Underdetermination, Model-ensembles and Surprises: On the Epistemology of Scenario-analysis in Climatology

Betz, Gregor
June 2009
Journal for General Philosophy of Science;2009, Vol. 40 Issue 1, p3
Academic Journal
As climate policy decisions are decisions under uncertainty, being based on a range of future climate change scenarios, it becomes a crucial question how to set up this scenario range. Failing to comply with the precautionary principle, the scenario methodology widely used in the Third Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seems to violate international environmental law, in particular a provision of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. To place climate policy advice on a sound methodological basis would imply that climate simulations which are based on complex climate models had, in stark contrast to their current hegemony, hardly an epistemic role to play in climate scenario analysis at all. Their main function might actually consist in ‘foreseeing future ozone-holes’. In order to argue for these theses, I explain first of all the plurality of climate models used in climate science by the failure to avoid the problem of underdetermination. As a consequence, climate simulation results have to be interpreted as modal sentences, stating what is possibly true of our climate system. This indicates that climate policy decisions are decisions under uncertainty. Two general methodological principles which may guide the construction of the scenario range are formulated and contrasted with each other: modal inductivism and modal falsificationism. I argue that modal inductivism, being the methodology implicitly underlying the third IPCC report, is severely flawed. Modal falsificationism, representing the sound alternative, would in turn require an overhaul of the IPCC practice.


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