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Systemic Misuse of Scenarios in Climate Research and Assessment

April 21, 2020
By Roger Pielke, Jr. , Justin Ritchie

Climate research and assessments have misused scenarios for more than a decade, by treating unrealistic, extreme scenario as likely and illogically comparing of climate projections across inconsistent estimates of global economic development.

Climate science research and assessments have misused scenarios for more than a decade, including by treating unrealistic, extreme scenarios as the world’s most likely future and making illogical comparisons of climate projections across global development trajectories that are inconsistent with each other

The authors write, in the Abstract:

Reasons why this misuse arose include (a) competing demands for scenarios from users in diverse academic disciplines that ultimately conflated exploratory and policy relevant pathways, (b) the evolving role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – which effectively extended its mandate from literature assessment to literature coordination, (c) unforeseen consequences of employing a nuanced temporary approach to scenario development, (d) maintaining research practices that normalize careless use of scenarios in a vacuum of plausibility, and (e) the inherent complexity and technicality of scenarios in model-based research and in support of policy.

As a consequence, the climate research community is presently off-track. Attempts to address scenario misuse within the community have thus far not worked. The result has been the widespread production of myopic or misleading perspectives on future climate change and climate policy. Until reform is implemented, we can expect the production of such perspectives to continue. However, because many aspects of climate change discourse are contingent on scenarios, there is considerable momentum that will make such a course correction difficult and contested - even as efforts to improve scenarios have informed research that will be included in the IPCC 6th Assessment.