Institute of Philosophy

Research Projects

The Epistemology of Climate Change

Philosophy of science perspectives on the climate challenge

Prof. Dr. Vincent Lam

Understanding and modelling climate systems---in particular local ones---in an appropriate way is an extremely difficult task, but science actually quite often faces extremely difficult tasks. The specificity and the importance of climate science is that it is expected to provide scientific and empirical grounds for decision- and policy-making in the face of the climate challenge. This research project aims to carefully investigate and clarify the methodological and epistemic foundations of climate science and climate modelling using the tools of philosophy of science in order to provide the best possible support for addressing the climate challenge, with particular attention to local, regional climate modelling and decision-making at the national level (Switzerland will be taken as a study case). Indeed, mitigation and above all adaptation requires appropriate policy-making at the national level. Moreover, appropriate understanding of the climate-related issues at the local level may enhance public support and adherence to climate policy.

While there is a large consensus about model projections for global trends such as increasing global mean surface temperature under various emissions scenarios, the reliability of more local (and long term) projections is far weaker. But impact assessment and policy-making at the national level typically rely on local, high-resolution climate projections. In many ways, climate modelling and climate decision-making are now at a turning point, facing the tension between, on the one hand, the current focus on more detailed, complex climate models and on increasing computational resources and, on the other hand, possible fundamental epistemic constraints (such as structural instabilities) and uncertainties linked to high-resolution (local, long term) projections.

The project is divided in four strongly interconnected parts. The first part provides a detailed and critical landscape of the main current epistemic issues in contemporary climate science and climate modelling, with a focus on the degree of expert consensus. The second part aims to evaluate to what extent certain structural epistemic features of climate models (such as structural model error) point towards some fundamental epistemic limitation for climate modelling and may require some kind of ‘paradigm’ shift in the epistemology of climate science, where expert judgement may explicitly play a more important role in complement to complex climate model outputs. The third part investigates the nature and the role of scientific understanding and explanation (central to expert judgement) in climate science and climate modelling. The goal is to bring a new perspective on and develop a clear conceptual framework for the explanatory schemes and the relationships between the various (local and global) levels at work in climate science and climate modelling. The fourth part takes regional climate modelling in the Swiss context as a study case.


The Project is funded by Swiss National Science Foundation, SNSF professorships

Seminar autumn 2020

Philosophy of science perspectives on the climate challenge

Julie Jebeile, Vincent Lam & Mason Majszak


14:15-16:00 Room F-113, Unitobler, 36 Lerchenweg.

Some of the sessions will be held online, contact Julie Jebeile for access information.

Background readings

  • Frigg, R., Thompson, E. & Werndl, C. (2015). Philosophy of Climate Science Part I: Observing Climate Change. Philosophy Compass 10/12, 953–964. Full text
  • Frigg, R., Thompson, E. & Werndl, C. (2015). Philosophy of Climate Science Part II: Modelling Climate Change. Philosophy Compass 10/12, 965–977. Full text
  • Bradley R. & Steele K. (2015). Philosophy of Climate Science Part III: Making Climate Decisions. Philosophy Compass, 10/11, 799–810. Full text
  • Parker, W. (2018). Climate Science. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2018 Edition. Full text
  • Winsberg, E. (2018), Philosophy and Climate Science. Cambridge University Press. Full text

24.09.2020 Introduction & overview

  • Parker, W. (2018). Climate Science. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2018 Edition. Full text

01.10.2020 Definition of climate

  • Werndl, C. (2016). On Defining Climate and Climate Change. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 67 (2), 337-364. Full text
  • Katzav, J. and Parker, W. (2018). Issues in the theoretical foundations of climate science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, 63, 141-149. Full text

08.10.2020 (online) Confirmation of models

  • Carrier, M. and Lenhard, J. (2019). Climate Models: How to Assess Their Reliability. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 32(2), 81-100. Full text
  • Parker, Wendy S. (2020). Model Evaluation: An Adequacy-for- Purpose View. Philosophy of Science, 87(3), 457-477. Full text

15.10.2020 Ethics of climate change

Invited speaker: Michel Bourban, University of Warwick.

  • Bourban, M. (2020) Promoting Justice in Global Climate Policies. In book: Routledge Handbook on the Political Economy of the Environment. Publisher: Routledge.

22.10.2020 (online) Values in climate services

Invited speaker: Greg Lusk, Michigan State University

  • Lusk, G. (2020). Political Legitimacy in the Democratic View: The Case of Climate Services. Philosophy of Science. Full text
  • Parker, W. and Lusk, G. (2019). Incorporating User Values into Climate Services. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 100(9), 1643-1650. Full text

29.10.2020 (online) History of climate change

Invited speaker: Dania Achermann, Bergische Universität Wuppertal.

  • Heymann, M. and Achermann, D. (2018). From Climatology to Climate Science in the 20th Century. In Sam White, Christian Pfister, and Franz Mauelshagen (eds.). Palgrave Handbook of Climate History, Palgrave MacMillan UK. Full text

05.11.2020 (online) Holism in models

Invited speaker: Johannes Lenhard, Technische Universität Kaiserlautern.

  • Lenhard, J. (2018). Holism, or the Erosion of Modularity: A Methodological Challenge for Validation. Philosophy of Science, 85(5), 832-844. Full text

12.11.2020 (online) Machine learning in climate science

Invited speaker: Suzanne Kawamleh, Indiana University.

  • Kawamleh, S. (2020). Can machines learn clouds? The Epistemic Implications of Machine Learning Methods in Climate Science. Philosophy of Science.

19.11.2020 (online) Climate tipping points 

  • Curcifix, M. and Annan, J. (2020). Is the concept of ’tipping point’ helpful for describing and communicating possible climate futures? In M. Hulme (ed.), Contemporary Climate Change Debates, London: Routledge, pp. 23–35. Full text
  • Lenton, T. M. (2020). Tipping positive change. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 375: 20190123. Full text 

26.11.2020 (online) Structural uncertainty

Invited speaker: Marina Baldissera Pacchetti, University of Leeds.

  • Baldissera Pacchetti, M. (2020). Structural uncertainty through the lens of model building. Synthese. Full text

03.12.2020 (online) Robustness analysis

Invited speaker: Martin Vezér, Pennsylvania State University.

  • Vezér, M. A., (2016). Computer Models and the Evidence of Anthropogenic Climate Change: An Epistemology of Variety-Of-Evidence Inferences and Robustness Analysis, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science: Part A, 56: 95–102. Full text

10.12.2020 (online) Decisions with model ensembles

Invited speaker: Joe Roussos, Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm.

  • Roussos, J. and Bradley, R. and Frigg, R. (2020) Making confident decisions with model ensembles. Philosophy of science. Full text

17.12.2020 (online) Discussion and conclusion

Spring semester 2020

Seminar Philosophical Issues in Modeling Climate Change

Julie Jebeile, Ralf Hand, Vincent Lam & Jakob Zscheischler. 

Location and time: Uni Mittelstrasse 43, Seminarraum 324, 14:15-16:00. Except on the 24.04: Seminarraum 124.

Background readings for the whole course:

Fall semester 2019

Seminar Philosophy of science perspectives on the climate challenge

Vincent Lam

Interdisciplinary meetings devoted to the foundational and conceptual issues in climate science and climate modelling (and more generally linked the climate challenge).

Colloquium: Philosophy of science

Claus Beisbart & Vincent Lam

  • Every friday, 14:15-16:00, Unitobler F001.

Spring semester 2019

Seminar Philosophical Issues in Modeling Climate Change

Claus Beisbart, Vincent Lam & Stefan Brönnimann