The Science and Politics of Climate Change

Mike’s essay provokes me to review some concepts that I have learned from the science policy work of Roger Pielke Jr., author of The Honest Broker:

(1) the role of advocacy is to reduce political options to one – that policy favored by the advocates.

(2) the role of science policy advisors should be to expand political options.

When I first read the AGW thesis I thought “well, we just need to get the science right, then we’ll know what policy to follow”. That is what Pielke terms the “linear model” of science policy – first the science, then the politics. What the advocates didn’t want me to know was that this did not make sense here. Because the science was difficult, evolving and inherently involves ranges of probabilities of outcomes. And there are similar large uncertainties around the economics of various policies for mitigation, adaptation and even geoengineering.

Even so, the science offered compelling evidence that there was a very real risk of bad future outcomes if business-as-usual was continued. The longer the delay before switching off coal, the higher the likely cost, and the greater the social distress. After I studied the economics of climate change policy options, it became clear that simply waiting for the uncertainties to be eliminated could be horribly expensive (just “do more research is a bad option because of the cost of delay).

I concluded that real-world policy must be based on risk management methods, recognizing that there is a wide range of 100-year outcomes, including some really bad outcomes that we do not want to risk. So practical policy must be flexible, adapting over the coming decades to the emergent realities of climate sensitivity and economic performance. To buy some insurance against the bad outcomes, we need to change the incentives, beginning with the BIG ONES like power generation. Hence my advocacy for the tax-and-rebate policy. This is good example of “no regrets policy“, in that it doesn’t matter whether 2100 in fact manifests global warming or global cooling.

None of those complex concepts appeal to advocates or politicians – and few voters are willing and able to puzzle out the policy options on their own. Thus our current mess – no effective political leadership and a confused and skeptical public. There exist really good no regrets policy options, but I do not see how we get to them from where we are. As I wrote in Copenhagen reality check on Barry Brook’s realistic/pessimistic outlook:

All of my study of political economy supports the view that homo sapiens is not a long-term optimizer. He is a crisis-reactor. We have discussed here the policies that could reach a zero carbon economy without major economic disruption. Those policies are politically unlikely. Instead we will get something like the scenario Barry details, a much more costly last-minute panic.

With that background you can see why I appreciated this sane commentary from Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia. You will definitely wish to read the whole WSJ essay (it is short):

If we build the foundations of our climate-change policies so confidently and so single-mindedly on scientific claims about what the future holds and what therefore “has to be done,” then science will inevitably become the field on which political battles are waged. The mantra becomes: Get the science right, reduce the scientific uncertainties, compel everyone to believe it. . . and we will have won. Not only is this an unrealistic view about how policy gets made, it also places much too great a burden on science, certainly on climate science with all of its struggles with complexity, contingency and uncertainty.

(…) We have also seen how this plays out in public debate. In the wake of climategate, questions were asked on the BBC’s Question Time last week about whether or not global warming was a scam. The absolutist claims of two of the panelists—Daily Mail journalist Melanie Phillips, and comedian and broadcaster Marcus Brigstocke—revealed how science ends up being portrayed as a fight between two dogmas: Either the evidence for man-made climate change is all fake, or else we are so sure we know how the planet works that we can claim to have just five or whatever years to save it. When science is invoked to support such dogmatic assertions, the essential character of scientific knowledge is lost—knowledge that results from open, always questioning, enquiry that, at best, can offer varying levels of confidence for pronouncements about how the world is, or may become.

(…) Science never writes closed textbooks. It does not offer us a holy scripture, infallible and complete. This is especially the case with the science of climate, a complex system of enormous scale, at every turn influenced by human contingencies. Yes, science has clearly revealed that humans are influencing global climate and will continue to do so, but we don’t know the full scale of the risks involved, nor how rapidly they will evolve, nor indeed—with clear insight—the relative roles of all the forcing agents involved at different scales.

Similarly, we endow analyses about the economics of climate change with too much scientific authority. Yes, we know there is a cascade of costs involved in mitigating, adapting to or ignoring climate change, but many of these costs are heavily influenced by ethical judgements about how we value things, now and in the future. These are judgments that science cannot prescribe.