Defining Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference: The Role of Science, the Limits of Science

9 Pages Posted: 7 Nov 2006

See all articles by Michael Oppenheimer

Michael Oppenheimer

Princeton University - Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Abstract

Defining "dangerous anthropogenic interference" with the climate system in the context of Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) presents a complex challenge for those developing long-term climate policy. Natural science has a key role to play in quantifying vulnerabilities of elements of the Earth system and estimating the risks from a changing climate. But attempts to interpret Article 2 will inevitably draw on understanding from social science, psychology, law, and ethics. Here I consider the limits of science in defining climate "danger" by focusing on the potential disintegration of the major ice sheets as an example of an extreme impact. I show that considerations of timescale, uncertainty, and learning preclude a definition of danger drawn purely from natural science. Decisionmakers will be particularly challenged by one characteristic of global problems: answers to some scientific questions become less accurate over decadal timescales, meandering toward the wrong answer, a feature I call negative learning. I argue for a precautionary approach to Article 2 that would be based initially on current, limited scientific understanding of the future of the ice sheets.

Suggested Citation

Oppenheimer, Michael, Defining Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference: The Role of Science, the Limits of Science. Risk Analysis, Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 1399-1407, December 2005. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=943172 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2005.00687.x

Michael Oppenheimer (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs ( email )

Department of Geosciences
Princeton, NJ 08544-1021
United States
+1 609-258-2338 (Phone)

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