Sunday, January 17, 2010

Inquiry from Russia: pitfalls of practice of policy advising

I got this inquiry from Russia: "I found some titles of your interesting publications, but they are not available in our local libraries, which do not subscribe foreign editions. If possible, please, explain me what are the main pitfalls in the present practice of policy advice concerning man-made climate change in your opinion? What are the main causes of discrepancy between scientific knowledge about climate change and its understanding in the public?" Here is my answer, to which I invite comments by the readers of Klimazwiebel (please stick to the issue in your comments!)

1. In my understanding, the biggest pitfall in the present practice of policy advice is the optimizing of knowledge claims for fitting political purposes. That is, to present a mix of hypothesis, facts and uncertainties which serve a pre-defined set agenda best. Both vocal alarmists and skeptics, use this strategy to advocate their agenda of upcoming catastrophe or of the insignificance (or even non-existence) of man-made climate change. Typically, they create the impression that the issue is entirely certain (e.g., climate models are useless, data have been manipulated; present change is faster than predicted, current meteorological extremes are getting worse because of elevated greenhouse gas concentrations, temperature rise beyond 2°C leads to irreversible catastrophic climate change). Interestingly, the two groups refer constantly to each other; they live of each other, and dominate the public communication. (See also von Storch, H., 2009: Good science, bad politics. Wall Street Journal online)

2. Another pitfall is to frame the preferred climate policy as an immediate consequence of climate science: "climate science tells us that we must limit the increase of global mean air temperature to less than 2 degrees relative to pre-industrial times". This claim is useful for policymakers, as it relieves them to take responsibility for their decisions. But science is not providing definite political goals. Instead it estimates the implications of a warming of x°C, with x being any positive number. And societies are supposed to chose x, employing the estimates of impacts and their normative systems. Societies seem to have picked x=2, at least in Western Europe. I suggest that they consider this number the smallest one which might be possibly achieved (in an optimistic perspective). Indeed, x=2 may be a very good political goal, but it is based on a normative assessment, and has gone through a political negotiation process among (economic, political, social) stakeholders, as all political decisions. It is a political number.

3. A third pitfall is for stakeholders to listen only to natural (and maybe: economic) scientists. All climate politics have much to do with cultural values, with social constructions of beliefs– this is also true for stakeholders and scientists! Thus, social and cultural scientists should additonally guide the process in order to sort out scientific and social constructions about climate change, impact and policies. (see also: von Storch, H., 2009: Climate Research and Policy Advice: Scientific and Cultural Constructions of Knowledge. Env. Science Pol. 12, 741-747, )

4. Scientists should practice political advice in a sustainable manner – so that the communication and advice in a few years time can be done with the same credibility as today. (See also von Storch, H., 2009: The Sustainability of Climate Science. Roger Pielke jr.'s blog)


P Gosselin said...

"What are the main causes of discrepancy between scientific knowledge about climate change and its understanding in the public?"

My answer to this is that today there appears to be no reliable process of 1) taking important scientific findings that impact society, 2) translating them into understandable layman's terms and 3) distributing them to the public.
This communication process is indeed long and complex, and is often handled by not-so-compenetnt or honest persons and media. As a result, what eventually reaches the consumer may not be of particularly high grade or accuracy. There needs to be some sort of HONEST information broker for distributing information. That's asking for a lot.
For the time being we have to rely on the free media market to deliver the information, where you have part of the media presenting one side and the other part of the media presenting the other side, and hope that people make the right decision. Like a jury hearing both the defendant and plaintiff.

Interestingly, countries where you have balance in the overall media tend to have populations that are quite divided on the issue of climate science and policy. I think that is good. Countries where the media tend to be monopolised, public opinion is more one-sided - and often wrong.

P Gosselin said...

Another point, if I may.
In a democracy, the information (scientific findings etc.) should be delivered directly to the public so that they can form an opinion. Then governments should formluate policy based on the opinion formed by the public. In less democratic countries, governments like to stand in the middle and control the information. That's one reason why there's the "discrepancy between scientific knowledge and its understanding in the public."

eduardo said...

In many areas that are deemed important there are independent bodies that issue assesments and predictions that are to some extent credible and generally accepted. For instance in economics, Germany has the well-known five economic institutes. Central banks issue independent economic projections. In the US the Congressional Budget Office also issues budget projections for the next few years. All those are professional, independent, credible bodies. Nuclear energy has an international agency that sets standards. Climate research lacks a similar body. The IPCC 'is' ultimately the governments themselves, it is not professional, their members are not well defined, it responds to nobody in case of conflict, and is bullied by almost everyone nowadays. Climate is also something that everyone has an opinion on , like soccer, so that in the end we have just confusion

P Gosselin said...

"The IPCC 'is' ultimately the governments themselves, it is not professional, their members are not well defined, it responds to nobody in case of conflict, and is bullied by almost everyone nowadays."

I agree with everything - up to the bullying part.

IPCC is bullied by whom? I'd like to know who is bullying the IPCC?
Perhaps I'm misuderstanding you. Bullying ought not be confused with criticism and loud protest. A great number of persons critical of climate science could feel offended being labelled as "bullies".
People should have the right to protest whenever they see themselves threatened by a science that is faulty. People's livelihoods are at stake. Actually, the argument could be made that the IPCC is the one who bullies.

eduardo said...

Perhaps the word 'bully' is not totally correct. I meant that what the IPCC is is not really well defined, and therefore it cannot respond to criticisms, justified or not. Is the IPCC the IPCC-Buro chaired by Pachauri or is it the 4000 thousands scientists that allegedly contributed to its latest report? Nobody knows for sure, and when problems arise - for instance the Himalayan glaciers - nobody can be taken to answer, or be made responsible.

I may agree that scientist that contributed to IPCC reports bullied, but the IPCC, as organization, is silent and powerless between Reports.

Werner Krauss said...

"What are the main causes of discrepancy between scientific knowledge about climate change and its understanding in the public?"

While there are many complaints about the media and public misconceptions of scientific climate knowledge, it is interesting to change perspective and to see science as the problem, too. Consider for example the education of climate scientists: they learn a lot about climate as a natural phenomenon, but they learn nothing about the history of their sciences, the history of perceptions of climate, the political implications of knowledge, the nature of interdisciplinarity, the cultural history of climate change etc.... Their conceptions of 'society' are often rudimentary, untouched by any scholarly knowledge. The same is true for their understanding of the media. It's a long list. In times of post-normal science one might wish that the education of future climate scientists might be more complete. Climate is as cultural as it is natural. Neglecting this obvious fact leads to permanent communication disasters.

Werner Krauss said...

@eduardo 3

true, but what about the credibility and capacity to predict of the respective economic institutes? My guess is that current climate predictions are pretty exact compared to those of economists -:)

I like your statement that 'climate is something everybody has an opinion on' - this is part of the very nature of climate, I guess. Even in case people would stop to have an opinion of their own and would exclusively listen to the authority of climate science - there still would be many opinions around (just look at the current scientific debates on glaciers or sea level rise or....).
Instead of striving for a unified, single voice of a climate institution, maybe it is more productive to accept the plurality of voices. Just as Klimazwiebel does - instead of only blaming skeptics or alarmists, why not discuss their arguments and refine the own ones? Climate politics does not rely on a single authoritative scientific voice; it is enough for politics to accept that climate is a problem we have to take care of; there are so many reasons to reduce greenhouse gases, to change energy policies and to adapt to adverse environmental conditions - you don't need a unified scientific voice. Instead, science should focus on the permanent refinement and localization of their knowledge.

There are still too many guys in science who think that societies need the authoritarian voice of the wise guy in the 'white coat' - the problem is not the loss of his (normally he is male) authority, but his uncured megalomania.

eduardo said...


I agree totally with you, but the feedback I get from other colleagues is that this bit
'instead of only blaming skeptics or alarmists, why not discuss their arguments and refine the own ones?' is difficult to implement. Some climate skeptics do not make this task easier.

By 'everyone has an opinion on climate' I wanted to highlight the difference to other contested areas of science, for instance superstrings. The debates there are also very aggresive, but Peter Schmidt does not care about them. He does care about climate though. And this is one of the reason to try to engage in the discussion, in my view.
This being said, however, one has to admit that some of the skeptics points are also politically motivated or simply not correct, the same as some of the arguments raised by WWF or Greenpeace

Werner Krauss said...

I also agree. Some specifications:
Indeed, some of the alarmists & skeptics are unnerving. The problem is their incestuous relationship; they tend to react like Pavlov's dog on each others' contributions. This, of course, leads to a complete communicative traffic jam, to kitsch (see Dennis' contribution) and other rhetorical accidents - a nuisance and absolutely unproductive. But is there a 'neutral' side? Is it possible to just be curious? To take a completely neutral stance? Don't know. Each research question is already framed in a context. Difficult problem! There is no easy way out.

'Everyone has an opinion' is worth considering a bit more. Indeed, everyone is involved in this problem. As Bruno Latour (science studies guy) says, the laboratory is no longer inside the walls of research institutes or universities, it is everywhere. How to find out about the truth of anthropogenic warming without the experiment? Unfortunately, all of us are part of the experiment. First reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and then comparing the before and after results in science. No wonder everybody has an opinion; even more, everybody is now a 'scientist' who has to take a decision. So-called lay people, politicians and scientists sit in the very same boat in the very same climate; who is allowed to navigate? Thus, climate science obviously is different from string theory etc.; it is indeed a public affair, and the public is an integral part of the problem (and not external to it or only relevant in respect to science funding).
Climate science necessarily has to know more about itself and its role inside of society (it is not outside or opposed to it!!!). This becomes obvious when you read the contributions of both alarmists or skeptics: besides their (often times respectable, I guess) scientific arguments you always hear the citizen speaking, the taxpayer, the enraged neighbor etc. This is interesting, I guess.

Hans von Storch said...

This is a comment by Dr. Dmitry A. RUBAN (PhD in Geology
Southern Federal University, Russia
Swiss Association of Petroleum Geologists and Engineers, Switzerland), who initiated this post by his inquiry - because of his limited internet-acess I post his comment here for him (HvS)

Pitfalls in the policy advice on the climate changes are excellently clarified by Prof. von Storch as well as in the subsequent responses. Herewith, I wish to present my own point of view. It is based on my teaching experience, talks with various colleagues from abroad, reviewing several relevant books, and, of course, TV and newspaper news.

In my opinion, the modern science does not provide a well-justified popular explanation of what does occur with the Earth's climate and how the humankind drives these changes. Deficiencies in the information supplied to the public and the policy-makers appear to be as follows:
1) popular scientific explanations of the ongoing climate changes do not differentiate between the natural changes and the human-induced changes or these explanations remain unclear;
2) the present climate changes are presented without a broad historic context; both the public and the policymakers should learn how strong, rapid, unexpected, and inevitable are these changes in comparison with those occurred 100, 1000, 10000, 100000, and million of years ago;
3) popular scientific discussions of the climate change mitigation strategies sometimes (often? always?) lack explanations of whether we should mitigate these changes themselves or their negative consequences, human-induced changes or the total sum of the natural and human-induced changes, etc.
4) "climate change" and "global warming" have become terms operated by both the public and the scientific community, although they are somewhat incorrect; this fact is self-evident for many scientists, but not for the public and the policymarkers, who need additional explanations that the climate changes have occurred permanently as inevitable throughout the Earth's history and the global warming does not mean warming everywhere.

The clear are popular scientific explanations of the ongoing climate changes, the better would be political and public discussions of the relevant questions. Correct popular representation of the climate change science seems to be one of those important pre-conditions for more correct policy advices.

I can add that sometimes scientists from the humanities provide a significantly better explanation of the problem than geoscientists (geographers, climatologists, geologists, ecologists). Nice examples can be found in the book published recently by DiMento and his co-workers:
DiMento, J. F. C. & Doughman, P. (Eds.) (2007): Climate Change. What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. In: Kamieniecki, S. & Kraft, M. E. (Eds.): American and Comparative Environmental Policy. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (Massachusetts Institute of Technology - MIT Press). ISBN 978-0-262-04241-3.

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof Storch,
I think one of the communication problems within climate science is the heterogeneity of the education of climate scientist. I think you will find “lay persons” in climate science with physics background who understand some basic principles much better than certain groups within climate science.
As an example you find in the booklet “Der Klimawandel” by Schellnhuber and Rahmstorf on page 31 an unphysical confusion between heat and heat radiation, while they explain the fundamentals of the greenhouse effect. I think this is a communication disaster.
For a lay person with a strong physics background such sloppy language leaves the detrimental impression that the authors do not understand basic physics, which is certainly not the case. However, the damage is done.
I do think that one of the fallacies of climate scientists is that they consider everybody who is not a climate scientist a lay person. They ignore that there are experts out there who are not climate scientist, but could be much better experts in one of the many disciplines in climate science like thermodynamics, radiation transfer, solving partial differential equations, photochemistry, statistics, etc..
My advice for climate scientists would be, to communicate always in a way that also an expert is satisfied with the explanation. They should know and respect that they cannot be experts in every discipline that is necessary to understand the climate of the earth and therefore respect their audience.
With best regards
Günter Heß

eduardo said...

@ 11
For the record, Rahmstorf is physicist and as far as I know his diploma thesis dealt with Relativity.

Other than that, it is true that the 'typical' climate researcher does not exist and that we have to self-teach ourselves many things. Sometime it is fun, sometimes it leads to pitfalls.