Respecting expertise; or, scientists are not politicians (and vice versa)

The epic comments war triggered by Rafe over at Club Troppo is emblematic of the tragic state of the current climate change debate.

The ad hominem attacks and scare tactics wielded by both sides has only served to inflame and harden current opinion. We are now at the point where motivated reasoning and confirmation bias have become so entrenched that there is little chance of budging either side.

But what could have been done to avoid the problem?

I believe there have been three fundamental errors made by those seeking to gain support for the Australian Government's climate change policy:

(1) conflating the scientific method with politics and policy implementation
(2) failure to recognise their own bias and to respect the other side
(3) failure to present a cohesive policy

The first of these is the most serious in the sense that it sets a precedent which endangers future policy decisions. I am a firm believer of the importance of the scientific method in building human knowledge that is most likely to stand the test of time.[1]

Scientists are best trained to gather evidence to support or disprove a theory, but their job is not to pick winners. A scientific theory should only answer "what if...?" and "how can...?" questions, not "ought we ...?" questions. It is from science and other sources of knowledge (eg accepted moral standards of our society) that a range of policy options become available. It is then the primary role of politicians to allow us as a society to resolve which of these conflicting policies get enacted.

Unfortunately, in the climate debate the science has become tangled up with political and policy baggage. The evidence that the earth is warming because of increased CO₂ concentrations in the atmosphere, and that this is largely due to human activity should stand alone. However, scientists have become increasingly strident in proclaiming that therefore we need to reduce CO₂ emissions.

This oversteps their mark. Of course this is a valid policy option; but there are at least two other broad approaches: (1) do nothing and implement adaptations to the warmer conditions, or (2) use geoengineering to counter the warming effect of CO₂.

This brings us to the second point of scientists failing to recognise their own bias. It is well established that academics are largely a left-leaning lot and consequently tend to be pro-green.

This does not mean that the scientific research on climate change is flawed (after all, the scientific method largely evolved to minimise these kinds of bias) but that the scientists' preferred response to the findings of the science appears to have been coloured by their ideology. Unfortunately, with China and India rapidly industrialising, reducing CO₂ emissions will be far harder than simply twiddling a knob on a computer model.

Thirdly, the approach taken by the Government to sell its climate change policy is badly flawed. By seeking to only talk about positives (lower emissions, higher tax thresholds, increased assistance payments) and avoiding any direct mention of less palatable outcomes (higher electricity costs, higher marginal tax rates), they cannot tell the whole story of why the changes are necessary. These large gaps lead to distrust, fear, and disengagement.

Most fatally (and somewhat ironically) on the Government's own figures its policy won't achieve the task of cooling the globe. It will only work if the policy somehow has a social impact by getting other countries to sign up for similar schemes – Australia's emissions are just too small. The advertising mantra of a "clean energy future" belies the problem that the policy being presented cannot be an effective response. There is, as yet, no clear way forward to address the impending tragedy of the commons facing us from climate change.

[1] Despite being pro-science, I am concerned at the distortion of scientific research in recent times. Reasons include the requirement for academics to publish to advance their careers, the treatment of research results in the media, and the increasing incidence of research that is sponsored with the aim of "proving" a narrow hypothesis that can be exploited for commercial gain. But that's another post.

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