03 March 2010

Good Enough Science

[UPDATE: Tom Yulsman weighs in on the significance of the Sarewitz essay for journalists.]

In this week's Nature, Dan Sarewitz of ASU (and also a long-time friend, mentor and collaborator of mine) explains that whatever is done to restore trust in climate science, that alone won't do much to advance climate policy. Sarewitz explains that waging climate politics through science was always going to be a losing proposition for those calling for action:
The idea that a mounting weight of scientific evidence would gradually overwhelm ideological opposition to the climate policy regime is not just false but backwards. Science is muchmore pliable and permissive than deeply held beliefs about how the world should work. Scientific understanding of the complex, coupled ocean–atmosphere–society system is always incomplete, and gives the competing sides plenty of support for their pre-existing political preferences — as well as plenty to hide behind in claiming that those preferences are supported by science. Science can decisively support policy only after fundamental political differences have been resolved.
Sarewitz emphasizes a political reality that is avoided in most (but not all) discussions of climate policy (emphasis added):
A successful climate policy regime will match short-term costs with the real potential of short-term gains. These gains can come from reducing vulnerabilities to climate impacts, and increasing security and wealth generation from energy-technology innovation. Both paths call on the government to do things that most people see as appropriate: to provide public goods and promote innovation. Both paths also allow climate change to be understood not as impending doom that requires deep sacrifice to ensure survival, but as an opportunity to continually improve society.
Sarewitz concludes by highlighting the political opportunity that is before us to reframe the climate debate, to place science in its proper place and to focus on the politics of opportunity rather than of limits.
With the public legitimacy of climate science under assault, political progress in the United States may now depend on the willingness of thoughtful conservatives to chart a better way forward. But liberals and moderates must meanwhile abandon the claim that the science supports only their way of doing things. Imaginative politicians thus have a huge opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Given the poisoned political climate here, it is hard to be optimistic that they will be courageous enough to seize the day. If they are, however, one thing is certain: the imperfect science we already have will turn out to be plenty good enough to support action.
Can climate policy be reframed? I'm not sure. There is a lot of vested interest in the current framing that has science as the battleground between the right and the left. If history is any guide that ideological battle won't be won anytime soon. But maybe if we look beyond waging ideological battles through science we just might make better progress on reducing vulnerabilities and increasing security and wealth. Those are goals that we all can agree on, regardless of our views on climate science or political orientation, and can offer a starting point for progress.


  1. "Can climate policy be reframed?"

    Why not shift the debate to what has tangible results? From all of the arguments I have seen, the human impact is no more than 5%. The other 95% is natural and can be seen in such cycles as the 20000 year Sarah Desert roller coaster. How does all of the attention on the 5% change the direction and speed of the climate supertanker that has 95% momentum behind it?

    I have little doubt that your 450 goal has many benefits that deserve focus and discussion. Arresting the direction and speed of the supertanker just doesn't seem to be realistic and it carries the risk that other environmental goals are ignored by the politics and histrionics of climate change.

  2. Two points: first, the framing of science as an ideological battleground was done by the Left, not by the Right. The most committed social conservative will tell you that he's pro-science. There are some areas of science he doesn't like, for sure; but then there are some areas of science the Left doesn't like either.( Just ask Steve Pinker). The primary victim of this framing is not the Left, or the Right, but science itself.

    Second, once the Left adopted science as its own, it started going beyond the boundaries of science, and either cherry-picked the science, or posed its own ideas as scientific, often when there was little scientific support for doing either. Witness Roger's good buddy Joe Romm's recent claim (in response to the sequence of east coast blizzards) that science predicts increased snowfall as a result of AGW. It doesn't. Observationally, winter northern hemisphere snow-cover has been rock steady over the last 40 years, and GCM studies predict decreased, not increased, snowfall as a result of AGW. As Roger also knows, some on the left latched on to a few predictions of increased tropical cyclone intensity/frequency like a drowning man grabs a life-vest, and ignored others that predicted negligible changes or even decreased frequency. When these predictions are discredited, climate science takes the blame, even though there was absolutely no scientific consensus on these issues. Not all climate scientists are blameless themselves, of course, but usually they have been a lot more circumspect than one would discern from the media coverage.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "Can climate policy be reframed?"

    Sure, it can be reframed as sane energy policy, with similar outcomes.


  5. Maybe the Enviros should change the channel and have an Earthquake Policy or an Asteroid Policy because they can't squeeze any more blood out of Climate Change, nee Global Warming, nee Global Cooling, nee Population Bomb, nee Club of Rome, nee ???

    They need to change the channel right now to some new <fill in with some vewy, vewy, scawy, we'll all die unless the UN takes over and rules our lives (and makes a few early adopters vewy, vewy, rich . . . aka The Gore Play).

    Its over. Before the internet & blogs, politically motivated scientists and "let's create some fear to sell some newspapers" type journalists could get away with these schemes & scams, but not anymore.

    Times have changed. The old scams won't work anymore.

  6. It's often true that the man who loses a fight will experience a sudden conversion to civilised discussion of the middle ground.

    Climate scientists, with their inbuilt political and ecological biases were almost universally prepared to support the biggest financial scam in human history, namely carbon trading. What stopped it (meantime) wasn't liberal or conservative ideology, but private individuals who could see through it.

    According to the BBC, only the most gullible 26% in Britain believe in AGW. That is in the face of the most 'distinguished' scientists and scientific bodies in Britain's universal endorsement. If science credibility was a commodity, it would be a junk bond.

    As for post normal science, which is I assume the game being proposed in the article. In my view, it is an incredibly bad idea. Climate science became settled when Enron (and BP) sent Al Gore to Japan in order to insert carbon trading into article 16 of the Kyoto Protocol. Bob Dylan's song 'Only a Pawn in their Game' seems completely appropriate as a metaphor for science.

    George Monbiot before he joined the corporate media

    A new set of guidelines also agreed at Bali extend and strengthen the worst of Al Gore’s trading scams, the clean development mechanism.


  7. Firstly it is not mounting "evidence" it is mounting "opinion" as he later admits himself. Opinion is not reliable until someone manages to predict something correctly. We've had enough of false prophets.

    Secondly, it isn't ideology that prevents action it is realism. If it were easy there would be no opposition.

    Thirdly his ideas that green energy will work wonders have no basis in fact. It is mere wishful thinking. Well we all wish green tech could replace fossil fuels; that would be wonderful! But there is a big, big risk involved that it just can't do so. We can try but we need to make sure we don't burn our boats first. Without that realism you are not contributing to any debate about policy, engineering or science. It's just more unwanted noise.

    By contrast, good ideas are welcome. Far too many people just think a carbon tax is the end of the story and all we need to do is communicate this to the politicos. But what is really needed is to come up with a coherent energy plan, without ideology of any kind and without wishful thinking.

  8. Two military adages apply here;

    1. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

    2. Never reinforce failure.

    In this asymetric war the skeptical blogosphere has big government-environment bogged down in a series of debilitating skirmishes that has had a profound effect on public opinion.

    The big guns of 'consensus' and 'settled science' have proved to be worthless, firing duds. The IPCC shock-troops have now turned tail and have fled the the battle field.

    Now the undefended climate scientists are taking real hits to the their credibility. That is why these scientist are offering a hand of friendship to skeptics. It's not because they want to, it is now expedient for them to do so.

    If reframing of climate change policy can't, or won't, uphold real science then there will be no end to this war of attrition.

    Skeptics don't need to win battles they just have to prevent the other side from doing so.

  9. I agree on much of that, but I do think that Sarewitz (and other social scientists) need more cases to advance the theory. They rely far too heavily on the US case.

    For example, Sweden have a strong scientific and political concensus on climate change. Still, science behave the same as in the US and are not very helpful for policy. The sceptics behave the same (but one hardly notice because of the strong consensus and the few number of sceptics). The only thing that differs is the politics (all agree on climate change in sweden).

    So I tend to think that Sarewitz hope that political concensus will change more than it actually does in a realistic scenario (also in his scientific papers he argues this). For example, the earth sciences will have the same naive attitude towards policy irrespective of politics, they are very strong, and there is really no way to change the mind of the earth sciences, they are a holier than thou culture than the social sciences, 2 % change that they will listen to anything we say ....

  10. Wouldn't it be fun to debate this guy! The science doesn't support anything. The economic arguments are even worse. And the politics are a complete disaster. The only way an "imaginative" politician could get "climate" policy enacted would be to lie very creatively about the science and economics.

    How hard is it for wonks to understand that the multiplier is alway less than one? Why is it so hard to drive a stake in this myth of the economic perpetual motion machine? Obama cannot create economic growth by diverting assets from one group of people to another by force.

    Who is so foolish as to think that assets allocated by force through corruption and political backscratching will be allocated more efficiently than assets allocated by people exercising freedom and self interest?

    The Stalinist models for science and economics have been tried already. Somebody clue in Barack and his academic friends that the results were not exactly stellar.

  11. The claim "Scientific understanding of the complex, coupled ocean–atmosphere–society system is always incomplete, and gives the competing sides plenty of support for their pre-existing political preferences" is misleading. An honest evaluation of a problem, with all sides fully included in the debate eventually results in a functional agreement on what to do. There will always be outliers, but if the process is honest, over time the process will work. It is the dishonest or biased process that fails due to eventual exposure of lies or misleading statements. This is the cause of the failure of the AGW issue. The world was almost ready to go along with the need to solve that problem, but the exposure of the cheating, lies, and errors caught up with the process. Since there does not in fact seem to be the critical problem that was being pushed, the failure of the process is in fact the correct outcome, and unless a more careful rework in the open concludes there is actually a problem, the issue is solved correctly.

  12. 'Science' is not the driving force here, the voting/buying public is.

    Political powers used climate science to build policy, but the science has collapsed under the weight of such a burden.

    Voters simply wont vote for politicians touting policy built on shady or confused science and they wont buy shares in hot air.

    Which is why politicians will reframe climate policy and investors will shelve (eventually) carbon trading schemes.

    But this is good news. I believe climate science will emerge far stronger and more open - tested by fire maybe, but refined and more responsible.

  13. Regarding 'building trust':

    Your wife has been making a habit of going to bars and picking up guys. You find out, and confront her. She says "Well, maybe, occasionally, I did go to motel rooms with guys I just met, but how can I regain your trust?" Excuse me? That train left the station. Once trust is lost, it is never regained.

  14. Andreas Bjurström said... 9

    "For example, Sweden have a strong scientific and political concensus on climate change."

    It takes 1 gallon of diesel fuel to move 1 ton of coal 150 miles by rail. I think you will find that the political 'consensus' on Climate Change has a relation to how many miles one is away from a large 'sustainable' source of coal.

  15. Here is were the Sarewitz argument fails:

    "A successful climate policy regime will match short-term costs with the real potential of short-term gains. These gains can come from reducing vulnerabilities to climate impacts, and increasing security and wealth generation from energy-technology innovation."

    There is no potential for gain from something that can not be discerned, and, unless there is some remarkable break through in energy technology, one can not increase wealth generation from forcing society to use a more expensive, less efficient source of energy. In fact, the exact opposite of wealth generation is the only possible outcome of the current push towards renewables.

    Climate impacts are not discernible. If there are any, they may be positive as well as negative, but they are currently swamped by weather impacts, and will likely be swamped by weather for a very long time. If it is an economic gain to reduce our vulnerability to climate impacts, then it would be even more economically useful to reduce our vulnerability to known weather impacts first. If we did that, we wouldn't have to worry about potential climate impacts, with the possible exception of sea level rise.

    The motivations for this policy shift are gains that do not exist! Still, it is more rational and less costly than the current push to make fossil fuels very expensive. Carbon mitigation policies are all pain and no gain, which really drives home the obvious truth that none of this is about climate change at all, but about empowering governments at the expense of the people.