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Playing the game: responding to the politics of climate science

Written by Harry Jones


Attempts to link science and policy have been going particularly badly lately. Despite an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community of the impact of human activity on our climate and the robust and convincing evidence of the grave effects of climate change, the political will to tackle the problem is being eroded. Vociferous ‘climate sceptics’ have seized upon leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, and incorrect predictions about Himalayan glacial melt in a 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The ensuing controversy has resulted in a rise in public scepticism on the science behind climate change, and severe strain being put on the political consensus behind action on climate change.

The issue of adapting to climate change is going to be crucial to many developing countries in the coming decades. This will require significant scientific input to policy, but a recent international survey on the links between science and policy indicates that there is insufficient use of science in policy in developing countries. Without action to strengthen science-policy dialogues we are likely to see a repeat of these problems.

While there has been some attention on these issues, the focus in international development in terms of linking science and policy is largely on improving scientists’ communication skills and helping them translate their findings for a policy audience. This is based on ideas that scientists will find a sympathetic audience in the policy process, that the rigour and ‘objectivity’ of their methods will ensure political actors pay special attention to what they have to say. Some commentators believe that in reaction to issues such as ‘climategate’, scientists should distance themselves from policy making – arguing that ‘engagement undermines objectivity’, and that scientists should stick to providing neutral information without commenting on the policy implications.

However, this misses a key dimension of the problem: the production and use of knowledge does not occur in a political vacuum. Scientific research is often manipulated for political gain, or attacked by actors with vested interests who are committed to a predetermined outcome of the evidence. This is not a new phenomenon, and many strategies are well known:  often industry sponsors research with the direct goal of countering existing scientific opinion, or threatens to sue scientists who criticise the evidential basis of their policy advocacy. By doing this, attention is deflected from research findings and from the actions that would credibly follow from those findings. The reason this can happen is because of the way this knowledge is produced, and is particularly acute with climate science. The task of modelling future scenarios around such a vast and interdependent system as our global climate is highly complex, and requires interpretation and value-judgements about which models ‘fit’ the data. The generation of scientific knowledge relies on honest and open intellectual discussion, and carefully qualified levels of uncertainty, but this can be seized upon and exploited in political debates to argue that the science as a whole is unclear.

While this politicisation of science can’t be ignored, scaling back scientific engagement with policy is not the answer, as it would leave a vacuum to be filled by those with particular interpretations of, and reactions to, scientific knowledge. In the South, those benefiting from environmental degradation may similarly work to undermine political will, and environmental policies may often face significant political economy constraints to their implementation. So, what are the right responses?

  • More politically savvy ‘representatives’ of science in policy debates are needed. Building scientists understanding of the policy process is one approach, but not enough – ombudsman from the scientific community (such as advisors to the government, or spokespersons for scientific bodies) will not necessarily find an audience appreciative of what they have to say, and they  need to be able to deal with highly political and often polarised debates.
  • Scientists should not be alone in defending their work from politicisation. Other forces play a role in separating genuine disagreement about the evidential basis for policy proposals from arguments put forwards in bad faith, and positions that stem from vested interests. Improving media understanding of science is one approach, and wider reforms such as making provisions for public service broadcasting could help; other factors include setting up independent bodies to ensure ‘balance’ and accuracy in the media, or to mediate the use of science in the policy process or peer review the scientific content or bases of government policy.
  • Perhaps the most important factor in strengthening the way that science is incorporated into policy dialogues is the public understanding of science. The higher the understanding and general levels of education, the less space there is for ideologically-motivated parties to triumph with their own interpretations of research or attacks on science, as political debates could be more technical while remaining inclusive.

Recent research on the public understanding of climate change in Africa finds that, although African citizens are among the least informed about climate change, they are directly affected by environmental issues, paving the way perhaps, for African political and public opinion to leapfrog the tortuous evolution of Western public (and political) responses to climate change.

The development community must recognise that science is political, grasp the nettle of strengthening science-policy dialogues in developing countries, and do it quickly.  Calls to mainstream climate change adaptation into developing country policy processes are welcome, and should hopefully mean that there is some funding put behind solutions to this problem. But there must also be an appreciation of the political nature of these issues, to ensure a rounded response to future challenges.