The coauthor Monique Riphagen has supplied us with this summary.
Since the establishment of the IPCC, national and international climate politics have leaned heavily on the scientific assessments of the IPCC. Politicians legitimate their climate politics by pointing to science: the IPCC tells us which political goals should be set. Climate politics is based on the linear model of science: knowledge is the basis of decision-making and more science will lead to more knowledge and less uncertainty. As is shown in the Netherlands, this has left politics with little space for political debate, causing this debate to move to science and thus politicising science.
The weakness of the linear model is the underexposure of dissent, which is reflected in the consensus model of the IPCC. The recent review of the IPCC is mainly focussed on evaluating processes and procedures of the IPCC. Of course strengthening these procedures can prevent future mistakes and will make the fifth report more authoritative. However, a mere focus on this will not lead to less criticism and more faith in climate science. To depoliticise science and offer more room for the political debate, more space should be given to dissent opinions, sceptic as well as alarmistic. More openness about uncertainties in scientific knowledge and more room for these dissent scientific views in the IPCC reports would restore the political debate and enhance societies’ capacity to deal with this uncertainty.
This contribution is based on the report ‘Room for Climate Debate’ (Van der Sluijs et al. 2010), that is edited by Jeroen van der Sluijs, Rinie van Est and Monique Riphagen. Jeroen van der Sluijs an assistant Professor/ Senior Researcher at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation, Utrecht University. Rinie van Est is coordinator Technology Assessment and trendwatcher at the Rathenau Instituut in The Hague, the Netherlands. Monique Riphagen is researcher at the Rathenau Instituut. The Rathenau Instituut investigates the dynamics of science and technology and maps the significance of these developments for individuals and society.
This august the InterAcademy Council will publish their evaluation of the processes and procedures of the IPCC. Since Climategate and the discovery of mistakes in the last IPCC report, climate science is under fire. Although it makes sense to strengthen these procedures to make the reports more scientifically solid, it will not stop criticism and regain trust in the IPCC and climate science.
The lack of confidence in the IPCC, together with the failure of the climate conference COP15, started a fierce parliamentary debate in the Netherlands about the legitimacy and necessity of climate policy. The international criticism on science has led to criticism on climate policy, because these two are heavily intertwined. After the discovery of the mistakes in AR4, Dutch Minister of Environment Jacqueline Cramer was quite outraged and stated that one should be able to count blindly on science and that not another single fault should be accepted. Although she nuanced this position in a Dutch newspaper, it shows climate policy is legitimated by the IPCC reports and becomes problematic when there is discussion about these reports, as is shown by studying
But it will not be enough to satisfy the criticism and discussion about climate science and policy.
Political debate in the Netherlands
In ‘Room for Climate Debate’ we analysed how Dutch politics have dealt with scientific uncertainties the last 40 years. Climate change, then called the greenhouse effect, came on the political agenda at the beginning of the seventies. Parliamentarians asked questions about the greenhouse effect, but more scientific evidence was needed to formulate climate policy. This situation lasted until the end of the eighties, when sustainable development was placed high on the political and policy agenda nationally and internationally and goals were also set for climate policy. Thanks to scientific input a National Environmental Policy Plan (NMP) was set up. The first IPCC report in 1990 had a direct influence on Dutch climate policy and also legitimated this policy. Critical or even sceptical questions were regularly raised in parliament by representatives of the entire political spectrum. The successive Ministers of Environment answered by referring to the latest IPCC report. Science left us according to these Ministers no other choice than to act and reduce CO2.
Nevertheless, with the international negotiations and the Kyoto protocol on the way, in 1995 Dutch Parliament decided it wanted to know more about the problem of climate change. Researchers, also sceptics, were heard in order to obtain more scientific information about certainties and uncertainties, causes and consequences, as well as to find out whether the IPCC reports provided sufficient scientific foundation to this end. The research commission concluded unanimously that according to science the emission of large amounts of CO2 lead to climate change with possibly sweeping and dangerous effects. Therefore it was necessary to establish emissions reduction goals. The parliament took over these conclusions and pleaded for a stronger climate policy. Nevertheless, during the years to follow critical questions continued to be asked.
With the preparations for the follow-up of the Kyoto Protocol to start in 2004, another investigation was launched by parliament about the state of scientific knowledge, possibilities of policy options and costs and profits. According to this research, the largest portion of the warming since 1950 was probably caused by man, although it was recognised that there are still many uncertainties. Although also these conclusions were accepted by parliament, critical questions were still being asked from time to time, answered by an appeal to the IPCC reports. But before Copenhagen in 2009, the Dutch political debate became polarised. The populist Party for Freedom (PVV) denied the existence of a climate problem. Minister Cramer explicitly indicated that the cabinet based itself on the information from the IPCC and not on what it considers a small minority of scientists who disagree with the IPCC. This discussion went on in 2010.
Dealing with scientific uncertainties
The above historical outline shows that (Dutch) climate politics is based on the linear consensus model: politics has to deal with uncertainties and turns to science for a solid knowledge base and legitimacy of the implementation of politics. The example also shows that this model fails: regardless of several investigations and consensus about the outcome, critical questions are still asked and there is doubt about the necessity of a Dutch climate policy. In the end, when it becomes exciting and something is at stake, the Copenhagen Protocol, (international) politics fails.
How then should we deal with the interaction between science and politics and what role can science play?
Confronted with scientific uncertainties, three coping strategies can be distinguished:
1. More scientific research
Scientific uncertainty is seen as a temporary shortcoming of knowledge. More research will create more certainty. However, more research will often create more complexity and uncertainty, creating an even complexer problem.
2. Build scientific consensus
Uncertainty is seen as a lack of unequivocalness. Different scientists have different opinions, it is not clear who is right. The solution is to install expert panels that judge the value of the underlying scientific research and make build scientific consensus. In this strategy scientific uncertainty and dissent, which can be very useful to policy-making, is not mentioned.
3. Openness about scientific uncertainty
Uncertainty is unavoidable and always plays a role in complex and politically sensitive topics. Dissensus and political values play an important role in the political debate. A robust policy has to be designed, that is independent of different scientific interpretations. Risk in this scenario is that politicians may forget the scientific consensus that also exists (Van der Sluijs 2006). These scenarios are summarised in table 1.
|Scientific uncertainty as…||Policy strategy||Strength||Weakness|
|Lack of knowledge||More scientific research||Searching for scientific certainties||Creating illusionary certainty|
|Lack of unequivocalness||Build scientific consensus||Exposing consensus||Underexposing dissent|
|Fact of life||Openness about uncertainties||Exposing dissent||Underexposing consensus|
Strengthening the climate debate
The linear model is reflected in the scenarios 1 and 2. But, as the Dutch history shows us, more scientific research won’t end the political discussion about the truth and value of climate science. Also scientific consensus building, as done by the IPCC, won’t guarantee consensus about the political solution of the problem of global warming, as is shown by the failure of Copenhagen in December 2009 and more recently Bonn.
The IPCC certainly played, and still plays, an important role in placing climate change on the political agenda and creating a solid basis to start political negotiations. Although a diversity of scientific visions is reported in the different chapters that deals with specific topics, these different visions don’t always end up in the summary for policy makers and the synthesis report. This is the case for more alarmistic views that reflect the opinion that the global warming may proceed faster and more extreme than now foreseen as well as for more sceptical opinions that question the human impact on climate change compared to e.g. the role of the sun.
When there is more space for uncertainties and different scientific opinions and better communication about these uncertainty, climate science will depoliticise. When there is debate about these dissent views and when these views are offered space in the scientific agenda, dissent scientists are forced to base their arguments on published scientific work instead of trying to influence politics using outdated or incorrect scientific arguments. In this way, climate science becomes depoliticised and the political debate will move to the political arena. In this arena there will be more space for debate about political and moral values and visions that are important in the discussion about climate change. The debate will shift from science to politics, also depoliticising science.
Van der Sluijs, J.P. (2006). ‘Uncertainty, assumptions and value commitments in the knowledge-base of complex environmental problems’. In: Guimarães Pereira Â, S. Guedes Vaz & S.Tognetti (eds.); Interfaces between Science and Society. Sheffield: Green Leaf Publishing. 67-84.
Van der Sluijs, J.P., R. van Est & M. Riphagen (2010). Room for Climate Debate: perspectives on the interaction between climate politics, science and the media. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut.
Pielke jr., R.A. (2007). The Honest Broker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.