My primary interest in this is to know what is correct regarding global warming, but as a policy analyst and someone with a background in social science and the history and logic of science, I can’t help but be interested in this whole mess as a social / political / cultural phenomenon. As a public policy type, I view public policy as primarily a problem solving exercise — a problem is identified through a variety of possible channels or processes and the government — and public — have to decide whether to respond and if so, how.
Not responding to a perceived problem is, of course, also a policy. In fact, some problems do not require a public policy to be developed and in those cases, no policy is better than a policy that either doesn’t work or makes things worse.
The place to start is of course, at the beginning:
Is there a problem requiring a public policy solution?
According to the scientists who uphold the dominant AGW paradigm, evidence shows that the global average temperature is increasing. This increase of about 0.74 deg C since the start of the 20th C is due, largely, to the increase in the concentration of GHGs — CO2 in particular –in the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. They claim that modeling suggests that if GHG emissions continue on to a doubling of CO2 and beyond, it will poses a significant threat to human civilization from increased heat crises, crop failure, glacier melt and lack of fresh water, loss of species to extinction, acidification of the oceans, flooding due to sea level rise, environmental refugees, wars over resources — the list goes on. Most of us are pretty familiar with this whole case.
However, you have to admit that if it is valid, that’s a problem.
The rub is of course, is that description of global warming valid?
One of the first steps in the policy process is to research the problem to see what evidence is there to clarify its dimensions and what is known about it.
In the case of global warming, what is the evidence used to identify the dimensions of problem?
- Satellite measures of atmospheric temperatures
- Measurements of land temperature
- Measurements of ocean temperatures
- Sea level measures
- Measures of ice extent and frozen land, glacier conditions
- Carbon dioxide levels
- Paleoclimate evidence – ice cores, sediments, boreholes, tree rings, etc.
- Model projections and scenarios
I hope to review what both sides say about the sources of evidence so I can feel more certain myself of where to stand on the issue, but that’s down the line. Right now, I am interested in the big picture of how we got to this point.
Despite the clear statements of support for the AGW paradigm from major science bodies and scientists, and the IPCC’s assessment reports, little has happened with respect to greenhouse gas emissions — certainly nothing close to what the Kyoto Protocol deemed necessary to forestall or prevent serious climate change.
There is a public debate about climate change, especially with the recent climate talks in Copenhagen and the CRU email and document hack/release. Polls show that public opinion has shifted with respect to global warming, from approximately 30-31% thinking global warming is exaggerated in 1998 to 41% in thinking that in 2009.
Polls taken in the aftermath of the CRU event and the Copenhagen talks indicate that the public trust in scientists has fallen, with increasing percent of Americans (4 in 10) indicating they have little trust in what scientists say about the environment.
So, at this point in time, I have to conclude that this policy question or problem — what to do about global warming — is complicated by a considerable disjunction between what the dominant scientific paradigm says about global warming and the skeptical claims about it and the public perception of it.
Questions have been raised about the normal checks and balances in science intended to ensure the results are reliable and valid, not only by the skeptics but by the emails and documents related to the CRU incident. The response on the part of major science bodies to downplay the seriousness of the emails suggests a “circle the wagons” approach and an unwillingness to seriously consider the possibility that there might have been any wrongdoing or lack of transparency in the scientific process suggested by their contents. That in itself is troubling.
How did we come to the place where scientists set the agenda and craft messages to influence public opinion on scientific issues? The appropriate response is to examine the claims and counter claims.
The best way to understand this disjunction between the claims of those within the dominant scientific paradigm — AGW — and its critics, is to go back to the very beginning. How did we arrive at this international agenda on climate change and its main organ, the IPCC?
Origins of AGW and the IPCC
According to Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming, the possibility of global warming was recognized in the mid-20th C. In other words, scientists hadn’t actually detected a clear signal that the earth was warming due to GHG emissions, but they had evidence that CO2 had increased and based on what was known about the greenhouse effect, the potential remained that temperatures would increase in the 21st century. This potential was used as the basis for early advocacy on the part of scientists like Edward Lorenz, Stephen Schneider and James Hansen.
According to Weart, the science of global warming emerged during a period of considerable social change, which included a different understanding and attitude towards the environment. I think this is a key to understanding the politicization of climate science. At the same time, there were political developments during this period that led to a decline in trust of the government and politicians — even more so than previously, due to a number of events, including Watergate, the Vietnam War, and various scandals. The nation was not seen as the appropriate body to deal with larger issues as the environment, and a new era of supra-national organizations such as the UN emerged which set the stage for the creation of the IPCC.
There were a number of conferences in the 70s and 80s on the environment and global climate, but according to Wendy Franz, in The Development of an International Agenda for Climate Change: Connecting Science to Policy, it was the Villach conference in October 1985 was key to the establishment of the IPCC.
“…the 1985 Villach conference did not represent a significant change in scientific conclusions about the problems of climate change. Rather, a new emphasis on certain scientific facts, the unique quality of the international group of scientists, and new perceptions of the opportunity for action on international environmental problems led the Villach group to reach a new set of political and policy conclusions which emphasized the urgency of action.”
This sense of urgency is in contrast with a statement from the US National Research Council report which took a more cautious stance, that “caution not panic” was called for and which did not call for CO2 emision limits.
The research wasn’t any more compelling, but the scientists conclusions based on that research went farther than they had previously been willing. This willingness to go beyond the findings of the science was due to the fact there were no “domestic political constraints” on those attending this conference.
“The absence of domestic political constraints on the conclusions reached by this body cannot be underestimated as a source of leeway in reaching policy conclusions. The scientists attending the Villach conference attended in their personal capacities, not as representatives of their governments. They were selected by the three partner agencies… Although they came to the conference from 29 countries (both developed and developing), they were asked to “shed their national policy perspectives” and to address the global issues in as comprehensive a way as possible.”
These scientists had been selected by the UNEP, the WMO and the ICSU to attend the conference in personal capacities rather than as representatives of their respective governments. Freed from the constraints of their governments, these scientists were able to go where they felt the science took them.
One very influential event that was part of this new ethos Franz describes was the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and later, the Montreal Protocol in 1987. As Richard Bendick argues in Ozone Diplomacy,
“Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the treaty was its imposition of substantial short-term economic costs to protect human health and the environment against unproven future dangers — dangers that rested on scientific theories rather than on firm data. At the time of the negotiations and signing, no measurable evidence of damage existed. Thus, unlike environmental agreements of the past, the treaty was not a response to harmful developments or events but rather a preventative action on a global scale.”
So, Montreal and Toronto set the stage for the development of the IPCC, and brought climate change and action to address it onto the international agenda.
What’s interesting to me is how during this period, scientists became public advocates, not just on the state of the scientific research, but on politics and policy and how to respond to the science — a job usually held by political advisors.
Scientists, in the past, had been seen as objective presenters of what the science says including its uncertainties, while politicians determine what is to be done based on the science through the political process. For the first time, scientists were doing the job of the politician.
I would argue that in part, this is due to the reality of the issue — climate change is not a national issue, although nations will be affected. Climate change is an international or supranational issue. It transcends the nation, but at the same time, requires that nations address it individually and in association with others.
In summary, a number of forces emerged during the mid-20th century, including a growing environmental movement. At the same time, a new era of concern about politics and the role of international bodies such as the UN led to a growth in faith in them, especially after the success of the Montreal Protocol. Political scandals led to a decline in the public’s view of politicians. If one couldn’t trust politicians to do the right thing, then one could turn to scientists, whose “objective” advice was premised on the best evidence.
The creation of the IPCC as the authoritative voice of science on the issue of climate change is a reflection of several social, cultural and political developments in this era. The whole science of AGW has been shaped by this new alliance between science and policy and has set the stage for the kinds of “war” we see today waged in the pages of papers, on the blogs, and in the mass media.
As Franz points out,
“Several policy and science entrepreneurs advocated action to address problems of global environmental change. Their conclusions coincided with a number of other developments, including extreme weather in the United States and the successful negotiation of an international agreement to protect the ozone layer, which pressed in the direction of further international attention to environmental problems.”
I would like to do more research on why this skepticism towards politics emerged and why some scientists feel a necessity and empowered to take on the role of policy advocate. This cynicism rather than healthy skepticism towards government and politics and the failure of the political sphere to maintain what trust it had in the public eye will be the subject of a later post.
These are just some preliminary and rough thoughts about the politicization of science and its origins in the ethos of the 60s and 70’s, so I would appreciate any comments or links to information that would augment or correct these musings.