Science can’t settle what should be done about climate change

Kiribati: island in danger. United Nations Photo

The sight of speakers known to dispute the scientific evidence supporting climate change being called to speak at a parliamentary select committee on the latest IPCC report last week has raised certain commentators’ blood pressure.

Some have gone so far as to claim that the climate change debate in Britain has become “as depressingly unscientific and polarised as it is in the United States”.

I disagree. The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific. Articulating radically different policy options in response to the risks posed by climate change is a good way of reinvigorating democratic politics.

A paper by John Cook and colleagues published in May 2013 claimed that of the 4,000 peer-reviewed papers they surveyed expressing a position on anthropogenic global warming, “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming”. But merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it. By putting climate science in the dock, politicians are missing the point.

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does). As climate scientist Professor Myles Allen said in evidence to the committee, even the projections of the IPCC’s more prominent critics overlap with the bottom end of the range of climate changes predicted in the IPCC’s published reports.

In the end, the only question that matters is, what are we going to do about it? Scientific consensus is not much help here. Even if one takes the Cook study at face value, then how does a scientific consensus of 97.1% about a fact make policy-making any easier? As Roger Pielke Jr has often remarked in the context of US climate politics, it’s not for a lack of public consensus on the reality of human-caused climate change that climate policy implementation is difficult in the US.

So politics, not science, must take centre stage. As Amanda Machin shows in her recent book, asking climate scientists to forge a consensus around facts with the expectation that decisive political action will naturally follow misunderstands science and politics in equal measure. If democratic politics is to be effective we need more disagreement, not more consensus, about what climate change is really about.

As I have argued elsewhere, the most important questions to be asked about climate change extend well beyond science. Let me suggest four; all of which are more important than the committee’s MPs managed. They are questions which people should and do disagree about and they have no correct answer waiting to be discovered by science.

  • How do we value the future, or in economic terms, at what rate should we discount the future? Many of the arguments about urgent versus delayed interventions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions revolve around how much less we value future public goods and natural assets relative to their value today. This is a question that clear-thinking people will disagree about.

  • In the governance of climate change what role do we allocate to markets? Many arguments about climate change, as about environmental management more generally, revolve around whether commodifying nature, by pricing environmental “goods” and “services”, is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

  • How do we wish new technologies to be governed, from experimentation and development to deployment? This question might revolve around new or improved low-carbon energy technologies (such as fracking, nuclear power, or hydrogen fuel), the use of genetically modified crops as a means to adapt to changing climate, or proposed climate engineering technologies. Again, these are not questions upon which science, least of all a scientific consensus, can adjudicate.

  • What is the role of national governments as opposed to those played by multilateral treaties or international governing bodies? This requires citizens to reflect on forms of democracy and representation. They are no less important in relation to climate change than they are in relation to state security, immigration or financial regulation.

Any considered response to climate change will need to take a position, implicitly or explicitly, on one or more of these four questions, and others besides. And the percentage of climate science papers that accept humans are causing global warming has little to no bearing on public deliberations about these four questions.

Because the questions about climate change that really matter will not be settled by scientific facts. They entail debates about values and about the forms of political organisation and representation that people believe are desirable. This requires a more vigorous politics that cannot be short-circuited by appeals to science.

This article has been updated to better reflect the views of the author.

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