Posts Tagged ‘politics’

The role of scientific consensus in moving the public debate forward

February 7, 2014

Mike Hulme had an interesting essay at The Conversation, the main message of which was

In the end, the only question that matters [for the public debate about climate change] is, what are we going to do about it?

Hulme correctly argues that the basic science is clear enough so that for society the important issues to discuss are not science related, but policy related. I argued much the same here. He writes:

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does).

Let’s leave the minor quibble aside that AR5 puts the anthropogenic contribution at ‘extremely likely’ having caused more than half of the recent global warming.

The part where I disagree with Hulme is where he argues that showing the existence of a scientific consensus on the above (it is warming; it’s due to us; it’s bad news) somehow stands in the way of  getting society to discuss that most important question. I think the opposite is true. It is the continuous doubt about the science, sowed by those who oppose a serious discussion about what to do, that is a stumbleblock. Showing that a consensus amongst experts exists would enable society to more swiftly move on to the important conversation on what to do about it. I agree with Hulme that on this deeply ethical question there is, and ought to be, a multitude of opinions.

As Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook write in a response to Mike Hulme:

The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions.

Another element that’s missing from this discussion is that scientific and ideological arguments  should be clearly distinguished from each other (“is” vs “ought”).

Unfortunately, ideological arguments are often dressed in a sciency-looking cloak. From that perspective, I appreciate the honesty in Lindzen stating blunty “we’ll all be dead by then”, the obvious implication being: so why care. That’s indeed what a lot comes down to: How do you value the future compared the present?


Science ignored by politics

October 3, 2010

We have known what we know for several decades now (it’s warming; it’s due to us; it’s bad), and serious policies to tackle the problem aren’t even in sight. Of course I’m aware that there is more that influences a political decision than ‘just’ scientific expertise about important societal issues (i.e. that the “linear model” of science and politics is not realistic, to use Pielke Jr’s terminology). But still, the disconnect is just huge. Warnings based on science are ignored at our peril.

But perhaps this is more common that I’d thought? Listening to the radio the other day, I heard someone making the case that economists have warned for years that the Dutch housing market is unsustainable (economically speaking), referring to the large tax-rebate you get on your mortgage (“hypotheekrente-aftrek”).

Politicians don’t want to touch that rebate though, for fear of losing a lot of voters.

Richard Tol wrote over at Judith Curry’s

economists strongly agree that carbon taxes are superior to tradable permits

whereas often I hear that a carbon tax and rebate is politically infeasible, probably because fear of losing a lot of voters (and/or because of strong lobbying against it?).

I remember a professor (of soil science I think it was) once describing his frustrations in trying to tell politicians about important issues regarding his field of expertise, where politicians were doing things that according to him didn’t make any scientific sense.

Is there a pattern there?

And the more difficult and more important question: What can we do about it?

What makes scientific sense doesn’t necessarily make political sense. If the scientists are right though, the bill and/or regret will come sooner or later. When will we learn?

Or to quote Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland (referring then to ozone depletion):

What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?

IPCC troubles in context: Some good Dutch media coverage

September 3, 2010

One of Holland’s quality newspapers, the Volkskrant, had some excellent coverage of the IAC’s review of the IPCC process. Below is my translation of (part of) an editorial column (discussed in Dutch in an earlier post):

In a way it was inevitable that the UN climate panel IPCC got cornered earlier this year when some mistakes were discovered in its reports. The IPCC, as a volunteer organization with a small staff, could no longer cope with the societal polarization which was the consequence of the unwelcome message of global warming and climate change. Thus, professionalization is required.


The mistakes and glitches which were discovered in the IPCC’s 2007 report were the result of clumsiness and sloppiness. They did not undermine the knowledge that the climate is changing.

I would add that most IPCC mistakes were minor or even imaginary, and most were in working group 2 about (regional) effects of climate change; they did not concern the physics of climate and why it is changing. (See  e.g. my commentary on the 2035 – 2350 glacier mistake, which is the only serious mistake, even if it is in a relatively insignificant and hardly read portion of the whole report. The Dutch area-under-sea-level slip was mostly clumsy.)

In spite of this it caused a wave of distrust, which suggests that climate science and IPCC as its flag bearer had a problem with their public image.

With not a little help from large quarters of the media. And of course human psychology to rather not believe things that you don’t want to be true.

On the one hand climate scientists are expected to keep themselves to the facts only. At the same time their results and understanding are also arguments in the societal discussions about climate change. But as soon as they participate in this discussion accusations of bias come up.

A more professional IPCC should not only work on the internal weaknesses and make and present itself as scientifically solid as possible. It will also have to make clear that its work has political implications, but that that doesn’t mean that it’s engaged in doing politics.

The last portion (my bold) should be self-evident, but since in reality many people and media chose to paint it as the opposite, it is unfortunately necessary to point out the obvious.

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