Seeing the value in climate science

By Dr. Heather Plumpton, Walker Institute at the University of Reading, UK

The recent OECD workshop on approaches to reduce and manage the risks of losses and damages from climate change was fascinating. Not only due to the interesting and novel insights from the diverse panellists, but the challenging and inspiring interventions from discussants and participants that really questioned some of the core concepts and assumptions upon which adaptation research and policy rest.

Value-based decision making

From the start there was a common acknowledgement that more climate science is not in itself sufficient to reduce climate risk. That in trying to reduce and manage the risks of losses and damages from climate change, we are moving beyond the realm of science and into the realm of value-based decision making. The theme of values has been cropping up everywhere recently in policy and economic discussion – from previous governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney’s Reith Lectures on the BBC, to Professor Mariana Mazzucato’s work on public value, and to the Dasgupta Review commissioned by the UK Treasury which suggested valuing nature as a form of wealth. The search for values and value-based decision making is an important shift in the public policy debate, but it also applies to the science we base our policy decisions on.

We like to think of our scientific models as value-free, providing objective information to decision makers. But we know this is not the case. Models are informed by the assumptions of their creators and the interpretation of results by their value-based judgements of risk. For example, the confidence-based framework used by the IPCC to describe the level of uncertainty in climate science prioritises reliability (avoidance of false alarms) over informativeness (avoidance of missed warnings). This choice has significant ethical implications, particularly in the context of loss and damage. Evaluating climate science statements and the outputs of models as if they were impartial and objective leaves these values implicit and hidden. An example of how this can lead to ethical dilemmas was highlighted in a recent article in The Conversation on how climate-economic models based on a particular set of assumptions and values have created the Net Zero “trap”.

During the workshop, the need to move towards methods where the value-based judgements being made are explicit rather than implicit was highlighted. One such approach is to use storylines of climate risk that are explicitly formulated to represent multiple, plausible future climates. This approach does not ask how likely a particular future is, but what would be the effect of interventions across a range of plausible futures?

Making values explicit

Embracing the values already implicit in our scientific models demonstrates the importance of moving towards a decision-centric framework where the starting point is the decision that needs to be made, and we look for ways to collect data and construct models that support that decision making process. Multiple values of multiple stakeholder groups are inherently involved in this process and starting from this decision space recognises these values explicitly. Inherent in this approach is the issue of power structures and whose voices are heard. Grounded, participatory approaches are vital to supporting the decision-centric framework, to challenge power structures as far as possible to support locally relevant decision making and ensure that values from communities whose voices are often not heard are voiced and included. At the Walker Institute, this participatory, decision-centric approach underpins all our work on adaption and resilience building. The framework can be applied to decision-making at all levels, whether policy makers in national government deciding how best to support flood-prone districts, or farmers deciding how best to plan their planting for the coming season.

The role of social protection

Another interesting theme at the workshop was the importance of effective social protection systems in buffering against a range of shocks, including slow-onset as well as extreme event disasters. The linkages between governance, policy and financing for adaptation, slow-onset disasters, and emergency humanitarian responses under Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) was a particular point of discussion. To me, the critical link between these areas of policy is the need for detailed vulnerability assessments which take into account the variation in households’ ability to cope with shocks due to differing access to assets such as livestock, networks of relatives, and the multiple sources of cash and food income. Having access to this data on who is vulnerable to which types of shocks, and why, supports better targeting of emergency humanitarian response as well as better preparation for slow-onset disasters such as multi-year droughts.

There were many other important issues raised during the workshop, too many to do justice to in this blog – how we handle transboundary issues, the importance of trust in institutions for governing adaptation, the need for meaningful public-private partnerships that go beyond extracting money, moving beyond our economic focus on GDP to the real economy – plenty of food for thought. When the Zoom call ended, I was left feeling inspired by the willingness of workshop attendees to engage with big, difficult issues and their openness in discussing the challenges we face. The final round of closing comments focused my mind on the practical – we need to be optimistic, work together, and get on with the hard work of implementation. To work!

Further reading

OECD work on losses and damages from climate change.

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