Newsletter No 1 March 2010

Is reasoned public debate on climate still possible?

Prof. dr. Frans Berkhout

1public debateScience has many uses; and not all of them foster reasoned debate. This is the bitter lesson that the strange cases of ‘climategate’ and a whole series of linked controversies have taught environmental researchers over the past few months. It used to be simple. Science, with its own self-correcting system of structured scepticism and peer review, produced results which could be translated into knowledge claims that were used in public and policy debates. We have long understood that this translation is not straightforward; that policy communities use knowledge claims strategically to confirm prior positions and that science is rarely able to produce the ‘killer fact’ that settles policy disputes. But science has continued to have a privileged position, able to a large extent to set its own rules and define the terms of its engagement with public debates.

The events of the last few months appear to signal a rupture in such commonly-held assumptions about science’s autonomy and the uses of science. They confront us with many uncomfortable questions about the authority of science and the role of expertise, but also about whether reasoned debate about climate change is still possible in our societies. There are many painful ironies in this story. For instance, at IVM we have, over many years, been working on participative integrated assessment . This has the explicit aim of bringing a wide range of perspectives and values to bear on environmental problems and choices. An underlying assumption of this work has been that through the creation of a Habermasian ‘ideal speech situation’, in which participants are open to alternative views and willing to adjust prior positions, it should be possible to create the conditions for learning and for better, more legitimate collective decision making. The UEA and IPCC cases seem to demonstrate the opposite; that when politics, the media and the blogosphere engage in a scientific debate the result is more often a bout of unedifying mud slinging and character-assassination serving only to generate confusion and mistrust. A true nadir was reached in the Dutch parliamentary debate on the IPCC AR4 report when scientists who had contributed were accused of being liars and profiteers. Death threats against Phil Jones at UEA speak of a similar grotesque intolerance than can only be viewed with deep anxiety by those who seek reasoned debate.

So what has changed? At least two important shifts appear to have taken place, setting the scene for the current crisis in the climate debate. First, procedures within climate science (and climate assessments) have been opened to public scrutiny; and second, the politicisation of climate science has entered a new phase. The authority of science rests on the assumption that its own procedures for self-regulation – rigorous training and apprenticeship, publication in the open literature, peer review and promotion on merit - are being consistently and fairly applied. For the most part, these procedures never become the subject of public debate. And why should they? Just as any other professional society, science applies its own rules scrupulously almost all of the time. All scientists have experienced the rejection of a project proposal or an article by their peers. What both the UEA and IPCC cases have shown in different ways is that the procedures of peer review are not perfect in their operation, both in their capacity to filter-out error and in the fairness with which they are applied. That none of the cases uncovered (weather station positioning in China, Himalayan glacier melt, the scope of Dutch flood-prone areas and so on) proved to be substantial is beside the point. Authority is based not only on the plausibility of knowledge claims, but more fundamentally on the perception that internal checks and balances are being rigorously applied. Here climate science and climate assessments have been found wanting. How science should respond is still unclear, but the potential consequences are far-reaching and profound. The danger is that reasonable caution is replaced by debilitating regulation, externally-imposed.

The second shift is that as responses to climate change begin to penetrate more deeply across economies and societies, climate science has become increasingly politicised. As larger commitments are made to climate policy, whether to reduce greenhouse emissions or to limit climate-influenced vulnerabilities, policy makers demand a higher level of confidence from science, while critics of climate policies become more avid in their attacks on the scientific basis for these decisions. Universities and scientists are not equipped to take part in this public battle for opinion, in which quite different codes of persuasion hold. The touch-paper for the controversies about the 2007 IPCC reports in some European countries (but not in others) was the nervous response of political leaders, followed by the response of the media. Without a political response there could have been no wider narrative for the media to latch onto. Parts of the media, after the failure of politics to deliver a result in Copenhagen, were also looking for a new angle on climate. But then again, if climate didn’t matter, how could melting Himalayan glaciers have become front-page news? So perhaps there is a silver lining.

It is possible to take an agnostic position on the events of the last months and to argue that it is inevitable that there will be disagreements about climate change. In a post-modern world, the authority of science has increasingly come to be questioned across all fields. And we know that there are values at stake in the climate debate that have nothing to do with radiative forcing and carbon cycle feedbacks. Such values make the climate debate complicated and contested. But unless John Tyndall got his measurements wrong in 1859 and the physics of gases has been badly misunderstood, the anthropogenic forcing of global climate change is now about as well-established a fact as anything in modern science. This means that societies need to grapple with the problem of how to respond. For that we badly need a public debate based on reasonable argument in which the codes of good debate are upheld. Science cannot expect an uncritical audience amongst the public, but it is clear that new codes need to emerge so that knowledge claims to be handled fairly in public discussion.  In the increasingly ‘mediatised’ public sphere, such codes do not yet exist. One look at the blogosphere confirms this. Science, as one model for a reasoning agora, can provide an example, but only if it meets its own highest standards. More than anything we need to be wary of the politicisation of science, even if we cannot keep science and politics separate. A free and open science is fundamental to a free and open society.

More information:

-Hisschemöller, M., Kerkhof, M. van de, Kok, M.,& Folkert, R. (2002). Climate OptiOns for the Long term (COOL): Stakeholders’ views on 80% emission reduction. In Kok, M., Vermeulen, W., Faaij, A. & Jager, D. de (Eds.), Global warming & Social Innovation: The challenge of a climate-neutral society. (pp 196-216) 2002, London. UK: Earthscan .