In a speech at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, David Victor delivers a thoughtful critique of how climate science is discussed in the public sphere:
“First, we in the scientific community need to acknowledge that the science is softer than we like to portray. The science is not ‘in’ on climate change because we are dealing with a complex system whose full properties are, with current methods, unknowable. The science is ‘in’ on the first steps in the analysis—historical emissions, concentrations, and brute force radiative balance—but not for the steps that actually matter for policy. Those include impacts, ease of adaptation, mitigation of emissions and such—are surrounded by error and uncertainty. I can understand why a politician says the science is settled—as Barack Obama did…in the State of the Union Address, where he said the ‘debate is over’—because if your mission is to create a political momentum then it helps to brand the other side as a ‘Flat Earth Society’ (as he did last June). But in the scientific community we can’t pretend that things are more certain than they are.
Second, under pressure from denialists we in the scientific community have spent too much time talking about consensus. That approach leads us down a path that, at the end, is fundamentally unscientific and might even make us more vulnerable to attack, including attack from our own. The most interesting advances in climate science concern areas where there is no consensus but the consequences for humanity are grave, such as the possibility of extreme catastrophic impacts. We should talk less about consensus and more about the consequences of being wrong—about the lower probability (or low consensus) but high consequence outcomes. Across a large number of climate impacts the tails on the distributions seem to be getting longer, and for policy makers that should be a call for more action, not less. But people don’t really understand that, and we in the scientific community haven’t helped much because we are focused on the consensus-prone medians rather than the tails.”