We look at the problems that occur when climate science is translated into policy, and investigate how these problems still happen
Climate science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
Historically, political action followed scientific discovery, when that discovery revealed wide ranging or damaging implications to our socioeconomic outlook.
For many years Greenpeace was the vanguard for raising public awareness, eco-warriors shouting from the rooftops to anyone who would listen about how industry was causing irreparable damage to our planet.
Within a few years of Greenpeace grabbing the public’s attention, the United Nations held the First Earth Summit in June 1972 and adopted a declaration that set out principles for “the preservation and enhancement of the human environment”, and an action plan containing recommendations for international environmental action.
The declaration raised the issue of climate change for the first time, warning governments to be “mindful of activities that could lead to climate change and evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of climatic effects.” Nothing in the declaration was binding, nor did it call for any policy changes.
What did climate scientists do?
Over the next 12 years scientists did what scientists do. They observed and recorded data and they conducted experiments and published results, all free from political influence or interference.
The first potential problem identified by scientists was a depletion of the ozone layer. They laid out a path as a means for politicians to determine what action, if any, could or should be taken.
This path was in no way considered controversial and laid out three simple steps:
1. Scientific consensus
2. Tolerable domestic economics costs
3. Global equity
Scientists also outlined the domains in which changes could be implemented, which were global, state-centred and individualistic.
CFC’s or chlorofluorocarbons were identified as the potential culprit of ozone depletion, so after ticking the three boxes outlined by scientists, governments moved to ban or limit their use. In a very short space of time some viewed those still using hairspray or the wrong type of fridge as enemies of humanity and so it began…
The issue in this example is still the issue today – scientific consensus and how this is interpreted by politicians. Scientists are very careful to avoid absolutes, because scientific discovery is the best hypothesis based on available data, a hypothesis, which when presented with new or contradictory data, can change. Prime examples of this are – the earth is flat until it was found to be round, the earth is the centre of the universe, around which the sun orbits, et cetera, et cetera.
Politicians on the other hand, love absolutes and using them portrays politicians as bold, decisive, leaders worthy of our trust in deciding the best path forward for the benefit of all.
If we look back at the scientific consensus part of the CFC concerns in 1988, it is clear scientists provided politicians with no absolutes. Their conclusions clearly stated “Gaseous CFCs can deplete the ozone layer when they slowly rise into the stratosphere, are broken down by strong ultraviolet radiation, release chlorine atoms, and then react with ozone molecules.”
Nowhere in that statement do scientists claim CFCs deplete the ozone layer, instead they state CFCs can, when certain conditions are met. Now I’m not trying to make a case CFCs are harmless nor damaging to the ozone, the point I’m making, is how the “scientific consensus” was interpreted and acted upon by politicians and how this set a precedent still followed today.
At some point between 1988 and today climate science was co-opted by political interests, which in the view of many experts has hindered rather than helped progress. Today, climate change has become a fiercely partisan, ideological and divisive subject with two clear and opposing camps. In camp one we have the “the world is going to end in 12 years” people and in camp two we have the “climate change is a hoax” people. Neither of which are correct and neither of which aids progress, because their positions, knowingly or unknowingly to them, are more political and ideological than scientific.
Social discourse has predictably descended into name calling with “climate denier” and “apocalypse boy” being labels regularly pinned on me depending on where my opinion sits on a political scale within any given climate related subject. People in both camps seem unwilling to reason or back down from their position, because they are caught up in the ideological ‘us’ verses ‘them’ mentality.
So what is the problem and what are the consequences?
Let’s review a recent example you will all undoubtedly have heard about, not because of what the scientists found, but because of the way it was interpreted in the political arena.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in 2018 which found that global warming could still be held to 1.5°C of warming if man made CO2 emissions declined by 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.
This finding was interpreted in the political arena as “the world is going to end in 12 years”, which the media repeated ad nauseam for days sending millions of young people into a panic, believing climate change was going to kill them all before they became adults. All hope was lost in their mind, so why bother with anything anymore?
As a result panic attacks, self harm help lines and skipping school numbers sky rocketed until the scientists responsible for the report felt compelled to clarify their findings in an attempt to restore the sanity of millions, with a brief statement confirming that the world will end in 12 years claim was a “complete mischaracterisation of what the report said.”
It turns out the politician responsible for the mass hysteria and panic on global scale, wasn’t an experienced career political mastermind, the culprit was in fact a junior first term member of the US Congress, with no background or experience in climate science, who was simply trying to use the findings in the report as a means to breath life back into a climate change policy she wrote, which had been rejected in the US Senate without receiving a single vote in its favour.
And before the name calling starts, I’m not here to beat up on a Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, I’m simply using this as an example to make a point, because literally everyone in the world heard about this example, which highlights perfectly how political interpretation of climate change science is often more harmful than helpful.
Other examples I could have used include Al Gore’s predictions that based on “scientific evidence” the polar ice caps will have completely melted by 2014, or Donald Trump claiming climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese Government. Both equally wrong and both further examples of just how unhelpful politicians can be.
Politicians should seriously consider asking scientists for clarification of their findings, better still, and in my personal utopia, they would simply let the scientific reports speak for themselves without polluting science with an ideological interpretation to fit a political agenda.
Another good idea would be if scientists seriously considered removing themselves from political discourse to avoid being placed in either camp whereby all their past, present and future work is then placed in a ‘absolutes’ pigeonhole as either right or wrong, or worse still, right or left.
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