You Ought to Have a Look: The Interface of Climate Change Science and Climate Change Policy

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

We came across a pair of interesting, but somewhat involved reads this week on the interface of science and science policy when it comes to climate change. We’ll give you a little something to chew on from each one, but suggest that you ought you have a look at them at length to appreciate them in full.

First up is a piece, “The Limits of Knowledge and the Climate Change Debate” appearing in the Fall 2016 issue of the Cato Journal by Brian J. L. Berry, Jayshree Bihari, and Euel Elliott in which the authors examine the “increasingly contentious confrontation over the conduct of science, the question of what constitutes scientific certainty, and the connection between science and policymaking.”

Here’s an extended abstract:

As awareness of the uncertainties of global warming has trickled out, polling data suggests that the issue has fallen down the American public’s list of concerns. This has led some commentators to predict “the end of doom,” as Bailey (2015) puts it. In light of this, it seems odd to keep hearing that “the science is settled” and that there is little, if anything, more to be decided. The global warming community still asks us to believe that all of the complex causal mechanisms that drive climate change are fully known, or at least are known well enough that we, as a society, should be willing to commit ourselves to a particular, definitive and irreversible, course of action.

The problem is that we are confronted by ideologically polarized positions that prevent an honest debate in which each side acknowledges the good faith positions of the other. Too many researchers committed to the dominant climate science position are acting precisely in the manner that Kuhnian “normal science” dictates. The argument that humanity is rushing headlong toward a despoiled, resource-depleted world dominates the popular media and the scientific establishment, and reflects a commitment to the idea that climate change represents an existential or near-existential threat. But as Ellis (2013) says, “These claims demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the ecology of human systems. The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistory, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered natural ecosystems.”

The fundamental mistake that alarmists make is to assume that the natural ecosystem is at some level a closed system, and that there are therefore only fixed, finite resources to be exploited. Yet the last several millennia, and especially the last two hundred years, have been shaped by our ability—through an increased understanding of the world around us—to exploit at deeper and deeper levels the natural environment. Earth is a closed system only in a very narrow, physical sense; it is humanity’s ability to exploit that ecology to an almost infinite extent that is important and relevant. In other words, the critical variables of creativity and innovation are absent from alarmists’ consideration.

In that sense, there is a fundamental philosophical pessimism at work here—perhaps an expression of the much broader division between cultural pessimists and optimists in society as a whole. Both Deutsch (2011) and Ridley (2015b) view much of the history of civilization as being the struggle between those who view change through the optimistic lens of the ability of humanity to advance, to solve the problem that confronts it and to create a better world, and those who believe that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control and that efforts to shape our destiny through science and technology are doomed to failure. Much of human history was under the control of the pessimists; it has only been in the last three hundred years that civilization has had an opportunity to reap the benefits of a rationally optimistic world view (see Ridley 2010).

Yet the current “debate” over climate change—which is really, in Ridley’s (2015a) terms, a “war” absent any real debate—has potentially done grave harm to this scientific enterprise. As Ridley documents, one researcher after another who has in any way challenged the climate orthodoxy has met with withering criticism of the sort that can end careers. We must now somehow return to actual scientific debate, rooted in Popperian epistemology, and in so doing try to reestablish a reasonably nonpolitical ideal for scientific investigation and discovery. Otherwise, the poisoned debate over climate change runs the risk of contaminating the entire scientific endeavor. 

It seems the idea that the way climate change science is being conducted is proving a detriment to the good of science is becoming a common theme these days (see a new examination of the general topic by Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath here, as well as our reflections from last week).


Our second piece this week is an opinion paper by Oliver Geden in the publication Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change titled “The Paris Agreement and the inherent inconsistency of climate policymaking.” In it, Geden basically outlines how international climate negations are basically broken and that the role of climate scientists (especially those who want to act as climate policy advisor) is largely contradictory to what these (self-ordained) well-intentioned folks seem to think. While most policymakers assume consistency from talk to decision to action, in reality, Geden points out, inconsistency is true way of the world when addressing complex issues involving a “deliberately transformative agenda such as energy and climate policy.” This fundamental misunderstanding, or improper assumption, only furthers the ineptitude (foolhardiness?) of international climate negotiations.

Here’s an excerpt:

Until now, there has been no serious questioning of the intention to limit the temperature increase to 2 or even 1.5 °C. Not that many in the climate research community seem to grasp the political rationalities behind the setting of long-term policy targets. Even the mainstream policy discourse assumes consistency between talk, decisions, and actions. Accordingly, a decision on a certain climate target is presented and perceived as an act of deliberate choice, that will be followed up with the deployment of appropriate measures. In real-world policymaking, however, many decisions are viewed as independent organizational products, not necessarily requiring appropriate action. Despite the cultural norm of consistency, inconsistency is an inherent and inevitable feature of policymaking.

…Against this backdrop, the most challenging task ahead for policy-driven researchers and scientific advisors is that of critical self-reflection. In a world of inherently inconsistent climate policymaking, simply delivering the best available knowledge to policymakers might have counterintuitive effects. This means that those providing expertise cannot rely solely on their good intentions but also have to consider results. They must critically assess how their work is actually being interpreted and used in policymaking processes. This is not to say that researchers and scientific advisors should try to actively influence policymaking, as occasionally suggested, since that would almost inevitably lead to more inconsistency in experts’ knowledge production as a result of an increased politicization of climate research.

Climate researchers and scientific advisors should resist the temptation to act like political entrepreneurs peddling their advice, for example, by exaggerating how easy it is to transform the world economy. It is by no means their task to spread optimism about the future achievements of climate policy. Instead, to provide high-quality expertise, it is sufficient to critically analyze the risks and benefits of political efforts and contribute empirically sound—and sometimes unwelcome—perspectives to the global climate policy discourse.

This latter advice seems to have been lost on the 375 National Academy of Sciences who this week were signatories (aka “Responsible Scientists”) of an open letter expressing their “concern” that pulling out of the Paris Accord (as advocated by the “Republican nominee for President”) “would make it far more difficult to develop effective global strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The consequences of opting out of the global community would be severe and long-lasting – for our planet’s climate and for the international credibility of the United States.”

Sure, whatever you say.