Who Do National Science Academies Speak For?

June 10th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.


Today the national science academies of the G8+5 issued a statement on climate change (PDF) advocating a greater pace of action on adaptation and mitigation in response to climate change. We have discussed advocacy by science academies here on various occasions, and in this post I’d like to highlight two issues endorsed by the Academies that are still being debated among scientists and advocates, and ask, who do the academies speak for?

1. Clean coal. Carbon capture and storage is a contested technology, for example, by various environmental groups. However, the national science academies endorse its development and use.

Technologies should be developed and deployed for carbon capture, storage and sequestration (CCS), particularly for emissions from coal which will continue to be a primary energy source for the next 50 years for power and other industrial processes. G8+5 economies can take the lead globally to further develop CCS technologies. This will involve governments and industry working collaboratively to develop the financial and regulatory conditions needed to move CCS forward and international coordination in the development of demonstration plants.

2. Geoengineering research. Similarly, geoengineering research (as a separate issue from actual geoengineering) is a contested issue, for instance the recent Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity proposed a moratorium (receiving broad international support) on certain geoengineering experiments.. The national science academies endorse geoengineering without such reservations.

There is also an opportunity to promote research on approaches which may contribute towards maintaining a stable climate (including so-called geoengineering technologies and reforestation), which would complement our greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

Separate from the merit of the policy recommendations advanced by the academies (and for the record I support both CCS and geoengineering research) is the question of who the national science academies speak for and the basis for their endorsement of particular actions.

Do they represent the scientific community within their countries? Their members? Their executive bodies and leadership?

What of public concerns and those among members of the scientific community about CCS and geoengineering?

If the science academies claim to represent a special interest, then whose interest? If they claim to represent common interests, then on what basis is their advocacy to be viewed as legitimate (e.g., is democratic, consensual, authoritative, elite, etc.)?

9 Responses to “Who Do National Science Academies Speak For?”

  1. jromm Says:

    They represent sanity and their advocacy is legitimate on the grounds of sanity.

    What is your point here, Roger, beyond criticizing some well-informed groups who are begging the world to take the action needed to avert catastrophe?

    Since you say you endorse 450 to 500 ppm, and since that requires cutting CO2 emissions in half by mid-century as the academies correctly assert, why not spend time attacking the people who are trying to delay action, rather than those trying to encourage action?

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  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    So those opposed to carbon sequestration or geoengineering research can be classified as “insane”? ;-)

    Believe it or not there are other issues worth discussing besides climate change, and the role of experts in democratic systems is one of those issues.

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  5. smilerz Says:

    Where is the attack? I see some legitimate questions – on what basis are these recommendations made?

    Just because you – feel that something must be done and this is something, so it must be done – doesn’t make it a legitimate response.

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  7. jromm Says:

    Roger — You got me. I thought this particular post was about climate change, and whether well-informed groups of scientists should be urging the world to take the actions recommended by the top scientists chosen by the world’s governments to inform them on what actions we should take.

    I assume by the emoticon wink you are aware that it is a logical fallacy to sayand that someone who does not agree 100% with another person is in fact the opposite of that person.

    In any case, I don’t know many experts in this area who think we should not pursue either “geoengineering research” or the development of CCS technology. I believe the IPCC is on record saying this is an important strategy. I think you are looking for as controversy where it doesn’t really exist.

    The statement is pretty innocuous, or it should be to anyone who believes we must stabilize at 450 to 500 ppm.

    Smilerz: I don’t understand what you mean by “Just because you – feel that something must be done and this is something, so it must be done – doesn’t make it a legitimate response.”

    This isn’t “something” picked out at random from a menu of possible goals and strategies.

    The IPCC, the IEA, the National Academies, the G8 + 5 — heck, I’m pretty sure even Roger — all agree we need to cut emissions in half by 2050 if we are to keep concentrations of CO2 at acceptable levels. I’m assuming from your comment that you don’t.

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  9. Sylvain Says:

    Mr Romm you write:

    “They represent sanity and their advocacy is legitimate on the grounds of sanity.

    What is your point here, Roger, beyond criticizing some well-informed groups who are begging the world to take the action needed to avert catastrophe?”

    Is it your point that you are the holder of the truth and that anyone who doesn’t share your catastrophic point of view is either ill informed or insane.

    Personally I would prefer that we spend a lot more money on policy that could help the people suffering in the third world now than spend it on an highly uncertain future based on highly uncertain science.

    Are third world people living today worth less than the one in the future?

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Both geoengineering and CCS are contested technologies.

    For example, the recent discussions of the UN Convention on Biodiversity proposed a moratorium on certain geoengineering experiments:


    CCS is opposed by various environmental groups:


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  13. David Bruggeman Says:

    Let me try and drag this back to Roger’s original question – at least from a 30,000 foot perspective.

    If the U.S. National Academies release a report that they were contracted to do, or even if the report was funded by internal money, there’s a charge, or specific questions, that the report is trying to respond to. While not devoid of advocacy (see Rising Above the Gathering Storm), these reports are usually considered policy-oriented research projects.

    The question here is when those Academies, or the collection of Academies in this example, make a specific appeal for particular policy outcomes, absent a specific request or typical report process, who are they speaking for, and what authority are they relying on for their message to have an impact?

    So it’s not an issue of whether the desired actions should be done, it’s what the outcomes are of this request coming from this group of Academies. While they don’t spell it out, they appear to speak for themselves. By not spelling it out, the presumption is that they represent the scientific communities and scientific consensus in their countries (which may or may not be true).

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  15. gamoonbat Says:

    Science is hierarchical and elitist, particularly laboratory science. I have always found it a bit ironic that Karl Popper took natural science as his model for the “open society.”

    The National Academies do speak for all member scientists, and most of us trust the leadership to make judgments that are scientifically based. In this example, the statement adresses both “adaptation” and “mitigation.” Adaptation is a social and political process while mitigation is where technology and natural science could play a role.

    I do think there is a consensus that anything that might work should be considered. The National Academies do not and should not have the power to approve large scale experiments in carbon sequestration or geoengineering.

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  17. TokyoTom Says:

    Roger, I suppose that the spokesmen for the national academies more or less imperfectly represent their member scientists, though naturally they also, inescapably, represent their personal views and the views of the governments, industries and academic and research institutions with which they work closely.

    What do you think, and why do you ask?