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How not to Keep Climate Science Separate from Politics

by Michael Levi
November 19, 2010

A group of top-flight scientists have a letter (subs. req’d) in the new issue of Science (h/t: Joe Romm, who likes the letter a lot more than I do) calling for

“the science community to develop, implement, and sustain an independent initiative with a singular mandate: to actively and effectively share information about climate change risks and potential solutions with the public, particularly decision-makers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.”

It’s a laudable project, and I’m inclined to be supportive, particularly given this admonition from the authors:

“[The initiative] should not advocate specific policy decisions; good decision making involves weighing the best available information with the values of the decisionmakers and those affected by the decisions.”

That’s why I find the opening line of the leter absolutely ridiculous:

“According to broad international agreement, a global warming increase beyond 2°C is unacceptable.”

Pardon? This is a purely political statement. The authors’ own letter explains why: to settle on a two degree target, rather than something higher or lower, one must integrate science with an assessment of values. Indeed while all the other citations in the letter point to scientific papers or statements by scientific societies, the reference for this particular claim points to a G8 communique (PDF). What’s worse, the sentence is totally unnecessary. There is nothing else in the letter that rests on it; it could have been left out with no loss whatsoever.

I know that some readers will object, pointing out that the authors don’t actually say that an increase beyond 2°C is unacceptable; they simply say that there’s “broad international agreement” on that point. But these are smart people, and they know how their letter will be read.  (I know several of the authors, and have great respect for them.) This is a group of scientists, writing in a scientific journal, clearly deploying their scientific authority. They do not even bother to add to word “political” in front of “agreement”. They ought to understand that they themselves are mixing value judgments with science, or at least encouraging others to do so in a very specific way. That may be fine, in principle, but it seems to be the opposite of their declared objective.

Let me close with one more quote from the letter:

“In the face of efforts to undermine public confidence in science, [the initiative] must become a trusted broker of unbiased information for people on all sides of the issue.”

I’m all for that. Those who are involved in the initiative will need to be far more careful to keep value judgments out of their communications if they’re going to succeed.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Gabriel

    I usually find your insights invaluable, but it would seem the claim that exceeding 2C is unacceptable would have a scientific basis, since it seems to be the point at which we cross dangerous thresholds for amplifying feedbacks and risk a situation beyond our ability as a civilization to control regardless of limiting emissions.

    From my understanding, this is based on scientific conclusions from multiple disciplines and the most advanced climate models. If we have to ascribe a value judgement to the prevention of complete collapse, perhaps there is no room for science at all in modern civilization, since the threshold for objectivity exceeds that of common sense.

    [ML: What counts as "unacceptable"? There are, for example, scientists out there who think that the threshold is at 1.5 degrees. Or think of this another way: Would it pass the laugh test for someone to say that the scientifically determined threshold was3.6 degrees Fahrenheit? Of course not -- but that's the same thing as 2C. Two degrees is a useful benchmark, no doubt informed by science, but it's fundamentally about a value/political judgment.]

  • Posted by Gabriel

    I guess the same could be said for 350 ppm. Doesn’t it behoove the scientists to say something along the lines of “if we exceed certain limits we push our ecosystem into a state where no amount of intervention will prevent a collapse of systems that millions depend on for food and water? Our research indicates this may be in the area of 2 deg C.”

    I understand in economics that “acceptability” means that mass famine, displacement and death need to be considered in a cost/benefit analysis, but I think it is not overreaching for scientists to make a statement that takes these quantitative values into account as perceived by most people who are not shielded entirely from their repercussions.

    [ML: Sure. But they don't say "our research says" or use the words "may be". They invoke "broad international agreement" that more than 2 degrees warming is "unacceptable", period.]

  • Posted by Greg

    I think you’re taking an excessively broad interpretation of “policy”. At some level, every decision is a policy. It’s clear from the full context of the letter that the authors consider that one overarching *goal* (limiting temperature increase to a particular ceiling) is not what they mean by policy. Policies are how we achieve that goal (regulations, taxes, markets, subsidies …)

    Even if you quibble about the exact temperature ceiling that our goal is not to breach, you must surely agree that there is a such a ceiling. By referencing the G8 statement, they’re pointing out that a generally conservative international body representing the most advanced nations has used both science and the values of its member states to make a good estimate for that ceiling.

    So now they are advocating the creation of a politically neutral organization to supply the best scientific information to the governments and to the media/public about the effects of various actions, including “doing nothing”, in relation to the agreed goal.

    To be blunt about the purpose behind this organization, let me put it in the form of a question. What you do to avoid the following situation:
    1) The G8 (and others) agree there is a temperature increase beyond which we don’t want to go
    2) Fossil fuel interests in those nations use their vast financial power to convince voters and legislators that fossil fuel emissions have nothing to do with the ongoing rise in temperatures.
    3) Enough voters and legislators believe or act like they believe that for long enough that we not only breach the target ceiling, but are put on an inevitable trajectory to ~2C beyond that target, which will cause (under *any* recognizably human value system) shocking levels of human suffering, and economic decline.

  • Posted by Trajan.

    If we start from the point, where the assumption made by some is completely wrong and the science fallacious, then all the arguing (over AGW) in the world, is set at nought.
    The science is a fabrication, the hypothesis is a political fiction, AGW is a myth.

    Trajan,

    Skeptocats.

  • Posted by Kooiti Masuda

    Many (though not all) Japanese authors of IPCC 4th assessment report has issued a statement on 30 September and its English version is on the websie of one of the authors”. I think that they generally agree with you.

  • Posted by Jeff Wishart

    I find it strange that you take such a strong stance against that first sentence. What was the “climax” in Copenhagen if not a broad agreement that 2 degrees C is unacceptable? There is no doubt that you could find a lot of climate scientists who would disagree with that exact number (most would likely go with a lower one), but surely you must agree that the politicians and diplomats arrived at a broad consensus on this number.

    You may be correct in your interpretation of the intentions of the authors, but you may also be reading a bit more into it than is warranted. The authors may simply be stating the fact that over the course of the negotiations, for better or for worse, the international community has arrived at the conclusion that 2 degrees C is too much. It’s hard to fault them for prefacing their letter with this fact.

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