Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Climate Change

The research community examines issues of uncertainty with respect to global climate change and other international environmental problems and aims to improve the capacity to discuss and weigh related policy prescriptions.

In the spring of 2011, the research community Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Climate Change received funding from PIIRS. The three-year interdisciplinary community was led in its first year by Robert O. Keohane, professor of international affairs in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The research community examines issues of uncertainty with respect to global climate change and other international environmental problems and aims to improve the capacity to discuss and weigh related policy prescriptions. Through multiple lenses, the research community will draw on the expertise of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory to work on real cases. The laboratory, located on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus, is one of the world’s leading climate modeling centers. Sixteen Princeton faculty members from several disciplines compose the community’s core group:

  • Climate scientists provide an understanding of the kinds of scientific uncertainties that arise.
  • Historians contribute perspective on how uncertainty has been handled in the past regarding fields in which public policy depends in part on scientific knowledge.
  • Specialists on international relations analyze the politics of climate change within global institutions, while regional specialists examine case studies of societies that have been more or less successful in adopting policy measures aimed at addressing the effects of climate change.
  • Other social scientists investigate how uncertainty in scientists’ work on climate and other international environmental issues is understood by various audiences, ranging from high-level nonscientist policymakers to the general public.
  • Ethicists question how policymakers concerned with ethics make decisions in light of uncertainty. What are the moral and political principles in play? What constitutes responsible communication of underlying science and policy rationale? What institutional designs facilitate such communication?



Steering Committee

Marc Fleurbaey is Robert E. Kuenne Professor of Economics and Humanistic Studies.  He is the author of Fairness, Responsibility, and Welfare (2008), a coauthor of A Theory of Fairness and Social Welfare (with François Maniquet, 2011), and the coeditor of several books, including Justice, Political Liberalism, and Utilitarianism: Themes from Harsanyi and Rawls (with Maurice Salles and John Weymark, 2008).Fleurbaey’s research on normative and public economics and theories of distributive justice focuses on the analysis of equality of opportunity and responsibility-sensitive egalitarianism and on seeking solutions to famous impossibilities of social choice theory. Ph. D.  Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Robert O. Keohane is a professor of international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He has served as editor of International Organization and as president of the International Studies Association and the American Political Science Association and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Much of his recent work has focused on issues involving uncertainty and risk in connection with climate change and how international institutions have been and could be designed to cope with these global issues. He is the author or coauthor of numerous publications including, Power and Interdependence ( with Joseph S. Nye,1977); After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (1984); and Designing Social Inquiry (with Gary King and Sidney Verba, 1994). Ph.D. Harvard University.

Melissa Lane is a professor of politics (and affiliated faculty member in classics and in philosophy) and director of the Program in Values and Public Life. Her interests include ancient Greek political thought and its modern reception as well as a broad range of topics in the history of political thought and in normative theory and public ethics. Her works include Eco-Republic (with Peter Lang, 2011, and with Princeton University Press, 2012); the introduction to Plato’s Republic (Penguin Classics, 2007); Plato’s Progeny: How Plato and Socrates Still Captivate the Modern Mind (2001); and Method and Politics in Plato’s Statesman (1998). Since 2010 she has been a senior associate of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, and served for many years previously as a faculty member for seminars run by the Prince of Wales’ Business and the Environment Programme. She was awarded a Fellowship of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2012, and was a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, in 2012-13.   Ph.D. University of Cambridge.

Michael Oppenheimer is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His research interests include science and policy of the atmosphere, particularly climate change and its impacts. Much of his research aims to understand the potential for dangerous outcomes of increasing levels of greenhouse gases by exploring the effects of global warming on ecosystems such as coral reefs, on the ice sheets and sea level, and on patterns of human migration. He also studies the process of scientific learning and scientific assessments and their role in problems of global change. Ph.D. University of Chicago.

Stephen Pacala is  Fredrick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Director of the Princeton Environmental Institute. His interests include the processes that govern ecological communities, the interplay between community and ecosystem-level processes, and the interactions between the global biosphere and climate. Pacala’s research involves all aspects of the global carbon cycle; currently he is focusing on a new model for the terrestrial biosphere. Ph.D. Stanford University.

Harold Shapiro  is president emeritus of Princeton University, and professor of economics and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His research interests include bioethics, econometrics, science policy, and the evolution of postsecondary education. Shapiro’s published work includes A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society (2005) ; Belmont Revisited, Ethical Principles for Research with Human Subjects (2005); and Universities and Their Leadership (1998) .  Ph.D. Princeton University.

Robert Socolow is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. His current research focuses on global carbon management and fossil-carbon sequestration. Under the Carbon Mitigation Initiative , a 15-year (2000–15) research project supported by BP and the (for the first eight years) Ford Motor Company, Princeton has launched new, coordinated research in environmental science, energy technology, geological engineering, and public policy.  Ph. D. Harvard University

Core Faculty

Charles Beitz is the Edward S. Sanford Professor of Politics and director of the University Center for Human Values. His philosophical and teaching interests focus on international political theory, democratic theory, the theory of human rights, and legal theory. Beitz’s book, The Idea of Human Rights, was published in 2009. Other publications include Political Theory and International Relations (1999) and Political Equality: An Essay in Democratic Theory (1990) as well as articles on a variety of topics in political philosophy. His current work includes projects on the philosophy of human rights and the theory of intellectual property. Ph.D. Princeton University.

Susan Fiske is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and a professor of public affairs. Her research addresses how stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships such as cooperation, competition, and power. She publishes widely in social cognition and is currently investigating emotional prejudices at the cultural, interpersonal, and neural levels. A prolific author and editor, her most recent book, with Chris Malone, is The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies (2014).  Ph.D. Harvard University.

Lars Hedin is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the Princeton Environmental Institute and director of the Program in Environmental Studies. His research centers on ecosystem analysis with emphasis on the emergence and maintenance of geographically broad patterns in cycling of nutrients and greenhouse trace gases. His current interests include broad controls on nutrient cycles in temperate and tropical forests, emergence of macroscopic properties, and biophysical controls on soil-atmosphere exchange of the greenhouse gas methane. Ph.D. Yale University.

Simon Levin is George M. Moffett Professor of Biology and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Levin’s current interests are in the parallels between ecological systems and financial and economic systems, particularly with regard to what makes them collapse and to the evolution and development of structure and organization, and in the management of public goods and common-pool resources. His ecological research is concerned with the evolution of diversification, the mechanisms sustaining biological diversity in natural systems, the implications for ecosystem structure and functioning, and the dynamics of infectious diseases. He has also been involved in issues of sustainable development with emphasis on the linkages between environmental and socioeconomic systems. Ph.D. University of Maryland.

Jonathan Levy is an assistant professor of history and John Maclean Jr., Presidential University Preceptor. He is an historian of American capitalism with interests in business and economic history, cultural and intellectual history, and the histories of slavery and freedom. His book, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and RIsk in America ( 2012) won the Organization of American Historians’ Frederick Jackson Turner Award, Ellis W. Hawley Prize, and Avery O. Craven Award. Levy is currently working on two book projects. The first is a history of the American corporation and the second is a synthetic history of American capitalism from English colonial settlement to the present.  Ph.D. University of Chicago.

Stephen Macedo is the Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values. He writes and teaches on political theory, ethics, public policy, and law, with a focus on liberalism, democracy and citizenship, diversity and civic education, religion and politics, and the family and sexuality. His current research concerns immigration and social justice, constitutional democracy in the U.S., and democracy and international institutions. Among Macedo’s numerous publications, his coauthored books include American Constitutional Interpretation (2008), and Democracy at Risk: How Political Choices Undermine Citizen Participation, and What We Can Do About It (2005). Ph.D. Princeton University.

Denise Mauzerall is a professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.  She directs the Ph.D. program in the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy program at the Woodrow Wilson School.  The objective of Mauzerall’s  research is to utilize science to inform the development of far-sighted air quality policy that considers the impact of air pollution on health, agriculture and climate change.  Ph.D. Harvard University.

Helen Milner is B. C. Forbes Professor of Public Affairs; professor of politics and international affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; and director of the Center for Globalization and Governance. Her interests include the political economy of trade policy, the interaction of domestic and international politics, globalization, foreign aid, and international trade and environmental policy. Milner’s current research focuses on two-level games, international trade, relations between developed and developing countries, the diffusion of the Internet, the politics of foreign aid, and the impact of trade on environmental policy. Ph.D. Harvard University.

Daniel Osherson is Henry R. Luce Professor of Information Technology, Consciousness, and Culture, and a professor of psychology. His research focuses on the neurophysiology of human reasoning, notably, deductive and inductive inference. Osherson’s recent experiments bear on the neural mechanisms underlying the ability to combine elementary concepts into the meanings expressed by language. Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania.

Venkatachalam Ramaswamy is director of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and a lecturer with the rank of professor in geosciences, atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and the Princeton Environmental Institute. His research investigates global-to-regional climatic effects due to anthropogenic and natural forcing—greenhouse gases and aerosols—using state-of-the-art global climate models. Ramaswamy also focuses on understanding the hydrologic cycle in the earth’s climate system, and the role of water vapor and clouds in climate change. Ph.D. State University of New York, Albany.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. Decamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values and, at the University of Melbourne, laureate professor in the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. He is the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics, and with Helga Kuhse, founding coeditor of the journal Bioethics. A prolific author and coauthor whose work has been translated into 20 languages, Singer became well-known after the publication of Animal Liberation (1976). His recent books include The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (2009), The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter/The Ethics of What We Eat (2006), and One World (2002). Singer is also cofounder and president of The Great Ape Project, an international effort to obtain basic rights for chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Keith Wailoo is the Townsend Martin Professor of History and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His research interests include public health; scientific and technological innovation in medical care; medical specialization; and the role of identity, gender, race, and ethnicity in studies on health and disease. He is currently working on a history of drugs, drug policies, and drug controversies, and completing a book on the history and politics of pain medicine in America. Wailoo’s most recent publications include How Cancer Crossed the Color Line (2011) and The Troubled Dream of Genetic Medicine: Ethnicity and Innovation in Tay-Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Disease (2006). Ph.D University of Pennsylvania.

David Wilcove is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. His research focuses on developing innovative ways to protect biodiversity in North America, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and other regions—blending ecology and public policy. He is the author of numerous publications dealing with the conservation of biological diversity, endangered species, ornithology, island biogeography, and conservation policy. Ph.D. Princeton University.

Visitors 2013-14

Scott Barrett (Visiting Research Scholar, Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Change; September 2013 – June 2014). Barrett is Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia University, based in the School of International and Public Affairs. He is also chairman of the board of directors of the Beijer Institute. Barrett’s research focuses on global collective action in such areas as climate change, infectious diseases, and high seas fisheries. His books include, Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods (2007) and Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-Making (2003). Ph.D. London School of Economics.

Jon Krosnick (Visiting Research Collaborator, Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Climate Change/Princeton Environmental Institute; September 2013 – July 2014). At Stanford University, Krosnick is Fredrick O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences; a professor of political science, communication, and psychology; a social science senior fellow at the Woods Institute, and director of the Political Psychology Research Group and the Summer Institute in Political Psychology. An expert on questionnaire design and survey research methods, Krosnick has taught courses on survey methods around the world for 30 years and has served as a methodology consultant to government agencies, commercial firms, and academic scholars. His substantive research focuses on how the American public’s political attitudes are formed, change, and shape thinking and action. His publications explore the causes of people’s decisions about whether to vote, whom to vote for, whether to approve of the President’s performance, whether to take action to influence government policy-making on a specific issue, and more. Ph.D. University of Michigan.

Ezra Markowitz (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Climate Change; July 2013 – June 2014). Markowitz’s research centers on the intersection of psychology, public policy, morality, human well-being, and environmental sustainability with a focus on the psychological factors that influence public engagement with climate change. His dissertation research examines the role of moral emotions in shaping individuals’ perceptions of responsibility toward future generations within the context of global climate change. Other projects include examinations of public perceptions of bioethical issues (e.g., stem cell research) and the role of affect in shaping charitable decision-making in the environmental domain, as well as an exploration of cross-national climate change threat perceptions using a hierarchical modeling framework. Ph.D. University of Oregon  

Elke Weber (Visiting Research Collaborator, Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Change; November 2012). Weber is Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business, Earth Institute Professor, and a professor of psychology at Columbia University. She also founded and codirects two centers at Columbia, the Center for the Decision Sciences and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.  Her areas of expertise include cognitive and affective processes in judgment and choice, cross-cultural issues in management, environmental decision making and policy, medical decision making, and risk management. Working at the intersection of psychology and economics, her focus is on behavioral models of judgment and decision making under risk and uncertainty. She has recently been investigating psychologically appropriate ways to measure and model individual and cultural differences in risk taking, specifically in risky financial situations and environmental issues. She is a lead author on risk management for Working Group III for the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ph.D. Harvard University.