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Geoscience Communication An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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https://doi.org/10.5194/gc-2019-1
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
https://doi.org/10.5194/gc-2019-1
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 18 Jan 2019

Research article | 18 Jan 2019

Review status
This discussion paper is a preprint. It is a manuscript under review for the journal Geoscience Communication (GC).

Telling the boiling frog what he needs to know: why climate change risks should be plotted as probability over time

Simon Sharpe Simon Sharpe
  • Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom

Abstract. Humanity's situation with respect to climate change is sometimes compared to that of a frog in a slowly-boiling pot of water, meaning that change will happen too gradually for us to appreciate the likelihood of catastrophe and act before it is too late. I argue that the scientific community is not yet telling the boiling frog what he needs to know. I use a review of the figures included in two reports of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change to show that much of the climate science communicated to policymakers is presented in the form of projections of what is most likely to occur, as a function of time (equivalent to: in 5 minutes' time, the water you are sitting in will be two degrees warmer). I argue from first principles that a more appropriate means of assessing and communicating the risks of climate change would be to produce assessments of the likelihood of crossing non-arbitrary thresholds of impact, as a function of time (equivalent to: the probability of you being boiled to death will be 1% in five minutes' time, rising to 100% in twenty minutes' time if you don't jump out of the pot). This would be consistent with approaches to risk assessment in fields such as insurance, engineering, and health and safety. Importantly, it would ensure decision-makers were informed of the biggest risks, and hence of the strongest reasons to act. I suggest ways in which the science community could contribute to promoting this approach, taking into account its inherent need for cross-disciplinary research and for engagement with decision-makers before the research is conducted, instead of afterwards.

Simon Sharpe
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Status: open (until 15 Mar 2019)
Status: open (until 15 Mar 2019)
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Simon Sharpe
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Short summary
Humanity's situation with respect to climate change is sometimes likened to that of a frog in a slowly-boiling pot of water. But are we telling the frog what he needs to know? Most climate science is communicated to governments in the form of predictions of what is most likely to happen. I argue it should instead answer the questions what is the worst that could happen? and how likely will that become, as time goes by? The risks, and the need to act, will then become much clearer to see.
Humanity's situation with respect to climate change is sometimes likened to that of a frog in a...
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