History is full of examples of scientific input leading to better policy outcomes. The climate change debate should be no different.
As the Copenhagen conference on climate change begins, far too much attention is being given to the emails and accompanying documents stolen from the Climate Research Unit and the University of East Anglia. Scientifically, [they are irrelevant](http://scienceblogs.com/islandofdoubt/2009/11/the_hacked_climate_science_ema.php) and will serve only to distract us from the real task at hand.
Some valiant observers, however, are doing their best to extract valuable lessons from the episode. One could do worse than read a [pair](http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704107104574571613215771336.html) of [essays](http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8388485.stm) by Mike Hulme, a climatologist at the UEA, on the role of climatologists – and scientists in general – in the policy-making process.
Hulme is a fine scientist, one of the best I would say. Yet, I have trouble following his line of reasoning in both essays. If I understand him correctly, he is arguing for a certain amount of distance between science and politics for the benefit of both the scientists and the policy-making process. From the WSJ essay:
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.
Climate scientists, knowingly or not, become proxies for political battles. The consequence is that science, as a form of open and critical enquiry, deteriorates while the more appropriate forums for ideological battles are ignored.
Hulme’s arguments are widely shared. They inform much of a [*Globe and Mail* story from this past weekend by Doug Saunders](http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/climate-change/breach-in-the-global-warming-bunker-rattles-climate-science-at-the-worst-time/article1389842/). (A story, by the way, that seriously misrepresents the CRU email controversy. Despite the headline, the emails do not “rattle climate science” one wit. The only things they affect are the political and public perceptions of that climate science, and there’s a big difference.)
I recognize that many scientists are uncomfortable when politicians ask them for guidance. Scientific advice is by nature riddled with uncertainty and caveats, which aren’t a lot of help when deciding to commit a nation’s resources to a particular set of actions. On the other hand, any effort to downplay the uncertainty leaves the scientists open to charges of intellectual dishonesty and ideological bias. Poor little scientists, they just can’t win. And many would rather not play.
But play they must. The challenge posed by climate change requires their advice. Scientists must have the courage to take part in a process that makes them feel uncomfortable, even dirty. Science must step up to the plate.
Scientists, particularly those who accept public funding and those engaged in research with serious social consequences, need to accept that they will be called upon from time to time to explain what they’ve discovered and what should be done to avoid catastrophe. Inevitably, some scientists will feel their work is being used inappropriately. That’s life. Yes, it’s a burden, but it’s not one scientists should be able to shirk. We all have responsibilities.
I would argue that the recent past is replete with examples of the benefits of an intimate role for science in the policy-making process. There’s the obvious case of the ozone hole. The Montreal Protocol was determined almost exclusively by science, and it continues to be updated according to our evolving understanding of the chemistry of the stuff we’re pouring into the upper atmosphere. Then there’s the equally successful acid rain agreement between the U.S. and Canada, which was also the result of scientists telling politicians what has to be done.
In fact, in both cases treaties were hammered out over the objections of industry, which argued the technology didn’t exist to accommodate the terms of the agreement without causing economic chaos. In both cases, industry was wrong. Alternatives to the existing problems were available within months and everybody kept making money. Clearly, it’s not always, if ever, a bad thing for science to lead the way.
There’s also the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which specifically mandates the federal government to follow scientific advice *exclusively* when determining what ends up on the list of endangered species. And most of the rules and regulations governing pharmaceuticals in just about every industrialized nation depend heavily on scientific direction.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that the stronger the role of science in the policy-making process, the better the outcome for society. There’s nothing naive about recognizing that reality. Of course, it’s also important for policy-makers not to blindly follow scientists’ advice. There are always economic and cultural issues to consider. Few would deny the need to balance conflicting priorities. But that’s a straw man. The question is not whether scientists should be involved in politics; it’s what the nature of that involvement should be.
As I’ve said before, journalists who are unwilling to call a spade a spade should find a different line of work. Falling back on false equivalency under the guise of “objectivity” is a lazy and intellectually dishonest way to report. Similarly, if there are some climatologists out there who can’t stand the heat, then perhaps they should get out of the kitchen.