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Global Warming: Should Scientists Speak Out?

August 15, 2013

A few weeks ago, a climate scientist called Tamsin Edwards published an article in the Guardian under the title “Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies“. Her argument boiled down to this quote:

“I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral.”

This post explains why I think she’s wrong.

In my opinion, there are two nearly-unique aspects of climate change that render Tamsin Edwards position untenable.

I say ‘nearly-unique’ because one aspect is at least shared with nuclear weapons; there are very few eureka moments that are immediately followed by head in hand dismay.

Casting about for an analogy, I thought about lasers. The invention of coherent light (remarkably, based on yet more groundbreaking work by Einstein) was very unlikely to produce a feeling of dismay in those working on it. While I doubt the Bell Labs and other scientists foresaw the internet and fibre optics – by now the most ubiquitous use of lasers, without which I wouldn’t be posting this, nor you reading it – neither were they likely to imagine their discoveries contributing to the destruction of the known world.

The same cannot be said of nuclear weapons. From the outset, it is clear that scientists were appalled by the potential of their work, the perversity of its application. The Russell-Einstein manifesto and the formation of Pugwash attest to their concerns, and that they chose to speak out, to leave the cosy confines of their ‘safe’ ivory towers to take issue with governments and the military. They did this too in an atmosphere of great anxiety; the cold war was not an environment conducive to ‘peacenik’ scientists and more than a few ended up on lists that nobody wanted to be on.

Climate change is another discovery that leads resolutely towards dismay, and little else. There are some very modest changes that may be beneficial, but these are so outweighed by the implicit destabilisation, damage, costs and suffering, it must have been clear from early on that climate change was, like nuclear weapons, a really bad thing.

In the first place then, climate change is a theory from which we can envision only detrimental consequences. This alone should propel scientists into the limelight, because they are the ones who know better than any of us just what danger we’re in right now. They must also be the ones most frustrated by our collective inaction, since they are closest and most familiar with the compelling nature of the evidence, the theory and the probabilities.

The second element of my argument concerns the driving forces of climate change. Whether Edwards and other scientists like it or not, the driver of global warming is not scientific, but social.

Climate science observes and predicts reactions to stimuli, but inputs to climate change originate in the social sphere. The problem is not some discovery put to bad uses. Climate science simply deconstructs what happens when a global society emits so much greenhouse gas as a consequence of lifestyle, ideology and economic choices, that we change the climate.

Tamsin Edwards appears to want to divorce cause from effect. CO2 creates warming, sure – but humans create the CO2. It is not possible, or desirable, to enforce some unrealistic border between our actions and the consequences of them. Science cannot remain aloof from the society that creates the problem science identifies. It is implicit, both morally and factually, that scientists must address and engage with the whole subject, not just a comfy bit they can do in private, free from grubby engagement with the civilisation they know full well is trying quite hard to destroy itself.

To sit silent, to refuse to speak out, reminds me of other terrible things in our past where people became complicit through their refusal to engage, to protest, to play an active part in society. If we are to speak of a moral duty, then the best informed among us surely have the greatest responsibility to act with a commitment commensurate with the scale of the problem.

People will die because of climate change. How can Edwards stay silent, when she knows that better than most? Her knowledge must also provide the impetus for her and others to speak out, or be relegated to history alongside all the passive people who watched from the sidelines as terrible things were done.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ken Dunstan permalink
    August 15, 2013 9:51 am

    A while ago Lord Lawson, speaking on BBC Radio 4, made precisely Tamsin Edwards’ point. point, that “political” comment by climate scientists has devalued the science. As an arch-politician, Lord Lawson is aware of this being a good line of attack, because it avoids the need to address the scientific evidence. The cry for “disinterested”, “neutral” science without “meddling” in politics is disingenuous to say the least. Either the science is wrong and we need to say so, or the science is right and we need to act in accordance with it. It seems that climate science is even more of a “dismal science” than economics. But Ms Edwards as a scientist has a strange bedfellow in Lord Lawson, his “Global Warming Foundation” and his passion for fossil fuels.

  2. johnrussell40 permalink
    August 15, 2013 10:21 am

    I’d like to play devil’s advocate here.

    As a consequence of extrapolating the results of their work, I think it’s right—indeed a moral duty—for climate scientists to warn of the danger towards which humanity is headed. However, the distinction I think that should be drawn is when those same scientists go further than flagging up the danger and enter the world of advocating specific solutions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that climate scientists shouldn’t propose possible solutions; the problem I believe Tamsin Edwards highlights is when they follow on from their work to propose specific policies, without having the necessary background and expertise to weigh up all the social and political repercussions.

    In other words, as practical examples, I believe it’s right—as a direct result of their work—for climate scientists to warn of such things as flooding, water shortages, ice decline, extreme weather or species loss; demonstrating appropriate levels of concern and alarm. It’s also right for them to suggest possible ways to tackle these issues—even to highlight potential considerations that should be applied—but I would suggest that they should there draw a line and advocacy of specific solutions should be left to the policy experts and politicians. Whether the policy experts and politicians take notice is another issue and, of course, scientists have every right to complain if they’re being ignored.

    So, it would be best for their credibility if climate scientists avoid, for instance, proposing carbon taxes, bans on certain carbon intensive activities; or support for specific alternative energy sources. To enter that arena will be seen as advocacy and—rightly or wrongly—outside their area of expertise. The danger is that advocating such things will also quite likely reduce the credibility of their work, in that they could be accused of having a social agenda. That’s not to say they shouldn’t have views: it’s just that it can be argued that it would be politically expedient for the credibility of their science work to keep those views to themselves.

  3. August 15, 2013 10:32 am

    John, I think I agree with your general view. Scientists should be honest and open in whatever they say (ideally everyone should). So there are indeed things that they could say that would be regarded as advocacy but that are supported by the scientific evidence (i.e., there will be flooding, we should do something about it) and things they could say that steps over some invisible line into areas about which they do not have sufficient knowledge. So, my main issue with Tamsin Edwards’s article was the idea that scientists should not advocate at all, given that there will be some situations in which it is perfectly suitable. Additionally, I don’t think that scientists should be prevented from crossing the invisible boundary into advocating for specific policies. Simply that doing so would be unwise and we (the public) should not take it seriously simply because a scientist has said so, and they run the risk of damaging their own reputation.

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 15, 2013 11:20 am

    Thanks all for the comments – very nice to see constructive disagreement, as it were.

    I think John’s point is well made, and a nuanced one I agree with: the line has to be drawn between commentary that depends for its authority on one’s scientific background and experience (flooding, agriculture, sea levels, extreme weather etc), and remarks that are simply the opinions of a human being.

    I agree that specific policy advocacy is dangerous when it appears to be an argument from authority. Scientists have no better idea about the best way forward in specific terms than anyone else. They may, for example, understand why we need renewable energy; to specify which kinds, or what mixture, not only lies outside their remit, but would tend to ignore the regional variations – what the UK needs is very different indeed from suitable solutions for India or Brazil. There’s also the issues of short and long term solutions, and the differences between the needs of developed democracies, and under-developed theocratic or other regimes.

    Einstein, Russell, Rotblat and others did not advocate specific ways to wage war. They just said ‘don’t use nukes’. Scientists like Edwards don’t need to tell us what to do, they need to emphasise what we need to stop doing.

    Can I also add that this whole ‘reputation’ business is an artefact of denial. I’ve never really concerned myself with reputation, for it is the evidence and its consilience that convinces me. The scientific method was formulated specifically to get round the problem of ‘trust’; it is the data, the experimental methods, and particularly the repeatability, that confers credibility on science. I think Edwards is allowing denial to set the agenda for scientific discussion, so that in order to be seen to be credible (in the eyes of people who, let’s face it, will never find any climate scientist credible) she feels obliged to stay quiet about issues that she feels make her vulnerable to attacks on probity. I think she should trust her work, and the scientific method, and worry less about what people think about her.

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