The politics and science of climate change

Roger Beckmann and Marguerite Tarzia, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Section

The last two years have seen increased questioning of the science underpinning the concept of human-induced climate change and of its predictions. There has also been an increasing polarisation between camps that broadly accept the science and demand emission reductions and drastic action, and those who either reject it all outright, or retain a degree of caution about the actions to be taken. The validity of climate change science, as with any form of science, should always be open to genuine question and scrutiny. New evidence, when verified, should be incorporated into the body of knowledge no matter what its implications, and subsequent models and predictions should be revised accordingly.

Climate change science is now viewed increasingly through political lenses, a fact that many scientists are likely to be uncomfortable with. The intersection of science and politics is rarely straightforward because the two disciplines operate from very different perspectives.

Australian public’s concerns

Surveys suggest that, during 2002-2009, the prolonged drought over much of the country, accompanied by summer bush fires and noticeably higher temperatures in many areas, resulted in an increase in public concern about climate change. Following the breaking of drought over many affected regions, and the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in December 2007, the issue of climate change has fallen below other matters in the public’s list of priorities.

The issue of acceptance of climate change science remains pertinent. Surveys within Australia and globally have identified this as a key aspect in influencing concern and desire for political action on climate change. It is difficult for those not trained in science and steeped in a study of the literature to fully understand the details. While there needs to be a degree of trust in the ‘experts’, this can be eroded. The media and other organisations may report findings that are speculative or not yet considered fully reliable by other scientists. Secondly, the experts themselves may be wrong, particularly where prediction and extrapolation are concerned, as these are inherently less reliable than observation and controlled experiments. And finally, the media and other organisations releasing the findings may themselves not always be fully reliable, regardless of how the public views the experts.

Challenges to the science

Over the last two years, the peak international body dealing with climate change science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has faced further questions over errors in its 2007 report. Furthermore, a series of emailed exchanges were leaked between climate change scientists (the so-called Climategate affair), in which some scientists were accused of inappropriately manipulating data, and of being less than open about sharing their data with certain individuals. Despite rigorous inquiries following both these events, in which little evidence of serious malfeasance or conspiracies appeared, the public’s trust in scientists appears to have eroded somewhat. The evidence of global warming, however, continues to mount. Despite the increasingly robust science, the cause of the warming is still disputed by some, while others reject some of the modeling and therefore the predictions that come from them.

Many scientists, meanwhile, have become ‘politicised’ as they feel a responsibility to convince the world of the seriousness of their findings. Such politicisation does not always sit well with the process of scientific inquiry and has led to accusations that scientists are becoming activists rather than simple inquirers after truth. This leads to further problems, as some scientists may find themselves labeled as partisan or one-sided.

On the other hand, there are some scientists, qualified in the relevant disciplines, who do not accept the general view put forward by the IPCC and by many of the world’s scientific academies. These scientists point out, quite correctly, that scientific truth is not decided by majority voting and consensus but by the evidence from the real world. They may consider the IPCC to be a political body, or at least subject to political influences. They either dispute the evidence, or the means by which it is acquired, or the interpretation of it, or even the theories upon which the interpretations are based. Rational scepticism such as this is a vital part of science, and it is only further work and the passage of time that resolve the disagreements. Usually, this takes place without the glare of publicity and the political involvement that climate science has attracted.

Outside the realm of healthy scientific skepticism lie those who prefer to deny evidence and rational argument, or who suspect conspiracies. The stoush between such ‘denialists’ and the mainstream scientific view, conducted via blogs and the media, has increased the confusion among the public. In addition, the requirement of responsible media to present ‘all’ sides equally, or at least to appear to do so, means that science is seen as just one point of view among many and that the opinions of those opposing the science may receive equal air time even if they may have far less basis in fact.

On the other side of the argument, those accepting the science and the urgency of the need for global action can be portrayed as unnecessarily alarmist, pessimistic or motivated by an agenda – for example, against coal mining. Most scientists are moderate in their language, but pressure groups may push beyond the accepted science. The situation is complicated by the lack of immediate alternatives to hydrocarbon burning as a way of providing energy for modern societies, and by the fact that Australia benefits enormously from its coal exports, as well as using coal for most of its electricity generation. Thus, acceptance of the science is portrayed as acceptance of either reduced energy consumption (which could lead to reduced economic growth and individual standard of living) or of moving away from traditional energy sources, with all the expense and disruption that could entail.

The situation with the science has been compared to that pertaining to tobacco smoke and lung cancer 50 years ago. At that time, the connection was suspected but proof relied on statistical investigations and animal models. The battle continued for many decades before sufficient evidence was accumulated. Climate science is difficult because global experiments cannot realistically be conducted, but over-reliance on computer models is easily criticised.

Despite the recent controversies, the overwhelming majority of the science has stood up to independent review and is robust by scientific standards. Internationally, as the IPCC readies itself for a new report, it will undergo a series of structural changes to improve its adaptability to the fast pace of the science and its own increasingly decentralised governance.

In August 2010 the Australian Academy of Science issued its own summary on the state of knowledge, reiterating its confidence in the fundamental conclusions of the science.

Library publications and key documents

Australian Academy of Science, ‘The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers’, http://www.science.org.au/policy/climatechange.html

Climate Change Assessments, Review of the Processes and Procedures of the IPCC, Inter Academy Council, http://www.interacademycouncil.net/CMS/Reports/13042.aspx

Parliamentary Library Climate Change website background note, http://www.aph.gov.au/library/Pubs/ClimateChange/index.htm

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