Perspective

Embracing uncertainty in climate change policy

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Abstract

The 'pledge and review' approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions presents an opportunity to link mitigation goals explicitly to the evolving climate response. This seems desirable because the progression from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth to fifth assessment reports has seen little reduction in uncertainty. A common reaction to persistent uncertainties is to advocate mitigation policies that are robust even under worst-case scenarios, thereby focusing attention on upper extremes of both the climate response and the costs of impacts and mitigation, all of which are highly contestable. Here we ask whether those contributing to the formation of climate policies can learn from 'adaptive management' techniques. Recognizing that long-lived greenhouse gas emissions have to be net zero by the time temperatures reach a target stabilization level, such as 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and anchoring commitments to an agreed index of attributable anthropogenic warming would provide a transparent approach to meeting such a temperature goal without prior consensus on the climate response.

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Acknowledgements

Myles Allen was supported by the Oxford Martin School.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

    • Friederike E. L. Otto
    • , Alexander Otto
    •  & Myles R. Allen
  2. New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand

    • David J. Frame
  3. Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PU, UK

    • Myles R. Allen

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Contributions

All authors contributed extensively to the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Friederike E. L. Otto.

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