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Does risk-based decision-making present an ‘epistemic trap’ for climate change policymaking?

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Risk-based decision-making is widely considered to be the best means of presenting the science of climate change and for developing and presenting climate change evidence for policymaking. This paper examines some of the justifications provided by climate and decision scientists for their preferred approach, and argues that, although risk-based approaches are indeed analytically and instrumentally helpful, they may not always provide the most politically appropriate framework for resolving the politics of evidence-based policymaking. Decision scientists still promote risk-based decision-making under erroneous ideals of linear-instrumental-rationality, even if they have become more circumspect concerning the worst excesses of past technocratic linear-rationality. Moreover, decision scientists have provided very shallow justification to date for ‘risk’ as default decision framework. A reasonable analysis of the general suitability of risk would include comparative analysis with alternative conceptual frames, not simply in terms of their analytical power, but also their political acceptability in constituencies where particular evidence-frames may be challenged on the basis of their premises, rather than their conclusions.
Key messages
Risk-based decision guidance does not fully account for the politics of evidence-based policy.
Decision scientists should avoid conflating the heuristic and prescriptive worth of policy models.
Risk-based approaches should be justified from political analysis with alternate conceptual frames.
Context-appropriate decisions demand context-sensitive conceptual frames for policy-evidence.
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Keywords: IPCC; climate change; evidence-based policymaking; risk

Affiliations: Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia

Appeared or available online: June 14, 2019

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