13 September 2011

Climate Science and Politics: Still One Way Traffic

In The Hartwell Paper (PDF), written in 2010 soon after the Copenhagen conference and the release of the East Anglia emails, we wrote about how climate scientists encourage a mapping of political perspectives onto climate science:
From the outset, these [climate] scientists also brought their preferred solutions to the table in US Congressional hearings and other policy forums, all bundled. The proposition that ‘science’ somehow dictated particular policy responses, encouraged – indeed instructed – those who found those particular strategies unattractive to argue about the science.36 So, a distinctive characteristic of the climate change debate has been of scientists claiming with the authority of their position that their results dictated particular policies; of policy makers claiming that their preferred choices were dictated by science, and both acting as if ‘science’ and ‘policy’ were simply and rigidly linked as if it were a matter of escaping from the path of an oncoming tornado.
I just came across an interview by NPR with the latest climate scientist to get his 15 minutes of fame in the climate wars, and it shows just how little has been learned by this community since 2009.  Andrew Dessler, currently a minor celebrity in the blog battles between climate scientists and their skeptical opponents, explains that those who reject his views of the science are politically motivated:
"People who discount the science of climate change don't do it because they've read the science," he says. "The science of climate change is a proxy for views on the role of government. From what I understand, Perry's position is that he doesn't want government to interfere in private lives or industry. That means climate change — which calls for a government solution; there's no way for the free market to address climate change by itself — that doesn't fit anywhere with his political values. So he shoots the messenger."
Really? Does "climate change" call for a "government solution"?  Or is it more complicated than that? And if the "science of climate change is a proxy for views on the role of government" (which I agree with), does this apply only to opponents to action?

In a recent essay Mike Hulme presents six different ways that the issue of "climate change" might be framed in terms of its policy implications.  He writes of a recent letter calling for action on climate change signed by 87 Australian scientists to illustrate that any connection of climate science with proposed action is inevitably a selective, political act:
This open letter boldly states its framing narrative: “The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in climate changes that cannot be explained by natural causes. Climate change is real, we are causing it, and it is happening right now.”

Fact. Nothing to challenge there.

But how about this alternative?

“The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes and aerosol pollution are all contributing to regional and global climate changes, which exacerbate the changes and variability in climates brought about by natural causes. Because humans are contributing to climate change, it is happening now and in the future for a much more complex set of reasons than in previous human history.”

I’m confident too that none of my climate science colleagues would find anything to challenge in this statement.

And yet these two different provocations – two different framings of climate change – open up the possibility of very different forms of public and policy engagement with the issue. They shape the response.

The latter framing, for example, emphasises that human influences on climate are not just about greenhouse gas emissions (and hence that climate change is not just about fossil energy use), but also result from land use changes (emissions and albedo effects) and from aerosols (dust, sulphates and soot).

It emphasises that these human effects on climate are as much regional as they are global. And it emphasises that the interplay between human and natural effects on climate are complex and that this complexity is novel.

The frame offered by the 87 Australian academics who signed the “open letter” is more partial than mine and also, I suggest, is one which is (perhaps deliberately) more provocative.

It may work well if their intention is to reinforce the polarisation of opinion that exists around climate change science or if they are using scientific claims to justify a particular set of policy interventions.
Last week Hulme visited my graduate seminar to discuss he excellent book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change.  One of the students asked him about the reaction to his book.  Hulme replied that the reaction has been largely positive and engaged, with one notable exception -- the climate science community, which has largely ignored his work. 


  1. OK Roger I'll bite. What credible policy approach to climate change wouldn't involve government?

  2. -1-Marlowe Johnson

    Well, as Hulme well explains, that depends upon what you mean by "credible policy approach" and also "climate change". How you define both of these concepts will be a function of your politics and values.

    But the obvious answer is that surely you understand that _not responding to climate change_ is viewed by many to be a perfectly "credible" policy approach.

    The point of this post is that "the science" doesn't go very far resolving such disputes.

  3. -2-

    Also, as you know I've called for a government role in responding to climate change (e.g., see The Hartwell Paper and TCF for specifics) ... but you won't here me saying that "climate change" or "science" calls for these solutions, because they don't.

    Scientists ostensibly concerned about the politicization of climate science should stop politicizing it, seems obvious, no? ;-)

  4. "Scientists ostensibly concerned about the politicization of climate science should stop politicizing it, seems obvious, no?"

    Hear, hear!

  5. Roger,

    I can't imagine that anyone can seriously disagree with your main point -- scientists have confused their desired politics with what they think their science says. I know, however, that there is considerable disagreement on just what their science really shows.

    Your main point indicts scientists for a remarkable lack of self-awareness. Hubris will do that. I think you might want to explore what else could flow from that lack and how it directly impacts the 'science'.

    Venture capitalists have found that a majority of published research turns out to be badly wrong. And this is work that the scientists understand will be replicated. If the mistakes are that widespread even when the researchers know that their work will be checked, how bad do you think it is in fields when the researchers have no expectation it will be checked and, in fact, work feverishly to block anyone from checking when the prospect arises?

    I've made the point before that it is a real shame that many climate scientists have not been subjected to serious cross-examination. I think they'd be shocked to see how many holes remain in their theories. And the public embarassment and ridicule that would result would do a lot to reduce the hubris that dominates the field.

  6. While I agree with Hulme's point, I question the use of the word "overwhelming" in the two quotes. It looks like a rhetorical trick to downplay uncertainty. I'm not even sure what it means, which only reinforces my impression.

  7. If I accept the CAGW science at face value all it says is that if CO2 emissions are not reduced now then at some point in the future there will be substantial remediation costs.

    People who are well informed by science(Al Gore) buy million dollar homes on beach front property that the science informs them will be damaged by future events.

    Obviously for Al Gore, the present value of having a beach front home is of more value to him then the potential future loss of the home.

    I don't think there is a 'Solar Panel Advocate' who doesn't blather on endlessly about how solar panels will be 'nearly free' in 10 years, then they blather on about how I should buy one now. Why would I buy a solar panel if the present cost is substantially higher then the future cost?

    Plenty of people go to a movie theater and pay $10 for a ticket when they are fully aware that the movie will be at the 'second run' theater in a month or two and the tickets will be half the price.

    I'm fairly certain that the entire literary world would collapse if everybody waited for whatever publication they wanted to read was available at the library or second hand book store.

    Present value vs future value are highly subjective decisions.