposed solutions — innovations — between interest groups, has been in far too short supply recently. One promising example has been the science/action dialog between a leading climate research center and the World Bank.

“The Earth system’s responses to climate change appear to be non-linear,” points out Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) Director, John Schellnhuber. “If we venture far beyond the 2° guardrail, towards the 4° line, the risk of crossing tipping points rises sharply. The only way to avoid this is to break the business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption.” This assessment came in a report on climate science commissioned by the World Bank. Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, noted succinctly and critically that:

“… most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.

This statement warrants careful discussion. Not only is World Bank President Kim affirming the results of the PIK study, and by direct extension the IPCC (because the same authors at PIK are also central to the work of the IPCC), but he is clearly noting that while many climate analysts rightly talk about the need to not exceed a 2° temperature increase, the path the world is currently on, namely 4–6° will be catastrophic. This may come as too soft a statement to many in the science community, but it opens the door to an increasingly detailed dialog between climate change science and agencies engaged in action.

This interplay of analysis and wider scrutiny can play a critical role in moving climate science and assessment to climate solutions. The story is far from one just at the global level. As climatehotmap.org and many other location specific assessments detail, the environmental change story is playing out in millions of critical cases. Each warrants reporting and action, as well as integration with assessments of current data gathering and ‘big data’ needs, and with wider socioeconomic questions of effective political and policy response. Through that dialog, papers in ERL will be critically important to advancing not only climate science, but the interactive dialog between knowledge and action.

Dan Kammen is the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy.