Monday 16 March 2009

Science and the politics of climate change: unanimity does not rule

Guest post by Mike Hulme.

The largest academic conference that has yet been devoted to the subject of climate change has just finished in Copenhagen. Between 2,000 and 2,500 researchers from around the world attended three days of meetings during which 600 oral presentations (together with several hundred posters on display) were delivered on topics ranging from the ethics of energy sufficiency to the role of icons in communicating climate change to the dynamics of continental ice sheets.

I attended the conference, chaired a session, listened to several presentations, read a number of posters and talked with dozens of colleagues from around the world. The breadth of research on climate change being presented was impressive, as was the vigour and thoughtfulness of the informal discussions being conducted during coffee breaks, evening receptions and side-meetings.

What intrigued me most, however, was the final conference statement issued,
a statement drafted by the conference’s Scientific Writing Team. It contained six key messages and was handed to the Danish Prime Minister Mr Anders Fogh Rasmusson. The messages focused, respectively, on Climatic Trends, Social Disruption, Long-term Strategy, Equity Dimensions, Inaction is Inexcusable, and Meeting the Challenge. A fuller version of this statement will be prepared and circulated to key negotiators and politicians ahead of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held in December this year – also in Copenhagen.

The conference, and the final conference statement, has been widely reported as one at which the world’s scientists delivered a final warning to climate change negotiators about the necessity for a powerful political deal on climate change to be reached at COP15. (Some commentators have branded it The Emergency Science Conference’). The key messages include statements that ‘the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised’, that ‘there is no excuse for inaction’, that ‘the influence of vested interests that increase emissions’ must be reduced, and that ‘regardless of how dangerous climate change is defined’ rapid, sustained and effective mitigation is required to avoid reaching it.

There is a fair amount of ‘motherhood and apple pie’ involved in the 600 word statement – who could disagree, for example, that climate risks are felt unevenly across the world or that we need sustainable jobs. But there are two aspects of this statement which are noteworthy and on which I would like to reflect: ‘Whose views does the statement represent?’ and ‘What are the ‘actions’ being called for?’

The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference was no IPCC. This was not a process initiated and conducted by the world’s governments, there was no systematic synthesis, assessment and review of research findings as in the IPCC, and there was certainly no collective process for the 2,500 researchers gathered in Copenhagen to consider drafts of the six key messages or to offer their own suggestions for what politicians may need to hear. The conference was in fact convened by no established academic or professional body. Unlike the American Geophysical Union, the World Meteorological Organisation or the UK’s Royal Society – who also hold large conferences and who from time-to-time issue carefully worded statements representing the views of professional bodies - this conference was organized by the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), a little-heard-of coalition launched in January 2006 consisting of ten of the world’s self-proclaimed elite universities, including of course the University of Copenhagen.

IARU is not accountable to anyone and has no professional membership. It is not accountable to governments, to professional scientific associations, nor to international scientific bodies operating under the umbrella of the UN. The conference statement therefore simply carries the weight of the Secretariat of this ad hoc conference, directed and steered by ten self-elected universities. The six key messages are not the collective voice of 2,500 researchers, nor are they the voice of established bodies such as the World Meteorological Organisation. Neither are they the messages arising from a collective endeavour of experts, for example through a considered process of screening, synthesizing and reviewing of the knowledge presented in Copenhagen this week. They are instead a set of messages drafted largely before the conference started by the organizing committee, sifting through research that they see emerging around the world and interpreting it for a political audience.

Which leads me to the second curiousity about this conference statement.
What exactly is the ‘action’ the conference statement is calling for? Are these messages expressing the findings of science or are they expressing political opinions? I have no problem with scientists offering clear political messages as long as they are clearly recognized as such. And the conference chair herself, Professor Katherine Richardson, has described the messages as politically-motivated. All well and good.

But then we need to be clear about what authority these political messages carry. They carry the authority of the people who drafted them – and no more. Not the authority of the 2,500 expert researchers gathered at the conference. And certainly not the authority of collective global science. Caught between summarizing scientific knowledge and offering political interpretations of such knowledge, the six key messages seem rather ambivalent in what they are saying. It is as if they are not sure how to combine the quite precise statements of science with a set of more contested political interpretations.

Which brings us back to the calls for action and the ‘inexcusability of inaction’. What action on climate change exactly is being called for?

During the conference there were debates amongst the experts about whether a carbon tax or carbon trading is the way to go. There were debates amongst the experts about whether or not we should abandon the ‘two degrees’ target as unachievable. There were debates about whether or not a portfolio of geo-engineering strategies now really needs to start being researched and promoted. And there were debates about the epistemological limits to model-based predictions of the future. There were debates about the role of behavioural change versus technological change, about the role of religions in mitigation and adaptation, and about the forms of governance most likely to deliver carbon reductions.

These are all valid debates to have. And they were debates that did occur during the conference. Experts from the natural sciences and social sciences, from engineering and policy sciences, from economics and the humanities, all presented findings from their work and these were discussed and argued over. These debates mixed science, values, ethics and politics. This is the reality of how climate change now engages with the worlds of theoretical, empirical and philosophical investigation.

It therefore seems problematic to me when such lively, well-informed and yet largely unresolved debates among a substantial cohort of the world’s climate change researchers gets reduced to six key messages, messages that on the one hand carry the aura of urgency, precision and scientific authority – ‘there is no excuse for inaction’ – and yet at the same time remain so imprecise as to resolve nothing in political terms.

In fact, we are no further forward after the Copenhagen Conference this week than before it. All options for attending to climate change – all political options – are, rightly, still on the table. Is it to be a carbon tax or carbon trading? Do we stick with ‘two degrees’ or abandon it? Do we promote geo-engineering or do we not? Do we coerce lifestyle change or not? Do we invest in direct poverty alleviation or in the New Green Deal?

A gathering of scientists and researchers has resolved nothing of the politics of climate change. But then why should it? All that can be told – and certainly should be told - is that climate change brings new and changed risks, that these risks can have a range of significant implications under different conditions, that there is an array of political considerations to be taken into account when judging what needs to be done, and there are a portfolio of powerful, but somewhat untested, policy measures that could be tried.

The rest is all politics. And we should let politics decide without being ambushed by a chimera of political prescriptiveness dressed up as (false) scientific unanimity.

Mike Hulme is a professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia.


Stuart White said...

Frankly, Mike, I think you are being incredibly naive about the politics of this issue. Without a clear message that the problem is real, severe and needs urgent action - and no reasonable person would doubt that - vested interests will have no problem exploiting marginal points of disagreement to create a sense of uncertainty around the fundamentals.

Rachael Jolley said...

Six messages may seem simplistic to engaged scientists but for most people it would be the most they will read on the subject. I know academics hate the idea of boiling down complex messages to something "simplistic". But good, simple, clear messages can have far more impact on the wider public than a cleverly drawn 17,000 word essay.

My other point would be to query what you mean when you say "let politics decide". Do you mean let politicians decide or do you mean the world of politics? I would like to think that scientists can be part of that decision too, especially if they are well informed on a subject. Since scientists get the vote too, they, like everyone else, get to influence the decisions that political parties make about policies of the future and the present. Ideally I would like scientists to believe that they too have to be political.

As we saw with George W Bush's presidency - different policy decisions are decided, informed and influenced by different lobbies. If you want a government or group of governments to take a particular political action then you have to consider the politics of that policy too.

Tim Gore said...

As someone working somewhere in the midst of that nexus of "science, values, ethics and politics" you describe (economics, international relations, technology... the climate policy list goes on), I do recognise what you're talking about, but I really don't see that we should very much care.

Not in this year, when all of the effort of all of us concerned with the future of life on earth, should be directed in one direction: at securing a reasonable outcome to the Copenhagen summit in December.

Anything that divides attention away from that goal now just seems to me a bit unhelpful.

Your main complaints with the Copenhagen congress seem to be: 1) of process, and 2) of ouput.

You worry that the final statement produced wasn't properly representative of the 2500 participants.

But you point out, that this was no IPCC. And for good reason. You will know better than I, that IPCC takes around 6 years between its reports. The last one (AR4) was pretty out of touch with the latest research before it was even published, and for all its merit as a weighty contribution to the fight for a safer planet (its authors fully deserving of their Nobel prize), it hardly contains the snappy top-lines and sound bites we need this year.

So the congress was always a politically motivated event. It was a clever move by the Danish government to focus the minds of people in and out of governments around the world around two words for 2009: "Copenhagen" and "climate".

It didn't need to be a rigourous IPCC-like process to do that, and seems to me to have been reasonably successful in that respect.

A quick and dirty communications strategy of the kind some NGOs and activists would be proud.

Which is why I would not be overly concerned that the 2500 participants did not manage to come up with a blue print for all the "actions" that were necessary to avert the climate crisis.

As you point out yourself, they had no such mandate. They are not governments - that kind of deal-making comes in December (or rather in the glacial negotiating sessions throughout this year), so I see no problem with them having earnest conversations deep into the night about the relative merits of carbon taxes over cap and trade, or any other issue, that have no substantive outcome other than to generate more research proposals, newspaper column inches and comments in well-meaning blogs.

The point was to create noise around the urgency to get a global deal that might give us half a chance of staying below 2 degrees of warming.

Let's keep that big picture in mind as we strive to take on the biggest political challenge of our (and possibly any) generation, because until enough people are aware of that, all the wonky policy detail about which "actions" are needed, will count for nothing.