Cross-posted on the new TEAM Minnesota blog
Last night, renowned climate scientist Jim Hansen spoke to a number of policymakers, nonprofit leaders, teachers, students, and others at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Hansen has been blowing whistles on climate change for twenty years, most recently citing 350ppm of CO2 as the level which we must reach to avoid catastrophic damage from climate change, and inspiring the 350 campaign. Hansen’s speech highlighted both the scientific consensus on global warming and the lack of an effective response from policymakers.
Yet during Jim’s speech, I was struck by his inability to connect the severity of his findings with the morality of responses from policy makers, young people, or really anyone else. We are past the point when expertise is needed from the scientific community. By continuing to propagate the “science vs. junk science” battle, Hansen and others are ignoring real questions of power, morality, citizen engagement, and the social changes that are needed to build a clean energy future.
Science and scientists have obviously played an integral role in the discovery and general acceptance of climate change as real, human-induced, and dangerous. For the last forty to fifty years, climatology and meteorology have grown from small fields to model-producing powerhouses. Yet up until this point, scientists have failed to convince policymakers and the general public of the severity of global climate change and the depth of changes our society needs.
Part of the reason is that scientists are often terrible messengers. Complex graphs, statistics, and models tend to overwhelm. This information overload psychologically turns people off – if climate change is this big and complex, how can any individual or group have any effect? Further, scientists, and environmental scientists in particular, tend to frame their work as part of a “science vs. non-science” battle. The role of scientists is to educate the public on matters of science, and those who disagree with them are, as Hansen often says, “contrarians” and disbelievers. Policymakers have bought into this dichotomy, from global warming to stem cell research to intelligent design, again blinding them to the ethics and values within science. By treating their research as almost holy, scientists and experts send mixed messages when the best science changes.
By creating this simplified dichotomy, many scientists insulate themselves from the public eye, seeking to complete their research before asking questions of morality because “the public just wouldn’t understand.” What the public ends up seeing is a stream of scientists that claim their expertise on a topic, but continue to shift their opinions on everything (as science does). Think of the climate targets: first, 500ppm was our goal. Then, as more research was done, 400-450ppm (“80% by 2050″) became our feasible target. Recently, Hansen pushed the target down to 350ppm, a point which we’ve already passed. The IPCC claimed that it was 90% sure that humans caused global warming, and pushing CO2 levels to 400ppm would result in a 50% chance of catastrophic climate damage. To a layperson’s or policymaker’s eye, a response to this gambling-like uncertainty is both unsettling, confusing, and paralyzing. Hence, the global response to climate change has been woefully inadequate and misdirected.
Scientists have always had trouble with models of risk management. Attempts to quantify levels of safety around toxics and nuclear waste have conflicted with observed results, often times with fatal results. Likewise, climate scientists predictions of global warming in the eighties contrasted with the global cooling caused by sulfur dioxides and particulate matter created by coal. Scientists’ predictions of ice-free arctic summers by 2050 contrasted with the recent exponential decrease in summer ice observed by those living in the arctic.
Many scientists also fail to give the social context to their research. When research is framed in terms of ecosystems, atmosphere, and global climate, we fail to understand the interconnectedness of climate change and perceived social/political problems like energy prices, the subprime mortgage crisis, the global food and water shortages, and so on. Another example is the failure of scientists (and policymakers and many others) to recognize the social ramifications of corn-based ethanol. By the time scientists recognized that ethanol was a false CO2 solution, subsidies and political dreaming had already taken over.
These qualities of scientific expertise often lead scientists to advocate technological or scientific fixes for environmental problems. As an article in today’s NY Times points out, climate solutions from geoengineering, like ocean seeding or space mirrors, need to be seriously questioned. Slightly less crazy ideas like carbon sequestration and nuclear power have also come under fire by many in the environmental community. These complex “magic bullets” fail to respond to the root causes of climate chaos, nor the powerful role technological uncertainty and expertise have played in getting us into this mess.
Jim Hansen gave three roles for scientists: learning from the past, observing present changes, and predicting the future. Scientists’ observations from the past provide powerful impetus for action, but the “expertise” demonstrated by climate predictions and models has distracted (or paralyzed) us. While it’s important to take into account “what the science says,” it’s more important to realize that what we’re doing is not just “saving the climate” or “stopping global warming”, but rather building a more just society, tackling poverty, and creating economic growth.
So what role should science play in the future? More people are becoming skeptical of scientific and technological fixes to perceived scientific problems. In the process of deconstructing scientific expertise, we realize that we are all scientists. We observe changes in science, society, and technology on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not. And if we do recognize that we’re all parts of this world, then we can acknowledge our own power to both observe changes and make change for the better. We are empowered to make decisions beyond which dish soap to buy or how much gas to put in the tank.
This realization has been the foundation for the citizen science movement. With roots in participatory science like bird watching and stargazing, citizen science has grown to include observations on toxics and climate effects. Deliberative and informative methods like citizen juries, science shops, and consensus conferences can help make choices about the technologies and policies that we, the citizens, wish to see in the world. Less formal activities like green drinks and cafe scientifique help break down barriers to expertise and, oh yeah, are really really fun. By engaging the public in decision making processes, we can arrive at real science and technology policy, rather than a hodgepodge of free market and government funded choices.
Jim Hansen strikes me as a jaded and pessimistic guy. He has weathered a lot of criticism and is probably afraid of what he sees for our future. But during a question and answer section, he got really excited while talking about historic climate trends. Hansen loves what he’s doing, which I’m always in favor of. I thank him for his years of priceless service. Likewise, many of the policymakers I’ve met have their hearts in the right places but simply have little idea what to do. In response to these problems, we must democratize both politics and science, to let the public discuss, deliberate, and choose the policies and technologies that we are to use, and to understand and confront the root causes of climate change rather than devoting more time to climate science debates.