Since my last post was about how scientists failed the pandemic test, I thought I might comment on another paper highlighting the tragedy of climate change science. The basic premise of the article is that society has failed to take effective action on climate change and that, consequently, the science-society contract is broken and that the time has come for scientists to agree to a moratorium on climate change research as a means to first expose, then renegotiate, the broken science-society contract.
I have sympathy with the frustration, but I think the basic argument is simply wrong. I don’t think the general description of the social contract is quite right. As Andrew Dessler pointed out, the social contract is simply that [t]hey pay us to do research and we provide them with the results. There is no obligation that policy makers take the results and make decisions that the researchers agree with.
This doesn’t mean that researchers can’t, or shouldn’t, disagree with the decisions that are made. As citizens, they’re perfectly entitled to do so. However, researchers don’t have some special right to decide how their research results are used. They, of course, have the right to decide not to do some research if they think it will be used in ways that they regard as unethical, but that seems a somewhat different issue to what is being proposed in this paper.
I also thought that the paper exaggerated the level of failure. The world’s governments now virtually all agree that we need to tackle climate change, even if their actions don’t yet match their words. In some sense, this is a remarkable success of science communication. Also, even though we haven’t yet bent the Keeling curve down, global emissions have probably been lower than they might otherwise have been. There’s been a shift from coal to natural gas and a growth in the use of renewables. There’s much more that needs to be done, but I do think there has been some progress.
I do think there are also reasons to be disappointed; we should probably have acted sooner to reduce emissions and there are still those who seem reluctant to take serious action. However, there are also reasons to be optimistic; outright climate denial is far less prominent than it once was and it does seems as though the more extreme scenarios are far less likely than they once were.
As some often point out, we’re not going to solve this by doing more science. However, I think the reverse also applies; we’re not going to solve it by doing less. Policy makers have largely accepted the scientific evidence and the lack of effective action is probably more to do with political roadblocks than with how much, or how little, science is now done.
There may be merit in changing the IPCC reports so that there is much more focus on WG2 (Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability) and WG3 (mitigation) research, than on WG1 (physical science) research. However, I don’t think this means that physical scientists should change the focus of their work, or stop doing their research. The Earth’s climate is still an interesting system to study and we do still want to continually update our understanding so as to better inform mitigation and adaptation efforts. Ultimately, the failure is a failure of policy making, not a failure of science communication, and I think we should be cautious of suggesting otherwise.