The Socolow and Oppenheimer groups are working to re-energize climate discussions by suggesting new strategies for climate communication and providing descriptions of climate risks relevant to policymakers.


Hard truths of managing climate change

In 2011, Robert Socolow authored an article entitled “Wedges Reaffirmed” that called for a shift in communication strategy by the environmental community to motivate action on carbon mitigation. This year, Socolow continued that theme in an article in the Vanderbilt Law Review entitled “Truths We Must Tell Ourselves to Manage Climate Change,” which encouraged environmentalists to find “restart buttons” for the climate dialogue by changing the conversation. Socolow advocates for communicating some hard truths to the public about carbon and climate by acknowledging that:

  •  climate change is “unwelcome news” and that tackling the problem will require a huge effort by the planet’s citizens;
  •   there is still considerable uncertainty in climate projections;
  •   the risk of climate change must be balanced with the risk of disruption from mitigation; and
  •   a 2°C target may not be attainable

Socolow argues that the public is sophisticated enough to understand climate change problem as a risk management problem, and that is up to the environmental community to convey the magnitude of potential climate risks and make the case for global participation in the solution.


Bulletin letter to President Obama

CMI-associated faculty members Alexander Glaser, M.V. Ramana, and Robert Socolow serve on the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In January 2013, the Board authored an open letter to President Barack Obama regarding this year’s setting of the Bulletin’s “Doomsday Clock.” Originally conceived to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons, the assessment now also encompasses “climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.”

After moving the hands of the clock back one minute following the first year of President Barack Obama’s presidency (to six minutes before midnight), the Society has since moved the hands forward one minute and this year they remain in that position. In addition to urging the President to mitigate nuclear risks, the authors urged President Obama to make climate change a high priority; specifically, to work to forge an international response to climate change, ensure natural gas is exploited in an environmentally safe manner, promote carbon capture and storage, and clear barriers to renewables expansion.

Socolow, Chair of the Science and Security Board, noted, “We have as much hope for Obama’s second term in office as we did in 2010, when we moved back the hand of the Clock after his first year in office. This is the year for U.S. leadership in slowing climate change and setting a path toward a world without nuclear weapons.”


Assessing risk from sea level rise

Current continental-scale models of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets do not adequately represent the physical processes underlying rapid, climate-driven dynamic ice loss, and are thus insufficient to project the ice sheet contribution to sea level rise. To improve predictions of future sealevel change, Chris Little and Michael Oppenheimer have focused on improving ice sheet models and developing sea level projections that are more conducive to a risk management approach.

To this end, the researchers have developed a “bottom-up” approach to projecting sea level change. Applying a Bayesian probabilistic framework to the Antarctic ice sheet (Figure 24), they have transformed disparate sources of information constraining future ice sheet behavior into probability distributions. This novel methodology allows a consistent comparison with other projection techniques and also resolves the quantitative impact of key physical uncertainties, clarifying observational and numerical modeling research priorities.

This year, the group will extend this framework to include: 1) changes in the Greenland ice sheet mass balance; 2) the solid earth and gravitational response that modulate sea level changes at the local level; and 3) new constraints from process-based ice sheet models, smaller-scale observations of ice loss, paleo-sea-level observations, and expert judgment. These extensions will allow the development of a global map of the local probability distribution of ice-sheet driven sea level rise, facilitating the assessment of sea-level rise alongside other climate-related risks.

Figure 24: A schematic illustration of the methodology used to generate mass balance projections for Antarctica in Little et al 2013b, and extensions as proposed here (grey arrows). Boxes indicate prior assumptions, diamonds indicate physical or statistical models used to convert prior assumptions into posterior SLR projections, and ovals indicate projections of sea level components. Orange arrows indicate data sources available to update projections; other sources of information may also be integrated. The inset map of Antarctica shows the 18 drainage basins for which mass balance projections are calculated in Little et al 2013b. Basins with a common color experience correlated mass balance trends.