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Planetary Vital Signs

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The 2015 Paris Agreement commits governments every five years to set more ambitious emission reduction targets; report on how well they are doing; and track progress through a transparency and accountability system. This new system for diplomacy could be more effective than the earlier one, but to make it effective the scientific community will need to be ready with new goals and measures for policy progress. Government ambitions will be influenced by how their publics perceive climate change. Thus far, the primary intuitive guide to thinking about it has been surface air temperature. This is not enough. Over-reliance on air temperature has gotten climate science in hot water with vocal segments of the public, as the “hockey stick” and the more recent “hiatus” controversies illustrate.

Why do we let the world rely on surface temperature when more than 90% of the energy humanity is putting into the climate system goes into the ocean? As we will show, had ocean heat had been as prominent in the public’s mind as hot air, there would be no hiatus controversy.

Policymakers need a basket of indicators, just as in areas like central banking, trade policy, and sustainable development where issues are multi-dimensional, complex, and interacting. Like medical doctors, they need vital signs. It is time for planetary vital signs. A coalition of scientists and policy makers should start work to generate them at once, since some vital signs should be ready at the entry into force of the Paris Agreement in 2020 or it will be hard to infuse any into policy processes later.

But vital signs are only the beginning. They are not indicators of risk to things people really care about. The evaluation of the risks to human systems-health; food, water, and energy security-will require a major deployment of big data Bayesian analytics. If Amazon uses big data analytics and worldwide connectivity to provide decision support to billions of consumers, perhaps the science, technology, and policy community could learn to use the same tools to serve millions of climate decision-makers.

This talk is part of the British Antarctic Survey series.

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