19 July 2010

Rathenau Institute Report on IPCC and the Politicization of Climate Science

The Rathenau Institute, a leading Dutch think tank with a focus on technology assessment, has published a thoughtful analysis of the politicization of climate science, with a focus on the IPCC and the media (here in PDF). It is a smart and sophisticated report.

Here is how it explains the politicization of climate science through the application of the "linear model" of science and decision making (p. 76):
[T]he political body has assigned the IPCC the role of instrument for the production of incontrovertible authority (a sort of certainty machine for univocal problem analysis) as well as of arbiter for settling political controversies about the right policy goals and the best ways to achieve them. Apparently, politicians deem science capable of calculating objectively, reliably and validly what the right climate policy is and how (with which optimal combination of options) is must be implemented. As a direct consequence, the political conflict about climate change and the underlying ideological conflicts (e.g. about free markets versus government intervention) are now deeply embedded in the field of climate science itself. To put it bluntly: if you want to exert influence on policy choices, given this division of roles it is most effective to do it through science. (Think of policy choices such as: What is the best stabilisation level or reduction goal? Can this be optimally realised with nuclear energy, wind energy or underground CO2 storage?) After all, science has always been given pre-eminence to make such calculations. This has contributed to a strong polarisation and politicisation of the scientific debate.
The linear model holds that once people agree on the facts, then coming to agreement on action follows. Similarly, under the linear model, lack of agreement on facts among competing political interests is viewed as an obstacle to action (for discussion of the linear model see Chapter 6 in The Honest Broker). The Rathenau report explains the resulting dynamics (pp. 76-77):
Because politicians in the Netherlands and elsewhere have embraced the linear model, climate science has ended up at the heart of the political conflict – that is, the scientific climate debate has become an important arena for political battles. As a result, diverging political visions seek justification of their position in the scientific debate. In the process, supporters of climate policies use the IPCC reports to depoliticise and thus monopolise the climate debate. They claim that the IPCC report has a preferential position in the political debate. On the other hand, opponents try to reopen the political debate by magnifying uncertainties and imperfections in climate science. This explains why in climate-sceptical blogs such as climategate.nl and klimatosoof.nl the arrow points nowadays mainly at science and not at politics. The proposal to evaluate the political procedures and practices of the IPCC also fits into this picture. The expectation behind it is that the current controversy can be settled by perfecting policy-oriented climate science. People are thus seeing scientific uncertainty as the main cause for the lack of solid justification of policy and solid support for it. This is the exact central core of the technocratic linear model for politically dealing with scientific uncertainties.
The report argues that we should reject the linear model in the context of climate science (p. 79):
The basic assumption behind the linear model – that reducing scientific uncertainty is necessary to justify climate policy – does not wash either. Scientific uncertainties play a role in many terrains, and in most policy terrains these uncertainties are accepted as unavoidable. It would be better to just say goodbye to the illusion of certainty. This gives policy its primacy back, and climate science becomes depoliticised. Hence it is important for the public and political debate to clarify which political values and visions are at stake. From a deliberative vision it is those values which should give direction to science – in place of the other way around, which is what commonly occurs these days.
By placing values before science, we might realize a positive vision for the future (such as this) -- one that encourages robust decision making under conditions of uncertainty and ignorance (p. 79):
In addition to doomsday predictions and exercising precaution, more desirable political scenarios for the future and the world could get a clearer spot in the climate debate, turning it into a search for societally attractive development perspectives. The transition into a sustainable society is one that beckons ecologically as well as economically speaking. A vision that is possible here fits that of a bio-based economy. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is interesting not only from an environmental angle but also in terms of bringing down economic vulnerability (e.g. running out of raw materials), innovation and new business impetus. Too much emphasis in the climate debate has come to lie on scientific substantiation or proof of the end of the world. Scientific knowledge can be well deployed towards depicting and developing beckoning future scenarios.
The report has some good advice for the climate science community. The report will likely be received as bitter medicine for those whose authority in the climate debate depends upon playing politics through science -- a category which includes those typically characterized as skeptics and alarmists. This is one of the great ironies of the climate debate: the parties that are arrayed most diametrically on issues of climate policy share a common vision for the role of science in political debate. They are thus wedded together in a mutually-reinforcing and destructive embrace.

The Rathenau Instutute suggests that it is time to broaden our thinking at the science-policy interface (compare this discussion - PDF). They are right. Have a look:

Jeroen P. van der Sluijs, Rinie van Est and Monique Riphagen (eds.) (2010), Room for climate debate: perspectives on the interaction between climate politics, science and the media. The Hague, Rathenau Instituut. (PDF)


  1. Turning scientific uncertainty into political certainty in order to generate policy is simply a trick. It has no credence, no substance, no integrity, it is dishonest.

    Whatever happened to evidence based policy?

  2. Malcolm,

    I think the distinction is that science should inform policy, not predetermine it.

  3. Perhaps science should also assess what's possible like Professor Laughlin demonstrates with his essay: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/what-the-earth-knows/

    Science is about knowledge. Politics is about power. The amalgamation of the two leads us to post-normal science where actions are disguised as science but whose purpose is to wield power.

  4. I enjoyed the Laughlin article, thank you.

    Excellent snippets from the Dutch Think Tank too, thank you.

  5. Finally, we make some remarks on why linear systems are so important. The
    answer is simple: because we can solve them! - Feynman

    Physical scientists and engineers are trained from the start to view things linearly.

  6. "By placing values before science, we might realize a positive vision for the future (such as this) -- one that encourages robust decision making under conditions of uncertainty and ignorance"

    I agree, let's put people first and reject corporate global warming alarmism and its policies. Decarbonisation for the time being is inextricably linked to carbon trading. The problem is that many environmentalists (like Mike Hulme) imagine they are living in a 1960s fantasy where they can control capitalism through limiting the power of corporations to pollute. That battle for the environment was fought and won in the 1970s. There is no imminent environmental threat from Co2, and probably never will be. Carbon trading is a 100% corporate operation.

    I mention Mike Hulme because he bases his 'positive vision' on "divine authority" and other nebulous concepts that have nothing to do with science or energy policy. Another scientist contributor to this blog has similar views, based on the work of evangelical Christian John Houghton. James Hansen's views seem to be based on an extreme conservative philosophy, not science.

    I would guess that almost everyone who supports decarbonisation is tuned in to the background radiation of the counter culture big bang of the '60s and vice versa for those who oppose it. I am a 99% progressive (plus Findhorn, New Age, Buddhism, Theosophy, Gnosticism etc.) but like Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone (a sceptic) have been exposed to alternative politics. He lived in Russia for ten years as an adult, I was a politically active 'anarchist' in my youth. You cannot beat capitalism by supporting it.

    Mike Hulme: Why We Disagree about Climate Change

    Religion as well actually leads us to see disagreement in our discourse around climate change, because we have different ways of recognizing divine authority.

    Link has audio background (speech by Mike Hulme).