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WIREs Clim Change
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Historical responsibility for climate change: science and the science–policy interface

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Since 1990, the academic literature on historical responsibility (HR) for climate change has grown considerably. Over these years, the approaches to defining this responsibility have varied considerably. This article demonstrates how this variation can be explained by combining various defining aspects of historical contribution and responsibility. Scientific knowledge that takes for granted choices among defining aspects will likely become a basis for distrust within science, among negotiators under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and elsewhere. On the other hand, for various reasons, not all choices can be explicated at all times. In this article, we examine the full breadth of complexities involved in scientifically defining HR and discuss how these complexities have consequences for the science–policy interface concerning HR. To this end, we review and classify the academic literature on historical contributions to and responsibility for climate change into categories of defining aspects. One immediately policy‐relevant conclusion emerges from this exercise: Coupled with negotiators' highly divergent understandings of historical responsibility, the sheer number of defining aspects makes it virtually impossible to offer scientific advice without creating distrust in certain parts of the policy circle. This conclusion suggests that scientific attempts to narrow the options for policymakers will have little chance of succeeding unless policymakers first negotiate a clearer framework for historical responsibility. This article is categorized under: Policy and Governance > International Policy Framework
Schematic of how the climate system is represented in the literature on proportional historical responsibility: as a cause–effect chain extending from emissions to impacts and costs. Policy relevance is seen, in the reviewed literature, as increasing further down the chain.
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