Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 13, No. 8, August 2017
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Framing the Challenge for the Climate Red Team

Judith Curry

This article was originally published in
Climate Etc., 9 July 2017
under a Creative Commons License


See also Stealth advocacy: a survey of weathercasters’ views on climate change

There is an opportunity to steer the proposed red team exercise in a useful direction.  The first step is to frame the problem to be addressed.

The climate red team continues to be discussed in the media and by scientists, a few examples:

However, I haven’t heard any additional statements from the administration and I have no idea what their plans are.

Hopefully, the planning isn’t very far along, so that there is time to steer it in a useful direction.

The following quotes from my post What is red teaming?  sets the stage for this post on ‘framing’:

“alternative analysis seeks to help analysts and policy-makers stretch their thinking through structured techniques that challenge underlying assumptions and broaden the range of possible outcomes considered.”

The goal of a red team usually isn’t to find a needle in the haystack, it’s to help you see the haystack.

IMO, the greatest rationale for a climate ‘red team’ is to overcome the framing bias on the whole issue of climate change (broadly defined) that was triggered by the UNFCCC treaty to avoid dangerous human caused climate change, which defined the mandate for the IPCC (and hence the rationale and funding for government spending on climate science).  

What is framing?

In my paper Reasoning About Climate Uncertainty, published in 2011, section 2 of the paper is entitled Indeterminacy and framing of the climate problem. It’s slightly dated, but the main points remain very relevant. Excerpts:

An underappreciated aspect of uncertainty is associated with the questions that do not even get asked. Wynne (1992) argues that scientific knowledge typically investigates “a restricted agenda of defined uncertainties—ones that are tractable—leaving invisible a range of other.” Indeterminacies can arise from not knowing whether the type of scientific knowledge and the questions posed are appropriate and sufficient for the circumstances in which the knowledge is applied.

Such indeterminacy is inherent in how climate change is framed. De Boer et al. (2010) state that: “Frames act as organizing principles that shape in a ‘hidden’ and taken-for-granted way how people conceptualize an issue.” De Boer et al. further state that such frames can direct how a problem is stated, who should make a statement about it, what questions are relevant, and what answers might be appropriate.

The UNFCCC Treaty provides the rationale for framing the IPCC assessment of climate change and its uncertainties, in terms of identifying human-caused dangerous climate change and providing input for decision making regarding CO2 stabilization targets. In the context of this framing, key scientific questions about climate change receive little attention.

Sharp conflicts over both the science and policy reflect this overly narrow framing of the climate change problem. Until the climate change problem is reframed or the IPCC considers multiple frames, both scientific and policy debates will continue to ignore crucial elements of climate, while formulating confidence levels about anthropogenic climate change that are too high and potentially misleading.

Re-framing the climate change problem and the solution space is needed to make progress on this. In context of a red-blue team exercise, the reframing would provide the scope for new analyses and assessments that would constructively engage the scientific community, broadly defined. This would also avoid the big yawn of an IPCC versus NIPCC style debate.

How to approach the re-framing?

The general purpose of the red-blue team exercise should be to debias thinking, enhance decision making, and help decision makers avoid costly surprises and mistakes.

The target audience is U.S. policy makers, with ancillary audiences including international policy makers and the scientific community, plus the public.

The key climate policy debate in the U.S. is whether or not we need to urgently restrict CO2 emissions to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. This concern is associated with the following underlying questions:

  • Are human caused emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases dominating climate change (globally and regionally), relative to natural climate variability and land use?
  • How will the climate change (globally and regionally) during the next 50 years? By the end of the 21st century? Note, this is actual climate change, not just human caused climate change.
  • Are warmer temperatures more ‘dangerous’ than colder temperatures? What are the positive and adverse impacts of warmer temperatures, regionally and globally?
  • How important is regional climate change in context of other regional factors including demographics, land use and regional vulnerabilities?

My proposed re-framing, relative to the UNFCCC/IPCC frame, includes the following key elements:

  • Focus on actual climate variability and change, not just human-caused climate change associated with greenhouse gas emissions and pollution aerosol. This requires consideration of natural climate variability over the past several thousand years, including solar processes, volcanoes and other solid earth processes, decadal to millennial scale ocean oscillations and internal variability, tidal and magnetic field effects. This also requires improved synthesis of regional and global historical and paleoclimate records.
  • Focus on regional climate variability: not just in terms of causal mechanisms and extreme events (which requires long historical and paleo records), but also regarding impacts in the context of regional factors such as demographics, land use and regional vulnerabilities. The UNFCCC framed the climate problem and its solution as irreducibly global; that framing neglects the most consequential regional issues and requires politically impossible global solutions.
  • Focus on sea level change: warming is but one component of global sea level change and is often a minor factor in local sea level change. Sea level change is a stand-alone problem of significant local and global consequence; assuming that we can’t do anything about this problem unless global emissions reductions somehow reduces the rate of sea level rise (it won’t reduce actual sea level) reflects policy blindness.
  • Focus on extreme weather events: Extreme weather and climate events are substantial problems in our current and past climates, independent of human caused climate change. Regional analyses of long time series of extreme events are needed, interpreted in context of modes of internal variability, solar variability and temperature trends.
  • Focus all of the above on the Arctic: a region with high amplitude natural climate variability and complex feedbacks; looming geopolitical importance.
  • Scenarios of climate change in the 21st century: Development of 21st century scenarios (global and regional) for volcanic eruptions, solar variability, multi-decadal ocean oscillations, and prospects for abrupt climate change and dragon-king events. Assessment of fitness for purpose of global climate models for predicting future climate change. Consideration of statistical and network based models for prediction. Assess likelihoods of crossing critical regional vulnerability thresholds. Assuming that all 21st century climate variability and change will be caused by human emissions of CO2 emissions leaves us vulnerable to surprises and to making bad policy decisions.

And if the red team exercise is to extend into policy options:

  • Social cost and benefits of carbon: costs as well as benefits of fossil fuels, for different scenarios of warming.
  • Strategies for water resource management: floods and drought, in the face of rising populations and industrial water needs
  • Land-based strategies for carbon management: forests, soils, agriculture
  • Strategies for agriculture: feeding a larger population with less land for agriculture in a changing climate
  • Coastal management strategies

And if the red team exercise is to extend to energy policy . . . well maybe it should, but outside the realm of the climate red team exercises since climate related issues should not be assumed a priori  to be the dominant driver of energy policy.


In this reframing, AGW is not a priori identified as the primary driver of climate change, with natural variability playing a prominent role. There is more of an emphasis on observations and analysis, rather than on modeling. GCM climate modeling is de-emphasized, with alternative strategies for generating future scenarios. The main climate impacts – extreme events and sea level rise – are dealt with holistically, rather than using an AGW frame. And finally, there is no a priori link between climate change and energy policy.

IMO these issues address the key policy concerns of the Trump administration, while providing new angles to motivate the synthesis and assessment process that are not derivative of the IPCC and NIPCC. There are other ways to frame this, in terms of actual content, and I look forward to a dialogue on a range of options.

Apart from framing the content of the scientific debate, there is an additional element of framing discussed in a previous CE post The ethics of framing science , based on an article by Matt Nisbet. He provides a list of frames, and how these define science related issues. I suspect that the Trump administration is most interested in the ‘economic development/competitiveness’ frame. Although I fear that there is interest by some in the ‘conflict/strategy’ frame that focuses on who is ahead or behind in winning a debate.   Personally, I think the most fruitful frames would be ‘middle way/alternative path’ and ‘scientific/technical uncertainty’.

My next red team post will be on the topic of implementation and mechanics, with some suggestions that attempt to avoid the pitfalls of a highly politicized exercise that doesn’t accomplish anything and wastes everyone’s time.


Judith Curry is Professor and former Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and President (co-owner) of Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN).

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