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Climate science and climate policy: two cultures?

In 1959, British physicist and novelist CP Snow delivered a famous lecture known as ‘The two cultures’. Snow outlined what he thought were fundamental differences between the humanities and the sciences, tensions that he believed represented a significant hurdle to solving the world’s problems. Similar tensions abound in climate policy, not least between two groups of actors with the most influence in dealing with climate change: climate scientists and policy-makers. At a joint Research and Policy in Development (RAPID)/Climate Change, Environment and Forests (CCEF) ‘Knowledge Café’ event last month, ‘Climate policy and climate science: an oxymoron?’, ODI’s Head of CCEF, Tom Mitchell, went so far as to describe the relations between the two camps as a ‘chaotic conversation’.

The reasons for this apparent discord arise from how scientists and policy-makers view their respective roles. While even best-case climate-change scenarios make for worrying reading, scientists are prone to reticence in communicating the scale of the policy challenge. ‘Climategate’, and the recent difficulties the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) have faced, mean that though they continue to diagnose the illness, scientists are uneasy about prescribing a remedy. They’d rather leave that to policy-makers.

As Tom Mitchell reported, some estimates already suggest that to keep global warming down to two degrees centigrade above 1992 levels, we’ll need global economic investment equivalent to America’s pre-World War 2 industrial build-up – but this time, we’ll need it every year for 40 years. As current levels of ambition could lead to a catastrophic change of three-and-a-half degrees centigrade the urgency of the crisis is worryingly apparent. Yet policy-makers face further challenges. Climate change is considered a ‘wicked problem:

  • its effects are not easy to define, and it affects stakeholders differently
  • it has many and varied causes
  • its evidence basis is continually evolving
  • there is no single, clear solution
  • many different arms of government are involved in tackling the problem;
  • and action on climate change has been linked historically with failure.
Such a mixture makes policy-makers shiver.

Climate-change policy is also particularly difficult to communicate to the public
. Policy-makers understand that in democratic polities their remit is to demonstrate results and value for money; and above all to give the public what they voted for. These incentives lead policy-makers to favour linear policy processes, based on data that are as definite as they can be. But meteorology and climate science are very complex disciplines that do not readily yield straightforward answers. Consequently, policy-makers often shy away from the uncertainties of the evidence presented by circumspect researchers.

Café participants suggested that climate policy-making becomes especially tricky when it’s seen to divert resources from other causes – such as health and education – deemed by many citizens to be of more immediate importance. In addition, solutions such as those proposed by the Stern Review also come up against distributional challenges. If climate change affects countries to different degrees, how much should each contribute, and where should the money be spent? We concluded that equitable, global solutions would require a significant re-evaluation of northern lifestyles: a very tough sell for decision-makers.

The debate enables us to advance solutions for bringing the two camps closer together. Head of the IPCC Rajendra Pachauri has suggested that scientific presentations should precede the negotiations in UNFCCC meetings; and it’s a positive signal that the zero draft paper for Rio+20 mentioned the important role that science plays in sustainable development. Researchers and policy-makers are starting to talk about the need to break down silos to confront the threat.

A few years ago sociologist Anthony Giddens formulated a central paradox of climate-change policy: that electorates and policy-makers will only recognise the urgency of the issue once it’s too late. Café attendees expanded on this observation. Democratic politicians, beholden to short electoral cycles, are reluctant to suggest policies that may cause hardship in the short term. The lesson of the World Wars and Cold War is that policy-makers undertake large-scale change only when confronted with an imminent threat. Scientists tend to take a longer view when formulating research questions. Yet, without adefinitively climate-related disaster in a developed country, we might have to rely on governments’ common sense if we’re to find an answer to Giddens’s paradox. China, for instance, is embracing clean technology since it recognises the energy-security advantages of a shift away from fossil fuels, not to mention the economic opportunities that will accrue if it becomes a world leader in this burgeoning field.

The event concluded with a discussion about the ways ODI might support publics in exerting pressure on their governments to act on climate change. Other possibilities for action include assisting policy-makers in developing countries with managing the complexity of this issue, and helping scientists with the implications of their public role. Above all, scientists need to recognise that they do not work in a political vacuum. Because unless the two cultures recognise that their shared desire to confront global warming will require more collaboration and cooperation, climate science and climate policy will both fail their sternest test.