Image by Ria Sopala from Pixabay

It opens with the “oh so familiar line”: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” A scenario we are now familiar with but which rarely stops us in our tracks as we navigate the everyday.

In short: IPCC Assessment Reports provide a universal guide to climate change policymaking and assume the role of the institutional interface between science and politics. An interface that’s often mired in semantics and probabilities.

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Its purpose was to provide the world with impartial scientific knowledge about the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socioeconomic implications. 

Symbolically, on the other hand, it announced to the world that the Anthropocene of climate change had officially arrived.

It’s also worth pointing out that the IPCC does not conduct any research of its own—actual experimentation or climate modelling. Nor does it actively monitor climate change parameters but aims to comprehensively assess the latest scientific literature worldwide and provide recommendations and options for policymakers.

Synthesising the probability of survival

Central to the IPCC’s predictions is a probability range, shown below, to indicate the likelihood of climate change events.

The use of such wide-ranging probabilities, however, might add to the obfuscation. 

For example, it is unclear how to synthesise the IPCC’s probability scale into an accurate interpretation representing the prospect of surviving an extreme climate event. There is no apparent statistical method for the public to test these probabilities. 

IPCC Probability Range

In AR6, throughout the initial paragraphs of the Summary for Policymakers, the words likelyvery likely, and virtually certain repeatedly appear as prompts to the degree of urgency of the unprecedented predicament we find ourselves in. 

For example: “It is virtually certain that the global upper ocean (0–700 m) has warmed since the 1970s and extremely likely that human influence is the main driver.” But what does that mean for a person with a house nestled in the foredunes of the sea? Probably not much considering escalating house prices.

So, not surprisingly, a study by climate change researchers Budescu, Broomell, and Por in 2009 of how the public interprets probabilistic statements found substantial differences in the way people understand the IPCC’s set of probability terms in the context of their global interpretational guidelines. 

Even when respondents gained access to these guidelines, their judgements deviated substantially from them. Budescu and his co authors concluded that the IPCC’s method was likely to convey levels of imprecision that were too large. 

The result showed that the range of translations of probability (in terms of a percentage) to their verbal equivalents—for example, very likely, likely, unlikely, and very unlikely—varied significantly in the way each person interpreted and used these probability expressions.

That is, probabilities are typically thrown around indiscriminately by laypersons without much attention given to their implications and or logic. And given an incentive, like the opportunity for increased wealth, the probability of a serious downside becomes fundamentally irrelevant.

In addition, apart from the science, climate change is often only visible at the margins. For example, the low-lying small island nations of the South Pacific and the Polar Regions where sea-level rise and ice melt can be observed first-hand.

Whereas fires, floods, and droughts are a common occurrence in a country like Australia. The frequency and intensity of which is not something Australians compute on a probability basis. 

The problem with probability

Probability theory is the language of science. According to Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology Keith E Stanovich, a common mindware gap is a lack of knowledge of probability theory, which is ubiquitous and the basis of much irrational thinking and acting.

Of course, ignorance is not solely a condition of choice. However, suppose knowledge of probability theory is a prerequisite for rational thinking and acting in certain critical circumstances, as the IPCC’s reports would imply. Especially regarding policymaking and or policy advocacy. In that case, a failure to comprehend probability theory would lead to suboptimal thinking and acting, which is naturally viewed as irrational. 

The distinction is that to remain ignorant by choice when one has the opportunity and capacity to grasp probability theory is prescriptive of irrational thinking and acting, as opposed to the lack of opportunity or capacity to rectify that ignorance.

The conjunction fallacy

Further to the peculiarities of probability theory, the enterprising cognitive scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman found that individuals might succumb to “the conjunction fallacy” given even moderate incentives. 

Bear with me a little on this one: The conjunction rule states that “a conjunction cannot be more probable than one of its constituents; that is, the probability of the intersection of events, or conjunction, cannot exceed the probability of constituent events”. Put simply, humans make probability judgements contrary to logic. 

But as Tversky and Kahneman duly noted, people do not usually evaluate the everyday in terms of probability theory or indulge in calculating the compound probabilities by aggregating rudimentary ones. Climate change is a cumulative event with the probability of catastrophe increasing year on year.

And considering the longer-term implications of climate change, individuals are even less likely to pay attention to the aggregated probability of a new and not so user-friendly climate system. 

Understanding probability theory then is fundamental to synthesising IPCC reports and imperative to negotiating the everyday conundrum of climate change.

Flawless and invisible

Added to this, climate change is flawless in form and invisible to the eye. So, like a murder without a body, a catastrophe without physical substance remains a mystery and thus, can be more easily framed in that context. 

On this, one is reminded of an Oscar Wilde quip: “Before Turner, there was no fog in London”. Likewise, although the IPCC’s reports sequentially paint a clearer picture of the implications of climate change, it remains veiled in abstractness and mired in politicking. 

And from the lounge chairs of suburbia, climate change “involves invisible gases moving through invisible air to trap invisible heat, with computer models telling us that this will cause a planetary catastrophe”.

As professors of global environmental governance and politics, Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner surmised in their 2015 book Global Environmental Politics: From Person to Planet:

Climate change, then, is not only a “wicked problem” but also an “invisible” one. It is encoded in the language of science, framed in the language of politics, and evaluated in the language of economics.

In a post-truth world, have words become a redundant enterprise?

Hannah Arendt wrote that “Words can be relied on only if one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal”. In this sense, the language of science and the language of politics lie at opposite ends of the credibility spectrum. 

That is, as Arendt implies, words are reliable subject to intent—and only by our actions shall the truth be revealed. 

Considering this, it’s fair to say that in the same way that people do not typically assess the risk that confronts them based on the logic of probability, as articulated in IPCC reports, they likewise do not discriminate between intuition, belief, and knowledge, as they go about their everyday. 

And based on consecutive IPCC reports, a logical deduction would be that the Earth is warming; the warming is dangerous and largely human-induced through the burning of fossil fuels; therefore, we must cease using fossil fuels post-haste and look to clean, efficient, and safe energy alternatives. 

On the face of it, an intelligent person arriving at any other conclusion would be considered irrational.

But just as irrationality and intelligence coexist, so do intuition, belief, and knowledge. One can be both a scientist and a Christian; a policeman and corrupt; a soldier and a loving wife; an environmentalist and a frequent flyer.

That is, Homo sapiens is often everything but rational.

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science. He has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design, teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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