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


  • Michael Oppenheimer


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

  • Michael Oppenheimer, 2005. "Defining Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference: The Role of Science, the Limits of Science," Risk Analysis, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 25(6), pages 1399-1407, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:wly:riskan:v:25:y:2005:i:6:p:1399-1407
    DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2005.00687.x

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Mort Webster, 2002. "The Curious Role of "Learning" in Climate Policy: Should We Wait for More Data?," The Energy Journal, International Association for Energy Economics, vol. 0(Number 2), pages 97-119.
    2. Kahneman, Daniel & Tversky, Amos, 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 47(2), pages 263-291, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Joachim Schleich & Elisabeth Dütschke & Claudia Schwirplies & Andreas Ziegler, 2016. "Citizens' perceptions of justice in international climate policy: an empirical analysis," Climate Policy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 16(1), pages 50-67, January.
    2. Nick Pidgeon, 2012. "Climate Change Risk Perception and Communication: Addressing a Critical Moment?," Risk Analysis, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 32(6), pages 951-956, June.

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