Climate Change Attribution: When Is It Appropriate to Accept New Methods?

The most common approaches to detection and attribution (D&A) of extreme weather events using fraction of attributable risk or risk ratio answer a particular form of research question, namely “What is the probability of a certain class of weather events, given global climate change, relative to a world without?” In a set of recent papers, Trenberth et al. (2015, and Shepherd (2016,‐016‐0033‐y) have argued that this is not always the best tool for analyzing causes, or for communicating with the public about climate events and extremes. Instead, they promote the idea of a “storyline” approach, which asks complementary questions, such as “How much did climate change affect the severity of a given storm?” From the vantage of history and philosophy of science, a proposal to introduce a new approach or to answer different research questions—especially those of public interest—does not appear particularly controversial. However, the proposal proved highly controversial, with the majority of D&A scientists reacting in a very negative and even personal manner. Some suggested the proposed alternatives amount to a weakening of standards, or an abandonment of scientific method. Here, we address the question: Why is this such a controversial proposition? We argue that there is no “right” or “wrong” approach to D&A in any absolute sense, but rather that in different contexts, society may have a greater or lesser concern with errors of a particular type. How we view the relative risk of overestimation versus underestimation of harm is context‐dependent.

Publication Date:
Feb 13 2018
Date Submitted:
Jun 28 2019
Earth's Future
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 Record created 2019-06-28, last modified 2019-08-05

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