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Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Climate Change

Scott Barrett, a visiting research Scholar with the PIIRS Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Climate Change, and  Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia University; and coauthor Astrid Dannenberg, a fellow at the Lenfest-Earth institute, present new research about behavior and uncertainty about climate change in "Sensitivity of Collective Action to Uncertainty about Climate Tipping Points." The article was published online by Nature Climate Change on Dec. 8.

ABSTRACT: Despite more than two decades of diplomatic effort, concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to trend upwards, creating the risk that we may someday cross a threshold for ‘dangerous’ climate change1, 2, 3. Although climate thresholds are very uncertain, new research is trying to devise ‘early warning signals’ of an approaching tipping point4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. This research offers a tantalizing promise: whereas collective action fails when threshold uncertainty is large, reductions in this uncertainty may bring about the behavioral change needed to avert a climate ‘catastrophe’5. Here we present the results of an experiment, rooted in a game-theoretic model, showing that behavior differs markedly either side of a dividing line for threshold uncertainty. On one side of the dividing line, where threshold uncertainty is relatively large, free riding proves irresistible and trust illusive, making it virtually inevitable that the tipping point will be crossed. On the other side, where threshold uncertainty is small, the incentive to coordinate is strong and trust more robust, often leading the players to avoid crossing the tipping point. Our results show that uncertainty must be reduced to this ‘good’ side of the dividing line to stimulate the behavioural shift needed to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change.

The PIIRS research community, whose members work in disciplines ranging from engineering to political philosophy,receive suspport from PIIRS for research, course development, and conferences.  It examines issues of uncertainty with respect to global climate change and other international environmental problems from the perspectives of natural, social, and political science with the aim of improving the capacity to discuss and weigh related policy prescriptions.

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