Scientists have found that UN Climate Negotiators trust their own beliefs more than scientific evidence when it comes to temperature rise. They also found that many negotiators consider the sub-2 degree goal as highly unlikely. 

The study, which was led by Valentina Bosseti and published this week in Nature Climate Change, looked at how climate negotiators and policymakers at the 2015 UN climate negotiations responded to the most up-to-date scientific evidence of potential temperature rises over time. 

Each negotiator and policymaker involved in the study was asked to guess what the most likely scenarios were for global temperature rise. They were then shown a series of graphics plotting the most likely scientific scenarios for temperature rise until 2100. The negotiators were then asked to plot their updated estimates of global temperature rise, to see how much they changed their opinions if they were off-track.

In their initial study, Bosseti and colleagues found that most of these negotiators and policymakers didn’t believe that the world was on-track to keep temperature rise under 2 degrees. In fact, they found that “most respondents did not assign more than 20% probability to this event.”

Every year, negotiators from different countries gather to discuss international climate policies. Photo: UNclimatechange/Flickr

Every year, negotiators from different countries gather to discuss international climate policies. Photo: UNclimatechange/Flickr

When you consider that the majority of these participants agreed to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees through the Paris Agreement, this finding becomes quite troubling. In effect, most of the world’s policymakers and negotiators who shaped the Paris agreement believe that we have a more than 80% chance of failing that very agreement.

What’s more, when COP21 negotiators were asked about how confident they were in their scientific understandings of temperature rise, they showed no more confidence than the MBA students they were tested against. While it’s one thing to have a group of over-confident (probably millennial) MBA students, it’s another to have international climate negotiators reporting an average confidence level of about 4 out of 7 in their own understandings of temperature rise. 

So while most negotiators are betting on the fact that their own agreement won’t work, they’re also admitting that they have only just more than a 50-50 level of confidence in their own scientific understandings of Climate Change and global temperature rise.

However, when presented with up-to-date scientific predictions of temperature increase, almost all of these climate negotiators and policy makers refused to update their pre-existing beliefs appropriately. As the researchers note; “more than 80% of respondents did not treat the scientific information as posterior probability, but rather used it as additional information to update their beliefs, mostly in a very conservative fashion.”

In 2015, vulnerable countries inside the UNFCCC campaigned for 1.5 degrees.

In 2015, vulnerable countries inside the UNFCCC campaigned for 1.5 degrees.

In comparison, the MBA students studied were much more likely to update their beliefs according to the latest science. This is true, even considering that they reported the same levels of confidence in their pre-existing beliefs relating to temperature rise. As Bosetti (et al.) found, negotiators were far less likely than MBA students to adjust their beliefs after being shown the latest scientific data, regardless of how far off their pre-existing beliefs were. 

Now, as a friend reminded me recently, the fact that MBA students changed their mind could just be a result of the effect of “being students” and being ready to respond to new information. But the inability of Climate negotiators to adjust their positions is obviously a cause for far greater concern.

In their paper, Bosetti (et al.) argue that the negotiators may be biased due to their “country’s negotiating position” or the “anchoring effect” of prior knowledge…basically unconscious arrogance. Yet even to suggest that infers that the negotiators are consciously rejecting scientific understanding due to the negotiating process. 

The researchers did find that through a more complex presentation of scientific data, that visualised more of the uncertainties and outliers in current scientific data “partially reduced…the gap between initial beliefs and scientific evidence” among negotiators and policymakers alike. This gave the researchers involved some hope for the future

However, as I read through the paper, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another moment in history that dismayed some of the best behavioural psychologists at the time. 

It was 1974, and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was trying to persuade the Israeli government to engage in peace negotiations with the Syrian and Egyptian governments after they had invaded Israel and a devastating war had been waged between the three countries. Kissinger was sending the Israeli government CIA reports highlighting that if the peace process failed, it would mean really bad things for Israel’s security. 

A GIF that shows temperature rise by Ed Hawkins

At the time, the head of Israeli intelligence at the Israeli foreign ministry was a man called Zvi Lanir. He was tasked with figuring out the likelihood of the CIA being right. To do so, he invited Daniel Kahneman (who later won the Nobel Prize) to help him come up with a complex model of guessing the exact probability of those bad things going on, based on the  opinions of a host of Israeli experts. 

They found that a failed peace process would “rain the chances of war by 10 percent”. When this was presented to the Foreign Minister, he responded simply with “10 percent increase? – that is a small difference”. 

This reponse shocked Daniel Kahneman so much, that he later wrote that “the understanding of numbers is so weak that they don’t communicate anything. Everyone feels that those probabilities are not real”.

In effect, he had lost hope in the ability of policy makers to really make policy. For if we are not making policy based on the best available science, data and probabilities, we may as well be buying policy lottery tickets. When it comes to the Paris Agreement, which was called the world’s greatest diplomatic success, one has to wonder whether this lack of scientific understanding exhibited by international negotiators will lead us down the same troubled path as those who ignored Dan Kahneman’s predictions in 1974. 

About Chris Wright