Surviving the collision

The encounter between science and politics will shape the future. Decision-makers must treat science as the only reliable guide to the earth system, writes John Ashton, or they will lead us to catastrophe.

To stand any chance of keeping climate change on the right side of the last acceptable threshold, there has to be much better communication between the world of science and the world of politics.

I was once a young researcher at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and I carried with me the values of the scientific enterprise as I made the journey from knowledge to political action.

In my work now, I try to raise the level of ambition and urgency that underpins the way governments and societies respond to the existential challenge of climate change. As former US vice-president Al Gore puts it, it is not about doing what we think is within our reach, but about expanding the limits of the possible. The hill would be less steep if scientists and politicians could understand each other better.

In science, the truth is out there. The task is to discover it. In politics, all too often, the truth is whatever is expedient to support the goals of this or that political project. Climate scepticism thrives on one part of the political spectrum because of the fear that strong climate policies will require, as they will, a larger presence by the state in the market: a new compact between taxpayers, consumers and shareholders, and one that directs the market more strongly than some would like.

In science, uncertainty is often about the delta on the signal: with how much confidence do we know the amplitude of a signal that is there? In politics, uncertainty is usually taken to indicate that there may not be a signal at all. The political reaction then is to do nothing, and to say, “come back to us when you know there’s a problem”. And there are plenty of people who for reasons of ignorance or mischief are ready to confuse one kind of uncertainty with the other.

A good scientist is more sceptical about his or her own conclusions than any one else. In politics, where scientists are scarce, it is often assumed that science is just another lobby, and that opinions based on scientific evidence have no firmer foundation than other kinds of opinion.

If politicians and policymakers do not try to deal with the world, to which science is the only reliable guide, if they cannot or do not want to understand the messages that the science community is sending them, they will make bad and – in the case of climate change – catastrophic decisions.

There is a lot that politicians and their advisers can do better to understand the messages, but scientists can do more to make their messages easier to understand, and more effective in driving responses. 

Take the issue of remaining below an average temperature rise of 2° Celsius.   I completely understand the frustration of people who say: “it is too late to have a reasonable chance of staying within 2°C.”   But if you want a 6° world, a good way to start is to say that 2° is already gone. A 2° response, or even a 3° one, requires more political effort – much more – than is currently being applied in any of the major economies. It requires a mobilisation of effort that normally is only achieved in wartime. And that effort won’t be made if those who have the best idea of what a 2° world might look like sound as if they are saying “take your foot off the pedal”.

We know that there are still available pathways that would give us a chance of 2°C. The International Energy Agency and others have mapped them out. We have the technologies and the capital to get onto those pathways. The issue is: are they politically within reach?

What is politically possible is a judgement for society as a whole. Any scientist is entitled to express an opinion about it, but it cannot be a purely scientific opinion. The question of how much effort we can summon short of the fundamental constraints of physics and engineering lies outside the realm in which a scientist has particular authority. 

I understand the impatience that leads some people to say: “we are not going to solve this through another global climate treaty”. We won’t be celebrating success eight months from now in Copenhagen if we approach this simply as another negotiation to allocate what appear to most parties to be predominantly a set of burdens. The politics of international burden sharing are just too slow: look at the trade negotiations. 

The major economies will only transform themselves if they have established a domestic consensus that it is necessary and feasible for the security and prosperity of their citizens to build very low-carbon economies very quickly. The Copenhagen conference in December won’t by itself create that consensus: it needs to come equally, if not more, from national politics.

But that does not mean we should give up on the negotiations. If we can build domestic consensus, we can reach an agreement that will enable us all to go faster. And the Copenhagen deadline is essential to drive up the level of domestic ambition, and to build confidence that to do this globally we need to say “follow me” not “after you”.

The gulf between what we know we need to do and what we are doing, or are ready to do, is getting wider. But for those of us on the political side of that gulf, we need overwhelming pressure for 2°, for a Copenhagen agreement in December, and for a low-carbon economic recovery, to give us economic security, energy security and climate security together. The reality is that these are now indivisible. 

The deeper truth is that both science and politics are themselves part of Gaia. Our clumsy, imperfect, culturally diverse and complex decision-making processes are part of the earth system. Science has a political impact, which contributes to the decisions that shape our response to climate change, and thus the climates we experience, and in turn the trajectory taken by the biosphere and the earth system as a whole.

We cannot escape from those feedback loops. Do we want to use them restore stability – or to amplify the instability for which we are already responsible?

Scientists should not be inhibited from saying what they think. There are too many people who tone down their conclusions on climate change because they don’t want to risk being marginalised by seeming to ask the impossible. But scientists should make a bigger effort to understand the effect their messages are likely to have on politics. Otherwise science will have less influence on outcomes.

What is really at stake? If we can get global emissions to peak in the next 10 years or so, we will have a fighting chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Furthermore, we will have crossed a different kind of threshold, arguably of greater significance than any we have crossed in the 200,000-year existence of homo sapiens: we will for the first time be showing signs of collective self-awareness as a species.

We are now so interdependent that we would need to do this even without the challenge of climate change: to define ourselves by the common interests that bind us rather than by what makes us the different from each other. 

For me, that is the project at the heart of the December climate conference. It will only succeed if we build into that collective self-awareness an equal awareness of the two way relationship between the choices we make and the responses of the earth system. Only politics can act on that awareness. But only science, thoughtfully communicated to animate political choice, can provide it in the first place. 

John Ashton is the special representative for climate change for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also director for strategic partnerships at LEAD International and founder and CEO of E3G (Third Generation Environmentalism).

This article is an edited version of a keynote speech delivered in Copenhagen on March 10 to the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change.

Homepage photo by Lizette Kabre