A couple of days ago I read a Nature comment by Oliver Geden called Policy: Climate advisers must maintain integrity. My intial impression was quite positive as it seemed to say some quite reasonable things, for example
Scientific advisers must resist pressures that undermine the integrity of climate science. Instead of spreading false optimism, they must stand firm and defend their intellectual independence, findings and recommendations — no matter how politically unpalatable
However, the basic message in the Oliver Geden’s article seems to be the 2oC target is probably not achievable and that climate scientists should stop present scenarios suggesting that it is, when it very obviously isn’t. Consequently, some are not that impressed with Oliver Geden’s comment. In an article called the climate blame game has begun, and its getting ugly Michael Mann says
It is certainly the case that preventing 2 degree warming is still very much physically possible,…..The only obstacles at this point are political will, not physics.
I think what I had not appreciated, is that there is a bit of a turf war going on, between those who regard themselves as having specific policy expertise, and climate scientists, who they regard as being politically naive. I encountered a Glen Peters video presentation – that I’ll post at the end – that seems to present this kind of argument.
My problem with all of this is that there would seem to be a hierachy of realities. There is physical reality, over which we have no direct control; how our climate will respond to a change in anthropogenic forcing depends only on the laws of physics, not on whether the consequences are inconvenient or not. The next level would seem to be technological reality; what can we do to address this physical reality. There are presumably limitations to what we can actually do with technology, but my sense is that the relevant limitations are those related to how much we’re willing to invest, rather than some fundamental limitation. The final level would seem to be political/societal reality. This – to me – would seem to be the one aspect over which we have complete control, and yet seems to be what some would like to regard as the ultimate limiting factor.
So, climate science can tell us the likely impacts of various future pathways. Other scientists/engineers can inform us of what possible technology pathways we could consider. Policy makers can then use this information to inform their policy decisions. What some seem to be suggesting is that political reality makes certain pathways virtually impossible, and that those who have no formal policy expertise should stop pretending that these pathways are possible. My fundamental problem with this is that we’re essentially arguing that a supposed reality over which we have complete control, trumps a reality over which we have no control.
Of course, when I say we have no control over our climate, I mean given a particular emission pathway. We do have some control; we can simply choose to follow a different emission pathway. However, what some seem to be suggesting is that the optimal pathway should be defined by what is politically realistic, not by what is optimal in terms of minimising the impact of anthropogenically-driven climate disruption. I find this highly unsatisfactory. Rather than finding ways in which we can deal with a physical reality, we’re finding excuses for not doing so. I should make clear that I don’t think that addressing climate change is going to be easy; both politically and technologically. However, that – in my opinion – is not a satisfactory reason for not even trying to do so.
Okay, I think I’ve said enough. I said I’d post Glen Peters’s video, so it’s below. Would be interested in what others think of it. This post has also rather diverged into an area that is slightly outside my comfort zone, so if I have misunderstood the dynamic at play, feel free to clarify it in the comments. I do, however, particularly dislike the idea that there are certain researchers who have the expertise to be involved in policy discussions, and some that do not. I don’t think that a self-professed view that your expertise gives you a better understanding of political reality than others, gives you a special policy platform.
Edit – 08/05/2015: I was rightly criticised for this phrase, which I wrote rather poorly
However, what some seem to be suggesting is that the optimal pathway should be defined by what is politically realistic, not by what is optimal in terms of minimising the impact of anthropogenically-driven climate disruption.
Just for clarity here, I’ll roughly repeat what I said in the comments. I agree that possible climate disruption is not the only factor that we should be considering. Other factors, such as the economic impact of the various pathways are also important. I was really just trying to distinguish between a purely political reality (which I think we can influence) and a purely physical reality (that we really can’t, given the laws of physics). I’ll acknowledge a somewhat physical science bias to this view too 🙂