Saturday, January 8, 2011
by Hans von Storch
There are growing efforts for studying climate scientists and their attitude, opinions and activities. These analyses are often based upon interviews, which are not meant for publication in a newspaper or other media, but merely as material for a, possibly comparative, analysis. I have now been subject to several requests to answer pre-formulated questions, and I publish the latest one in the following.
I welcome this tendency of looking closer at the actors on the climate change stage, who often like to present (and honestly consider) themselves as being objective and driven by entirely rationale and irrefutable motives.
1 – Climate Science and Political Power: birth of a new relationship
The climate issue has become very prominent in the political agenda and climate science results, methods and outcomes have taken a primary role in the political decision process. Why, in your opinion, climate science has become so important for political power?
My interpretation is that issues of quality of life, and this is to large extent related to the environment we live in, has become a dominant political goal of large chunks of the populace in the affluent west. Climate has become the most important environmental concern, maybe because concern about a “worsening climate” is an old cultural construct in the west, where the concept had flourished for a long time that a higher power would punish people for sinful behavior. The traditional sins have been replaced by sins against the environment in general and against climate in particular. Climate stands for all these problems, and the climate problem is easy to grasp, has simple answers, which are consistent with traditional knowledge claims.
Climate science is a convenient partner for policymaking – first because it resonates positively with the requests of the electorate, second it allows politicians to avoid accepting responsibility but to place responsibility on science – “science tells us to do this and that”.
When did this close relationship begin? When did the political attention on climate science become so relevant to make climate change issue a part of the global political debate? Could we say that there is a starting point for the relationship between political power and climate science?
This relationship began about 15 years after the emergence of the green movement, when the so far dominant conflict – the east-west-conflict – ceased. The climate problem is well suited for a global debate, because it may be framed so that almost all relevant problems, the north-south problem, inequality of development, injustice due to former colonialism, environmental degradation are included.
A time-wise specific“starting point” I would find difficult to set.
2 – Politics, Climate Science and money
In the second half of the 20th Century, political institutions in the G8 countries invested heavily into climate research. Do you think that the level of funding is actually matching the demands that come from the society at large and it is adequate to address some of the most pressing questions?
In principle, yes. There is some research included which is mostly “climate” by name only. The question is if the generous funding siphons funds from other fields, which would deserve better funding, given the seriousness of the issues (e.g., health issues)
3 – A new, vast and varied audience
This vast attention from the political power and the prominence of climate change issues in the international political agenda brought climate science on a global stage and climate scientists and their science are in the limelight. Results from laboratories and from computer simulations are catching attention not only by your colleagues, but even by decision makers, diplomats, business leaders and the public opinion. It is a very varied audience.
Did this new audience change the relationship between climate scientists and their own job?
For many it did mean a change in doing the “job”, because doing climate science was no longer an issue of “satisfying curiosity” – the conventional motivation of scientists – but also an issue of providing support for a policy, which is perceived “good” or needed. A few went that far that they became very vocal activists (e.g., Hansen), while for more it meant a dedication to a “climate protection policy”. A serious problem is, however, that many act a slight self-censorship by checking language, and assertions, for avoiding of being “misused” by “skeptics”.
Do you think they are able to influence a political decision, the public opinion, strategic and economical and financial decisions?
Does this new influence affect the way in which a scientist looks at his job and his role in the society and among researchers?
For the most activist scientists, yes. Some feel that they not only have the right but also a superior insight, to tell policymakers what to do.
Do you feel there is any consequence in the professional relationships among colleagues?
Yes, the activist scientists have sometimes better chances in publishing in key journals such as “science” or “PNAS”, but also to hold important scientific positions in advisory government bodies. As a consequence scientists less engaged in the issue of man-made climate change, in particular those who hold fully or partly skeptical positions, find themselves sometimes marginalized.
4- Different languages
Politics and science use different languages, they obey different rules, pursue different aims.
How can these different worlds be able to maintain an effective dialogue on climate change? How can they find a common ground?
Ethnologically, the two groups indeed represent different “tribes”, with different cultures. They fulfill different functions in society. I think an effective dialogue is possible, but such a dialogue requires a mutual understanding of the other tribe’s culture, needs and language. Individual scientists as well as individual politicians have understood this need very well and have developed adequate approaches, but most scientists have difficulty to understand this challenge. I would guess that politicians are generally better practitioners of such a cross-cultural exchange, because politicians are generalists, but scientists are narrow specialists (Fachidioten is a German term).
5 – Key players
Who are the most important players, both scientists and politicians, in the history of the relationship between climate science and politics? Who did play the most important role in forging this relationship ? Who are the scientists or politicians that you shouldn't forget to cite if you are talking about climate science and politics?
You mean individuals? Bert Bolin would be a name, Stephen Schneider another, Jim Hansen, Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber and Hartmut Grassl in Germany – my view is certainly rather parochial. Al Gore in the US.
6 – Global Warming and Environmentalism
In the public debate, Global Warming issues always moves to the forefront of environmentalism. What do you think of this trend in the public opinion?
This tendency has its problems –as it downgrades the relevance of other environmental issues. If one big animal is dominating in the arena of public attention, the others appear as less relevant; however, while climate policy is pretty much a failure so far, the chances for having success with other problems may be large.
7 – The Public Debate on Global Warming
The debate on climate issues involves political power, international organizations, energy issues, economics and public opinion. Is this big attention good news for scientific research? Do you think that climate scientists and their science could benefit from such a vast debate which is involving scientists along with politicians, sociologists, economists, and so on?
The transdisciplinary character of the climate issue is certainly one of the attractive challenges of climate sciences. Surely, it is not easy, and the enormous public interest, as well as the usage of climate science as a political support for a certain policy, causes the whole field to be become “postnormal” (i.e., associated with large inherent uncertainty, with high stakes of various actors, and with different cultural values intertwined – according to Silvio Funtovicz’ and Jerome Ravetz’ concept.) In such a situation, policymaking and scientific knowledge generation begin to mix – to the disadvantage of both systems. Science becomes less scientific but more political, and politics becomes less political but more scientific. There is no “cure” to this phenomenon, but a broad discussion involving policymakers and the public may help to make things more transparent, allowing to identify which vested interests are involved how.