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(An accumulation of thinking from discussions and experiences with a wide range of people and contexts)

I, like all of us I suspect, hold a range of views on different subjects. Some of these I hold to strongly, some I hold strongly depending on the relevance to the situation, and some I am indifferent about. While I would like to say that all my views are rationally determined, unfortunately the human condition prevents such a grand claim. However, I do strive to follow the principle of an open mind as a point of departure when exploring a new issue, challenge, or objective.

An open mind allows one to consider alternative possibilities. Yet, as Chesterton noted “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

Herein lays a conundrum. The person who shuts his mind on a particular point through stubborn denial of alternatives is nearly indistinguishable from the person who opened his mind to consider the possibilities and then converged on the conclusion to which they now hold fast. The former will not budge because of stubborn arrogance; the latter is reluctant to budge because of their reasoned conviction until such time that persuasive evidence is presented to overcome the rationale already employed. I confess I’m sometimes culpable of both!

In the last year I’ve had a growing consciousness of how much this is a problem in climate change science, and have seen a growing difference in the nature of debates that go beyond the normative scientific contestation. It’s usually where the discussion revolves around relative views on how to approach a challenge, and particularly when the parties involved approach from different disciplinary perspectives.

On the one hand this tension is good: it reflects a willingness to engage in the difficult morass of transdisciplinary topics. On the other hand it’s worrying when the debate gets mired in complexities of language; when identical words get unthinkingly used with different intentions because the parties are approaching the communication with different unarticulated ends in mind. The resultant confusion throws up a brick wall to progress as those involved have yet to settle a commonly understood purpose – more often they have jumped to conclusions about what the other party intends. The magnitude of this problem is in part rooted in the depth of experience with other communities; in part it is rooted in personally held values and objectives; and in part rooted in bloody mindedness!

I am seeing this occasionally within CSAG, more often in CSAGs engagements with external organizations, and most especially between major institutions as the climate change dilemma moves beyond disciplinary questions into the thorny issue of how to effect and enable urgent action – think of IPCC, COP and governments, WCRP, PROVIA, Future Earth, Development agencies, etc.

In trying to put a structure to this problem, and to help my own thinking, I constructed a simplistic framework (with all the inherent dangers therein) to consider cross-community communication (or lack thereof). I think of two axes (of course these could be multi-dimensional, but a simplification to 2D serves the purpose).

First is the axis of perspective. On the one end we have those with the disciplinary depth of the deterministic expert. Think of the physics major turned climate modeller, applied mathematicians, theoretical statisticians, the atmospheric chemist, the hydrologist, and the engineer. These communities have depth of focus, and within their expertise exert substantial authority. On the other end of the axis we have the narrative and interpretive scientists dealing with non-deterministic systems. This is the realm where research deals with messy material – that is, people. Here determinism is weak, context is critical, values are inherent, and the domain is littered with conceptual frameworks that are not entirely congruent yet are supported by a myriad of case study examples. The authority exerted is one of a conceptual complexity for interpreting confusing contexts.

The communities at either end of this axis use the words of a common language, but with different meanings. To those engaged in deterministic disciplinary depth, words such as uncertainty, scenario, and probability have formal quantifiable meanings. For example, a climate scenario is the envelope of a projected future with quantified uncertainty given certain forcing assumptions. At the other end of the spectrum the same words are used, yet subtlety different. A scenario could refer to emission pathways and social system responses that lead to uncertainty of risk exposure.

Second is the axis of which lens one adopts. Climate change is a shared problem, yet the lenses through which it is seen by different communities can be starkly different; decision makers see climate change in a very different way to research communities. For example, research on the physical climate system has a tendency to partition times scales (weather, seasonal, decadal, etc.) whereas managers of socio-ecological systems approach times scales in a far more fluid manner. Likewise, an engineer may see the problem as something in need of a technological solution, a climate modeller may see it as one needing better computational physics, the impacts modeller may see it as a contained subsystem needing climate drivers, and an economist may see it as a question of cost-benefit analysis or some other metric of finance.

Communication along these two axes is difficult enough; communication across these axes is even harder. Yet each of us stand in one or other quadrant, or more likely, in multiple quadrants depending on contexts. And all of us, to one degree or other, are poor communicators across these boundaries.

Fundamentally we do not know how, or are not willing to greatly exert ourselves, to stand in another community’s shoes and see things differently. I do this, we all do this, because it’s the easy path and costs us the least.

Each quadrant has characteristics. The upper two quadrants can be effective to the extent that the determinism of a discipline’s depth is able to achieve. Thus an expert in atmospheric dynamics can achieve much in understanding the behaviour of atmospheric processes, and contribute this understanding to the development of models. This expert sees the atmosphere through a specific lens. On the other hand, a synoptic climatologist may see things through the lens of a statistical approach to understand the role of global teleconnections in regional climate responses. Each will argue the importance of their perspective; each will in some ways be right. Yet the dynamics expert may question the rigour of understanding attained through a statistical representation of processes, while the climatologist may question the value of the dynamics in the model given the large errors and biases.

The lower two quadrants display similar contestation, but even more problematic since the contestation is often one of conceptual framing; is the lens of resilience more appropriate than a lens of risk, and what does resilience and risk mean? Likewise, the perspective brought to a problem by someone with a world view steeped in community vulnerability of a developing nation will see risk differently to a scientist cultured by the security of a developed nation’s material wealth. And so across the lower two quadrants there is this tussle for how to frame the climate change challenge in full realization of the non-deterministic complexity that is our global socio-ecological system.

And then those living in the lower two quadrants and upper two quadrants begin to try and engage with each other, with consequences that often result in covert tactics of aggression and defence. This happens within departments, within institutions, and between institutions of all scales.

In the face of a shrinking global carbon allowance and accelerating climate change impacts, the imperative to act is forcing the ends of these axes to move closer to each other, with consequent conflict, miss-understanding, misleading communication, and deep ethical questions. The tension is that the expertise and perspectives on the ends of either axis all wield an intellectual authority, and so it can evolve into a difficult power relationship.

These struggles are not well documented, for it is embarrassing to those involved. Yet those with experience in large institutional initiatives know the reality: for example, there are tensions between IPCC working groups; between IPCC authors and government delegations; there’s the tendency for prescriptive authority by the physical climate science community (e.g. WCRP) to presume priority in supplying information needed by the different impacts, adaptation and vulnerability communities (IAV); the decision makers tendency to discount the climate information when the formal uncertainty bands are large; the growth of portal proliferation and “one-stop-shops” with presumptive authority; and the rise of ambitions in integrative communities (e.g. Future Earth) with the resultant threat to other institutional networks.

These tensions are exacerbated because there is no single intellectual authority, and the culture is competitive in the face of (illogically) constrained resources1.

How then do we break through these communication and collaboration barriers? The ideal, of course, is to meet at the origins of the axes given in my simplistic figure: there the expertise and experience can mingle with the complexity of legitimate views and together escape the bounds of a 2-dimensional existence, and head of into the heady third dimension of productive solutions.

For certain this must be a process, something that will need to be learned by individuals and institutions. I suggest one first step is for us to learn to be better at articulating each stepwise objective toward the intended goal; not jumping to the grand “save the world” ideal, but focusing on specific articulation of bite-sized targets. For example: a climatologist (involved with urban decision makers) needs to engage the modelling community in order to construct actionable information for urban decision making on storm water management – what language, concepts, and common understanding is required to achieve a value outcome across this divide? Likewise, a social scientist working on rural development needs to engage impact modellers on hydrological responses to climate change – again, what language, concepts, and common understanding is required for a fruitful collaboration?

If I wish to build a bridge for collaboration between my community and another, I need to consider and adopt the appropriate language, jargon, concepts, and framing that will (as best I can understand) facilitate a dialogue – for a dialogue is needed in order for me to learn, let alone to effectively communicate.


1 The cost of a dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles could readily fund the IPCC (, yet the IPCC, whose activities critically underpin the global negotiations on climate change, wrestle with receiving enough contributions from governments!


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