Defining dangerous anthropogenic interference: The role of science, the limits of science

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Defining "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" in the context of Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) presents a complex challenge for those developing long-term climate policy. Natural science has a key role to play in quantifying vulnerabilities of elements of the Earth system and estimating the risks from a changing climate. But attempts to interpret Article 2 will inevitably draw on understanding from social science, psychology, law, and ethics. Here I consider the limits of science in defining climate "danger" by focusing on the potential disintegration of the major ice sheets as an example of an extreme impact. I show that considerations of timescale, uncertainty, and learning preclude a definition of danger drawn purely from natural science. Decisionmakers will be particularly challenged by one characteristic of global problems: answers to some scientific questions become less accurate over decadal timescales, meandering toward the wrong answer, a feature I call negative learning. I argue for a precautionary approach to Article 2 that would be based initially on current, limited scientific understanding of the future of the ice sheets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1399-1407
Number of pages9
JournalRisk Analysis
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Physiology (medical)


  • Climate change
  • Global warming
  • Ice sheets
  • Precautionary principle


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