Reader Mail on Political Advocacy

January 27th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A Prometheus reader emailed with the following request:

“On’s “Anomalous Recent Warmth in Europe” discussion thread, someone yesterday quoted something you wrote about the nature of the politicization of the IPCC, and RealClimate’s William Connolley answered that it “appears to be an error or misstatement in [Pielke's] post” and that he doesn’t “think the IPCC folk do think its (the IPCC’s) role to be a political advocacy” and that all “the IPCC folk quoted were speaking personally.” If I understand this correctly — and maybe I don’t — it strikes me as something that I’d hope you’d clarify personally. Thanks.”

Short Answer

The aim of “political advocacy” is to reduce the scope of policy alternatives, typically to a single favored outcome (or in the case of an election, to reduce the field of candidates). Endorsement of a specific policy (or political candidate) when there is a range of alternatives is political advocacy. The actions documented here over recent months by R. K. Pauchuri and scientists in the Harvard press conference are unambiguous examples (of many related to the IPCC) of political advocacy trading on the authority of the IPCC. Political advocacy is an important and honorable part of a healthy democracy. It is, however, not consistent with the role of an honest broker, which is also an important and honorable part of a healthy democracy.

Longer Answer with References

As I wrote on this subject in a paper published last year,

“Addressing the significance of science for decision making requires an ability to clearly distinguish policy from politics. For science, a policy perspective implies increasing or elucidating the range of alternatives available to decision makers by clearly associating the existing state of scientific knowledge with a range of choices. The goal is to enhance freedom of choice. By contrast, a political perspective seeks to decrease the range of alternatives (often to a single preferred option) available to policy makers, i.e., to limit the scope of choice, for example, support of, or opposition to, the Kyoto Protocol. Because scientific results always have some degree of uncertainty and a range of means is typically available to achieve particular objectives, the task of political advocacy necessarily involves considerations that go well beyond science.”

So when R.K. Pachauri lends his name and IPCC association to groups who are pushing for specific actions on climate, then this is clearly political advocacy. I discussed this in the context of the IPCC in a 2002 essay in Nature,

“A well known example of such an attempt to provide independent scientific guidance is found in the IPCC, which has largely received positive reviews of its assessments of climate change (see Nature 412, 112; 2001). But the IPCC does not explicitly assess scientific results in the context of particular policies, which may be its greatest weakness. The IPCC only assesses knowledge of climate-change science, impacts and economics, and not their policy significance. Consequently, to understand the significance of the IPCC’s analyses for alternative courses of action, a decision-maker is forced to rely almost exclusively on the interpretations (and misinterpretations) provided by corporations, government agencies or interest groups. Invariably, such interpretations are at odds with one another, yet consistent with all or parts of the IPCC’s results. When well-intentioned IPCC scientists enter the political fray as individuals, the IPCC itself becomes politicized.”

Political advocacy is of course essential to a well functioning democracy. But so too is the honest broker. And one cannot simultaneously serve as an advocate and an honest broker. That is, one cannot work to reduce the scope of choice and to expand (or just clarify) the scope of choice at the same time. So the IPCC, and more generally all scientists and science organizations, have choices to make. To be viewed as an honest broker requires not being viewed as working to advance the political agenda of certain groups over others.

But none of this is to suggest that the IPCC should withdraw from discussion of policy. In fact, trying to cleanly separate science from policy can make things worse. To the contrary, the IPCC is at risk of politicization because it tries (WGI at least) to remain mute on policy. An alternative would be to clearly discuss the connection of climate science with climate policy options. As I wrote in 2002,

“One solution in the IPCC case would be to establish a new, independent group on policy, explicitly for assessing the significance of the scientific results in the context of policy. This kind of group could assess a broad range of alternative actions that are consistent with IPCC assessments without endorsing a particular alternative. (This group could also provide valuable feedback to the research community as to the issues that need more attention.)”

An expanded version of this discussion can be found in this paper: Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2003: Il significato della scienza, chapter in P. Dongi (ed.) Il governo della scienza, Laterza, Rome, Italy, pp. 85-105. (Here is a pre-publication English version.

One Response to “Reader Mail on Political Advocacy”

  1. Crumb Trail Says:

    Honest Broker

    See this continuation of the IPCC politicization thread at Prometheus. The aim of “political advocacy” is to reduce the scope of policy alternatives, typically to a single favored outcome (or in the case of an election, to reduce the…