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Thematic Guide to Integrated Assessment Modeling



Embedding Models in Policy-Makers' Heads

The possibility that generic assessment tools could be developed, together with the availability of increasingly accessible and powerful computer modeling tools, poses deep questions about the eventual, and appropriate, relationship between assessments, analysts, and policy-makers: What is the assessment tool, who should use it, and how? First, the existence of such simple, powerful software modeling systems as DEMOS and Globesight opens the question, "What is the assessment tool?": Is it the system that supports modeling and assessment, or a particular model or assessment constructed using the system? If policy-makers are increasingly able to represent their own understandings of the issue being assessed by manipulating (or constructing) models in such a system, this would advance the goal of making assessments responsive to policy-makers' needs but also pose attendant risks.

Many modelers and assessors have aspired to transfer the understanding and cognitive structures represented in their models directly to senior policy-makers, in effect embedding models in policy-makers' heads, so that they can understand the structure and dynamics of policy issues in the same way as the analysts do. Many devices to encourage policy-makers to play with models and to make models more accessible, transparent, and manipulable have been advanced to this end, while current advances in software and user interfaces seem to bring it ever closer to technical possibility.

This possibility poses several key questions. How much is it possible to embed a model without leaving important elements of understanding behind? Does this pose risks of giving policy-makers vivid but wrong understanding of an issue? Does the vision of embedding models presume a naive vision of political process, in which one person in authority makes each policy decision? Does it risk compromising the integrity of either scientific process or political accountability?

The experience of attempts to get political decision-makers to use models has been frustrating and contentious, with a few exceptions. An illustrative recent drama occurred when John Sununu, President Bush's chief of staff, became interested in climate change and had a reduced-form version of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Climate Model installed on his office computer, using what he learned from it in policy debates to support his view that action on climate change was unwarranted. The resultant outrage among modelers and analysts was in part puzzling, because this story seems to realize the widely held aspiration of senior policy-makers becoming fully conversant with assessment models. Several legitimate bases for the outrage are plausible, though. Sununu was a busy man, using a simplified (but still very complex) model but not able to spend much time on it, and so he was no doubt at risk of serious misunderstandings. A model on his machine in the White House is not open to scrutiny and technical argument, nor might it be easily updatable to reflect advances in understanding. Finally, the model might give him a decisive advantage in political debates based on his analytical sophistication, when fights at this level should be resolved on other bases. Questions of the merit, methods, and appropriate degree of embedding also arise in the international policy setting, with additional complications posed by the pluralism of the decision-making environment.


The next section is Integration and Authority.




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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