By Dr Peter Tangney

This year I published two papers examining climate ‘decision scientists’ preoccupation with risk-based decision-making. Both papers arrive at more or less the same conclusion, albeit from different directions. The first of these papers examines the ongoing enthusiasm from proponents for a risk-based approach and how adequate the arguments made about how this decision process can advance evidence-based policymaking. The second paper looks specifically at the IPCC’s prescription for risk-based decisions, as set out in Chapter 2 of their 5th Working Group II Assessment Report.

Both papers question the validity of ongoing recommendations for the suitability of the risk-based approach as a general directive for public policy decision-makers and their advisors. The first of these papers highlights the inability of the risk-based approach to apprehend policy problems in the ways that are often claimed. It is now pretty well recognised that the traditional reductive risk formula of ‘likelihood, times, consequence’ is largely redundant when it comes to understanding climate policy problems. Climate science is unable to provide robust hazard likelihoods, particularly at the scale of policymaking jurisdictions. Climate experts cannot and should not lay claim to definitive or impartial understandings of the potential consequences to communities arising from climate change either. Why do proponents still argue for risk as an all-encompassing framework to understand climate policy problems? In the second paper I argue that this approach is a legacy of scientific understandings of climate change that are unhelpful in the policy sphere. There are other problem frames that are just as scientifically valid but more politically incisive than risk, particularly in constituencies (e.g. Australia and the USA) still struggling with partisan conflict over whether or not to act on anthropogenic climate change.

In both papers, I also critique the faulty assumptions of those who advocate a risk-based model for how policymaking can and should proceed. The risk-based decision-model mirrors the Policy Cycle model frequently chastised by policy studies scholars. The risk-based model, however, is advocated not as a heuristic – as the Policy Cycle is now widely interpreted – but prescriptively to direct public decision-makers about how they can and should make evidence-based decisions. This guidance, I argue, is ill-informed at best, and at worst, likely to expedite the politicisation of policy evidence. Decision scientists advocating risk as universal conceptual framework, and risk-based decision-making as prescription for public policymaking, display a worrying disregard for many decades worth of policy studies research.