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Thematic Guide to Integrated Assessment Modeling



The Potential Contributions of Integrated Assessment

To make rational, informed social decisions on issues as complex, long-term, and uncertain as global climate change, the capacity to integrate, reconcile, organize, and communicate knowledge across domains--to do integrated assessment--is essential. Though there is much to criticize in present integrated assessment endeavors, the activity is a) of the highest priority, b) advancing, and c) preferable to the conceivable alternatives, i.e., either making such decisions without objective assessment or doing assessments that do not seek to integrate knowledge from all relevant domains.

The kind of contributions that integrated assessment can, in principle, make to such decisions are of several kinds, and present assessment practice for climate change realizes these potential contributions to varying degrees. First, integrated assessment can help (indeed is necessary) to answer the broadest bounding question: "How important is climate change?" To answer this requires comparing the aggregate social effect of climate change with the aggregate social effect of other changes and risks over the same period. This, in turn, requires assessing plausible future paths of impacts of climate change and response measures, and expressing these in some form that permits comparison with other social concerns.

Second, integrated assessment can help assess potential responses to climate change, either with a benefit-cost framing that compares costs of responses to the impacts they prevent, or with a cost-effectiveness framing that assesses relative effectiveness and cost of different response measures to meet a specified target. Framed in either way, integrated assessment performs this function by making consistent, appropriately qualified predictive statements of the likely cost and effect of specified response measures. While everyone doing assessments responsibly warns that their scenarios or results are not to be taken as predictions, performing this function inevitably requires predictions: contingent, appropriately qualified predictions, responsibly reflecting current uncertainties, addressed to decisions of the intended audience's concern. Not all assessment of responses requires the same level of understanding of the system: Assessment of some proposed responses can be offered earlier, others not until understanding is far advanced.

Third, integrated assessment can provide a framework in which to structure present knowledge, providing several benefits. This structuring can promote keeping the whole problem in view, facilitating systematic searching through the space of possible responses, and resisting premature closure on a few responses. The framework can also provide a comprehensive (and comprehensible) structure for assembling, organizing, and communicating advances in knowledge as they occur. Perhaps the most important contribution is structuring of uncertainty and sensitivity: how well quantities and relationships are known, and how strongly valued outputs depend on them. This permits identification and ranking of the most practically important uncertainties, those that must be reduced the most to determine how serious climate change is or what to do about it. These will usually not be the same uncertainties as are most important from the standpoint of intellectual curiosity about the climate system.

Finally, integrated assessment can serve the longer term goal of capacity building. For better management of environmental risks, several kinds of capacity are important: a community of researchers skilled in the craft of integrated assessment itself; communities of disciplinary researchers knowledgeable about the challenges of integrating the work of their field with others; and a community of increasingly sophisticated policy-makers. Increasing these pools is liable to promote a general elevation of the quality of debate on the issue, independent of the direct contribution of any particular assessment to policy-making.


The next section is Integrated Assessment Supplements Disciplinary Research.





Parson, E.A. and K. Fisher-Vanden, Searching for Integrated Assessment: A Preliminary Investigation of Methods, Models, and Projects in the Integrated Assessment of Global Climatic Change. Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). University Center, Mich. 1995.


Suggested Citation

Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). 1995. Thematic Guide to Integrated Assessment Modeling of Climate Change [online]. Palisades, NY: CIESIN. Available at [accessed DATE].



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