Climate Scientists Must Not Act as Policy Advocates

More Science Doesn’t Solve Our Problems

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In our highly politicized arena of environmental issues, climate scientists have a moral obligation to strive for impartiality. Even scientists that are experts – such as those studying the interactions between climate, economy, and politics, with “integrated assessment models” – cannot speak for us because political decisions necessarily depend on values. How do we weigh up economic growth against ecosystem change? Should we prioritize the lives and lifestyles of people today or in the future? Try to limit changes in temperature or rainfall? These questions cannot be answered with scientific evidence alone. To me, then, it is simple: scientists misuse their authority if they publicize their preferred policy options.

September 11, 2013 | Tamsin Edwards,

As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate.

This comes mainly from environmentalists. Dan Cass, wind-farm director and solar advocate, preferred me not to waste my time debating “denialist morons” but to use political advocacy to “prevent climate catastrophe”Jeremy Grantham, environmental philanthropist, urged climate scientists to sound a “more desperate note…Be arrested if necessary." A concerned member of the public judged my efforts at public engagement successful only if they showed ”evidence of persuasion."

Others ask “what should we do?” At my Cheltenham Science Festival event Can we trust climate models? one of the audience asked what we thought of carbon taxes. I refused to answer, despite the chair’s repeated requests and joke (patronisingly; his aim was to entertain) that I “shouldn’t be embarrassed at my lack of knowledge.”

Even some of my colleagues think I should be clearer about my political beliefs. In a Twitter debate last month Gavin Schmidt, climate scientist and blogger, argued we should state our preferences to avoid accusations of hidden agenda.

I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral. At the very least, it leaves us open to criticism. I find much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence. So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions. They call me an “honest broker,” asking for “more Dr. Edwards and fewer zealous advocates.” Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.

But it’s not just about improving trust. In this highly politicised arena, climate scientists have a moral obligation to strive for impartiality. We have a platform we must not abuse. For a start, we rarely have the necessary expertise. I absolutely disagree with Gavin that we likely know far more about the issues involved in making policy choices than [our] audience.

Even scientists that are experts – such as those studying the interactions between climate, economy, and politics, with “integrated assessment models” – cannot speak for us because political decisions necessarily depend on values. There are many ways to try to minimise climate change (with mitigation or geoengineering) or its impacts (adaptation) and, given a pot of money, we must decide what we most want to protect. How do we weigh up economic growth against ecosystem change? Should we prioritise the lives and lifestyles of people today or in the future? Try to limit changes in temperature or rainfall? These questions cannot be answered with scientific evidence alone. To me, then, it is simple: scientists misuse their authority if they publicise their preferred policy options.

Some say it is safe to express our views with sufficient context: “this is just my personal opinion, but…”. In my experience such caveats are ignored. Why else would we be asked “what should we do?” by the public or media, if not with an expectation of expertise, or the desire for data to replace a difficult decision? Rather than being incoherent – “I don’t know much about policy, but I know what I like” – or dictatorial – “If I were to rule the world, I would do this” – we should have the courage and humility not to answer.

Others say it is simplistic and impossible to separate science from policy, or that all individuals are advocates. But there is a difference between giving an estimate of the consequences of a particular action and giving an opinion on how or whether to take that action; between risk assessment, estimating the probability of change and its effect on things we care about, and risk management, deciding how to reduce or live with that risk. A flood forecaster provides a map of the probability of flooding, but she does not decide what is an unacceptable level of risk, or how to spend the budget to reduce the risk (sea defences; regulation of building and insurance).

We must be vigilant against what Roger Pielke Jr. in The Honest Broker calls “stealth issue advocacy”: claiming we are talking about science when really we are advocating policy. This is clearly expressed by Robert T. Lackey:

“Often I hear or read in scientific discourse words such as degradation, improvement, good, and poor. Such value-laden words should not be used to convey scientific information because they imply a preferred…state [or ] class of policy options…The appropriate science words are, for example, change, increase, or decrease.” (Science, Scientists and Policy Advocacy)

I became a climate scientist because I’ve always cared about the environment, since a vivid school talk about the ozone layer (here, page 4) and the influence of my brother, who was green long before it was cool to be green. But I care more about restoring trust in science than about calling people to action; more about improving public understanding of science so society can make better-informed decisions, than about making people’s decisions for them. Science doesn’t tell us the answer to our problems. Neither should scientists.

 

Tamsin Edwards, PhD is a climate scientist at the University of Bristol. She uses computer models to study climate change, what impacts climate change has on sea level and the environment, and how confident we can be in our knowledge of the past and our predictions of the future.  Tamsin Edwards received her PhD in particle physics, on diffractively produced Z bosons. This article is reprinted with permission, and appeared first on the Guardian's Political Science blog.

Photo Credit: PNNL.gov


Comments

  • I couldn’t disagree more. We are all in this mess because energy policy decisions world-wide are being made by people who are ignorant of science. Those who understand the peril of climate change, air pollution, ocean acidification, and resource depletion have an obligation to use their knowledge, training, and experience to influence the general public and lead-from-the-rear politicians.

    By Robert Hargraves on 2013 09 11

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  • Tamsin, your finding that “much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence” is not backed up by any studies that I’m aware of. Whilst it might be what the hardcore fanatics on the “skeptical” blogs claim, I’d be pretty skeptical of such claims. And besides, those kinds of fanatics aren’t very representative.

    Among the wider public studies have shown that there’s a link between people’s ideologies and their views on climate science, with those on the right far less likely to accept it than those on the left - though of course there’s a lot more to it than that, with a fair bit of cognitive and psychological research having been done. How we communicate science to the public should be based on scientific findings.

    By Roger Otip on 2013 09 11

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  • It is very encouraging to read such a lucid and principled statement from a scientist.

    I couldn’t disagree more. We are all in this mess because energy policy decisions world-wide are being made by people who are ignorant of science.

    Science is just one component of energy policy, there are important social and economic factors that need to be taken into consideration. Whether those who are charged with the task of formulating energy policy are competent to do so based on all the facts is a moot point, but they are at least democratically accountable.

    Those who understand the peril of climate change, air pollution, ocean acidification, and resource depletion have an obligation to use their knowledge, training, and experience to influence the general public and lead-from-the-rear politicians.

    Absolutely, but isn’t it the role of the scientist to present facts to the general public? Surely the facts alone should be compelling enough to influence the general public?

    Tamsin, your finding that “much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence” is not backed up by any studies that I’m aware of.

    There is no real need for a study, the raw facts speak volumes about how this belief arises. Regarded as the definitive “climate bible” the IPCC’s reports are supposed to present the unalloyed facts to policymakers. A significant number of the authors of the 2007 report have links to, and in many instances are on the payroll of, organisations such as the WWF and Greenpeace, organisations that rely for their funding on presenting a particular view of the facts.

    There may or may not be anything sinister in this, I am sure many scientists are capable of separating their political beliefs from their professional activities but it certainly calls the objectivity of the scientists concerned into question. The perception of a vested interest is very damaging to credibility, scientists should really have learned this by now.

    Whilst it might be what the hardcore fanatics on the “skeptical” blogs claim, I’d be pretty skeptical of such claims. And besides, those kinds of fanatics aren’t very representative.

    This assertion is not backed up by any studies that I am aware of.

    Among the wider public studies have shown that there’s a link between people’s ideologies and their views on climate science, with those on the right far less likely to accept it than those on the left - though of course there’s a lot more to it than that, with a fair bit of cognitive and psychological research having been done. How we communicate science to the public should be based on scientific findings.

    Surely this is partly a result of the problem that Tamsin discusses in her article above? That scientists are too ready to become policy advocates and in doing so become tainted by politics?

    By Allen Esp on 2013 09 29

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