How can the process of policymaking throw up new questions and evidence gaps in climate research?

22 February 2018


Reported by Kasia Brzezinska, CSaP Policy Intern (Jan - April 2018)

In the final lecture of the 2018 Climate Seminar series, Dr Steve Smith (Head of Climate Science at Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) discussed how the process of policymaking can throw up new questions and evidence gaps for the climate science community, and the surprising and far-reaching consequences that some policies have had for the direction of climate research.

In his talk, Dr Smith told three stories about adaptation reporting, emission metrics, and the 1.5 degree goal to show some unexpected developments in the relationship between science and climate policy, and to highlight how these surprises connect to some of today’s priorities for climate research.

In his first story about adaptation reporting, Dr Smith explained how a small clause about adaptation in the 2008 Climate Change Act led to an optional request to the Bank of England to produce a report on the impact of climate change in the insurance sector. The 2015 report developed a groundbreaking conceptualization of what the risks of climate change are to the financial sector, which eventually led to a major move towards international engagement with climate information and climate data from the private sector.

Policymakers are often tasked with making decisions in areas of deep uncertainty – creating a fertile space for unexpected things to happen

The second story discussed how we compare different greenhouse gases, in particular methane and C02 and their 100 year global warming potential. Dr Smith explained how some scientific data that was published in the first IPCC assessment report took on a life of it’s own, as with limited information to hand, policymakers had to make use of the numbers they had.

Dr Smith’s third story told of the impact that the surprising inclusion of the 1.5 degree limit in the Paris Agreement had on climate science. Dr Smith explained that until Paris, the policy possibility of 1.5 degrees had largely been left untouched by research. But political events conspired to bring this limit to the foreground of the Agreement, resulting in an urgent need for scientific research. In effect, policy had jumped ahead of science and the text of the agreement actually asks the IPCC to conduct research into the appropriate level of global emissions in 2030 that would be compatible with the 1.5 degree limit.

Dr Smith conluded by discussing some of the questions that his three stories raise.

In particular, he emphasised the burgeoning need for taking what climate scientists know and translating it to for the private sector. Dr Smith highlighted that given the diversity in the sector, there won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to providing climate science data. This means that there is a big demand for people who are well versed in science to go out and help translate risks - people who work not just in academic centres, but also in consultancies. Dr Smith pointed out that this also means there are plenty of opportunities for climate scientists to continue to be in work!

A podcast of this seminar is avaiable here

Climate Seminar Series 2018

The Centre for Science and Policy is working with Professor Charles Kennel, Director emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, to deliver the 2018 series of climate change seminars hosted by Christ’s College.

For more details of the climate seminars, please click here.