Exploring the Concept of Climate Surprises

A review of the literature on the concept of surprise and how it is related to climate change

Credit: Australian Academy of Science

Surprises are everywhere. In our personal lives, in business or the day-to-day, we can look throughout our lives and see how even some of the most minute details attended to (or left unattended) can create a cascade of effects which can cause or trigger surprises. The paper highlighted here addresses these surprises throughout humanity, but not in the way we might expect. “Exploring the Concept of Climate Surprises” looks into humanity’s aversion and sometimes attraction to the various aspects of climate change surprises and how we deal with those challenges. Written in 1998, Glantz et al explores how some of these surprises arise but also how to circumnavigate some of their impacts. 22 years in the making has only made this book more applicable to the current state of government, politics, climate awareness, social responsibility and planning for the future of the Earth.


This report examines the concept of climate surprise and its implications for environmental policymaking. Although most integrated assessment models of climate change deal with average values of change, it is usually the extreme events or surprises that cause the most damage to human health and property. Current models do not help the policymaker decide how to deal with climate surprises. This report examines the literature of surprise in many aspects of human society: psychology, military, health care, humor, agriculture, etc. It draws together various ways to consider the concept of surprise and examines different taxonomies of surprise that have been proposed. In many ways, surprise is revealed to be a subjective concept, triggered by such factors as prior experience, belief system, and level of education. How policymakers have reacted to specific instances of climate change or climate surprise in the past is considered, particularly with regard to the choices they made between proactive and reactive measures. Finally, the report discusses techniques used in the current generation of assessment models and makes suggestions as to how climate surprises might be included in future models. The report concludes that some kinds of surprises are simply unpredictable, but there are several types that could in some way be anticipated and assessed, and their negative effects forestalled. 

Exploring the Concept of Climate Surprises Download