Climate Experts Debating the Role of Experts in Policy

January 31st, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In Spring, 1997 a group called Ozone Action issued a statement signed by six prominent scientists calling for action on climate change. The letter prompted an interesting public exchange among leading scientists about who has the authority and credentials to call for political action on issues involving science, and whether or not the IPCC is the sole legitimate voice. The exchange is worth reviewing and considering, and I’ve reproduced parts of it below..

The Six Scientists letter was criticized by a leading climate scientist, Tom Wigley, who wrote:

I thought I should tell you that, for a number of reasons, I am not willing to sign the “6 scientists” statement you distributed. To the contrary, I strongly oppose it.

While I hold the individuals in high regard, I do not consider them authorities on the climate change issue. From memory, none were lead authors of the recent IPCC reports. While this may be an advantage from some points of view, it is not sufficient to overcome the criticism implied by my first sentence. Their endorsement of IPCC is useful, but their statement goes beyond what IPCC says. This can only be damaging to the IPCC process.

Phrases like (my emphasis) “climate DISRUPTION is under way” have no scientific basis, and the claimed need for “greenhouse gas emissions (reductions) beginning immediately” is contrary to the careful assessment of this issue that is given in the IPCC reports.

No matter how well meaning they may be, inexpert views and opinions will not help. In this issue, given that a comprehensive EXPERT document exists, it is exceedingly unwise for highly regarded scientists to step outside their areas of expertise. This is not good scientific practice.

I urge the authors of the statement to endorse IPCC, but go no further. I further recommend that any other scientist considering endorsement of the present statement think very carefully before so doing. In my view, endorsing any statement that goes beyond IPCC, or which is in any way inconsistent with IPCC publications, will potentially label the individual as an advocate and reduce their credibility as an informed and dispassionate scientist.

John Holdren, an energy policy expert now at Harvard, responded strongly to these comments:

Dr. Wigley’s critique of the “6 scientists’ statement” on global climatic disruption is surprising and, in all of its principal contentions, completely unconvincing.

Consider first his apparent contention that, the IPCC having rendered its authoritative judgment on the causes, consequences, and implications of climate change, no other scientist or group of scientists now has any business offering a supplemental opinion on any part of the matter. Or perhaps he is saying that no scientists other than _climatologists_ should be offering such opinions. (More about that below.) Either way, it is a disturbing proposition, not least for being so contrary to soundly based and solidly established traditions of both scientific and policy discourse.

Assessments of complex science-and-society problems by interdisciplinary panels can make valuable contributions to consensus-building in the scientific community, to shaping research agendas, and to illuminating policy options (among other benefits), as the IPCC admirably has done. I myself have put a good deal of my professional life, over the last quarter of a century, into participating in and leading such assessments on a wide range of topics in the energy, environment, and international-security fields. But I would never have asserted that the product of any of them was sacrosanct — not to be commented or expanded upon, never mind criticized, by any group other than the original authors — as Dr. Wigley appears to be asserting for the product of the IPCC. Does he really think that truth, wisdom, and insight are now to be regarded as the exclusive franchise of giant international panels, and anybody not so empaneled (or even those who are but might wish to speak through another channel) must be quiet?

Dr. Wigley has written that he does not consider the signers of the “6 scientists’ statement” to be “authorities on the climate change issue” and that “Inexpert opinions do not help”. Since he is a climatologist, one supposes that he would have been at least somewhat less distressed if a statement of this sort had been issued by members of that profession. Do they hold the only relevant “expertise”? What part of “the climate change issue” is he talking about here?

The IPCC process engaged not only climatologists but also atmospheric chemists, soil scientists, foresters, ecologists, energy technologists, economists, statisticians, and a good many other kinds of specialists as well — and for good reason. Even the relatively narrow question of how much climate change has taken place so far is not the province of climatologists alone (since, for example, the insights of atmospheric chemists, geochemists, glaciologists, geographers, and more are needed to help understand what the climate was like before humans started messing with it).

Understanding how the climate may change in the future, of course, depends on insights not only from climatologists but also from soil scientists, oceanographers, and biologists who study the carbon cycle; from energy analysts who study how much fossil fuel is likely to be burned in the future and with what technologies; from foresters and geographers who study the race between deforestation and reforestation; and so on. Understanding the likely and possible responses of terrestrial and marine ecosystems to climate change — and the consequences for agriculture, forestry, fisheries, biodiversity, and the distribution and abundance of human-disease vectors and pathogens — is the province of another whole panoply of types of biologists, as well as agronomists, foresters, epidemiologists, and more.

Understanding what technical and policy options are available for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and how fast and with what costs these options might be implemented, is the province of energy technologists, economists, and policy analysts, among others. And the decision about what measures governments should take to prepare for and/or implement some suitable subset of these options is necessarily a political choice, inasmuch as it entails a value-laden set of trade-offs among costs, risks, and benefits of incommensurable types. Of course people’s thinking about these trade-offs ought to be informed by as complete a portrayal as possible of what is known and not known about the climatological, geochemical, biological, techno- logical, economic, and other characteristics of the problem. But to believe that this portrayal will be understood in exactly the same way by any two individuals — or that, if it were, its ingredients would be weighed by those individuals in exactly the same way, so as to lead them to identical policy preferences — would be naive in the extreme.

Luckily, society has worked out a way to reach conclusions about what to do in the face of multifaceted, uncertainty-laden choices about problems affecting the common good, and it involves not only science and policy analysis but also, ultimately and appropriately, politics. Neither the science part of this mix nor the policy-analysis part — not to speak of the political part — works by designating a single individual or group (no matter how distinguished) as the single arbiter of what is right, what is reasonable, or what is helpful in public discourse. . .

Thanks to folks at Carnegie Mellon University the full exchange is preserved here.

5 Responses to “Climate Experts Debating the Role of Experts in Policy”

  1. docpine Says:

    I think everyone has the right to have an opinion, but the question is what makes my scientific opinion more scientific than yours? Either you simply debate the knowledge claims and their foundation- facts found and conclusions drawn- or you hang your banner on “my scientific legitimacy is stronger than yours”. Yet simple words like “disruption” have clear meanings in the English language that are not scientific (“scientific” would be a measure like “deviations of > .5% in annual mean temperature measured from Greenwich GB in the year 1500)”.
    Anytime you use the English or other languages with value laden words, you step out of the realm of science. Certainly the six scientists can argue that they’re scientists. So can the next seven scientists that disagree partially. And the 112 that disagree more. Helpful dialogue would focus on facts found and conclusions drawn and not by counting the number of scientists.

  2. 2
  3. TokyoTom Says:

    Roger, thanks for this and the link. They are not only informative, but make for interesting reading and consideration.

    It sounds like you would agree with Tom Wrigley about the wisdom of scientists stepping outside of the science to make policy recommendations. Am I wrong?

  4. 3
  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Tom- In this case I agree with what John Holdren has to say on science/politics, though I do agree with Wigley that the scientists are engaged in advocacy, but that is their point, no?

  6. 4
  7. TokyoTom Says:

    Roger, it is interesting to see this thoughtful debate among scientists concerned about climate science.

    I believe it supports my view that, yes, whenever scientists speak on matters that have political ramifications (matters that implicate political decision-making processes as opposed to private ones), their public and back-channel words are in effect political advocacy. Further, it illustrates that scientists are acutely aware of the limitations of their own knowledge and are sensitive as to whether advocacy is appropriate or , if unavoidable, how best handled.

    The fact that so little has changed on the political stage since the time of this discussion I think is an indication that scientists have little political weight as scientists, and that focussing attention on how they speak, while interesting, is of little relevancy to an understanding of the real politics that has affected policy-making relating to climate change.

  8. 5
  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Received by email from Brian M. Flynn

    “Thank you for posting, “Climate Experts Debating the Role of Experts in Policy”, and for archiving related articles under “The Honest Broker”. Because of you and others publishing on-line, my interest in the discourse on climate science has increased significantly.

    Scientists as advocates are and should be part of the political debate on climate change because, as JFK proclaimed, “We all inhabit the same planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And, we are all mortal.”. Within the scientific community, they should remain objective, receptive and responsive to challenges, and open to departures from long held “consensus”. But, when in the political arena, their rhetoric (particularly hyperbolic departures from their scientific writings) can and should be held to a much higher standard of examination by others who participate in that arena.

    Climate science is evolving. Disagreements continue with respect to the relative impacts of forcings; the impact of anthropogenic CO2 emissions on warming as exponential, linear or logarithmic; observed climate events as recurring or irreversible; bias in recording instruments; faulty data archiving and analysis, and/or questionable peer review; the effectiveness of proposed mitigation strategies and/or adaption responses, to name a few. And these disagreements (presumably, for the “self-correction” of the science) are increasingly available for public viewing and subject to greater familiarity and scrutiny. Thus, an advocate and her view can therefore be identified, I believe, even by an untrained eye, and evaluated accordingly.

    As an example, the recent statement by the AGU calling for 50% reduction in CO2 emissions this century is understandable as advocacy in light of the present inertia of a national political will in this country to act. We are already at 385 ppm in atmospheric CO2 (above the Hansen “safe upper limit” of no more than 350 ppm), Michaels concludes that growth of anthropogenic emissions of CO2 are certain to increase by reason of a working Malthusian theory, and the attention of the general public is focused primarily on curtailing emissions. Even the AGU’s scant reference to ozone depletion as another apparent “human footprint”, notwithstanding the recent questioning by Pope et al. about the atmospheric models of polar ozone depletion, can be seen as gratuitous advocacy for continued curtailment of certain aerosols.

    If there is concern that such advocacy would be an undue influence on the political process, that concern is misplaced. Sarewitz, on roles of scientists and policy makers in “Science and Environmental Policy: An Excess of Objectivity”, writes in part, “Ten years and $600 million later, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program had generated copious quantities of excellent science on the causes and impacts of acid rain, but had failed to achieve any sort of consensus scientific view that could motivate a political solution to the problem. This failure was probably unavoidable — the issue encompasses so many different problems, from the costs of reducing power plant emissions, to the assessment of forest damage and its various causes (including natural soil acidity) — each with its attendant uncertainties — that there is simply no such thing as a “right way” to look at acid rain. When a political solution was achieved, it reflected little of the knowledge gained from the research program, but instead made use of an economic tool — tradable permits for sulfur oxide emissions… Only when this political solution was implemented, as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (PL 101-549) could a new role for science come into focus: to monitor the impacts and effectiveness of the policy decisions, and to provide feedback into a political process that had already decided upon a general course of action.”(emphasis added).

    The history of dealing with “acid rain” is instructive, a microcosm of the present political debates on climate change, and a process of being repeated. Scientists will be helpful in developing theoretical frameworks for identifying problems; deciding how and when to act; and, monitoring and reporting (even advocating “correction”) on the actions taken. But, it is the political process, with advocates of all sorts and on all sides, which will determine whether action (and “correction”) is, in fact, carried out.

    The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently announced that global investments of $15 trillion to $20 trillion over the next 20 to 25 years may be required “to place the world on a markedly different and sustainable energy trajectory”. Assuming that estimate is realistic, even Clinton’s campaign calls for a $150 billion strategic energy fund over 10 years coupled with higher fuel efficiency standards, reduced consumption, and more focus on energy alternatives demonstrate that action toward mitigation and adaption will be late and marginal. The cumulative impacts of actions more quickly taken locally to deal with regional climate changing events will then more likely occur. That result may be more beneficial long term, especially if “correction” is needed to respond more quickly to further climate changes (if, for example, the recent data on and observations about cooling are precursors to trends) or to the impacts which actions have had on contiguous regions (such as remediating the “dead zone” created in the Gulf by increased corn production “up river”).

    There is room for scientists as advocates (more in the general public, less in the political arena, and hopefully next to none in the scientific community). Those scientists risk their own professional standing, especially if the advocacy is about events which may change in the future or is shown to be something other than altruistic.”