Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Climate policy is a question of values as much as it is a question of science

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There has been a lot of discussion recently about how climate scientists should engage with climate policy, sparked mostly by Tamsin Edwards’ post on the Guardian’s Political Science blog. I didn’t intend on jumping in because I’m not sure I have much new to add, but perhaps I should put it on the record anyway.

Stick to what you know

I would encourage scientists to speak out on what they know (i.e. science). The claims of climate ‘sceptics’ who deny basic greenhouse theory are easy to refute, and we should be doing that. In fact, by and large we are doing that.

But it’s really not clear to me why a climate scientist should use their position of authority to argue for specific policies. Policy is a democratic process. Scientists shouldn’t abuse their position to give their values the loudest voice. Those on the left who call for them to do so might not always like what they hear. What if a climate scientist proposes using natural gas from fracking as a bridge fuel? What if they come out in support of market-driven responses to climate change, like a cap and trade system? These are views they are entitled to have, of course, but they are outside their area of expertise. They are views partly based on values.

The question of what should be done about climate change is a policy question and should be debated as such. Of course, ‘what should be done’ is influenced by what we think we know about future climate, but that is by no means the only influence. The response to climate change encompasses so many other factors, each as important as the physics of the climate system: engineering and technology, spending and taxation choices, international diplomacy, and democratic representation of values and priorities of the population.

A question of values

The fact is, it is not obvious what to do about climate change. Assuming we have a finite pot of money to spend on a range of policies, it’s not obvious that climate change is top of the list. What about improving energy access to the billions without it? Even if we assume climate change is top of the list, how do we go about reducing our emissions? Taxation, perhaps? How should that tax be designed? How progressive should that tax be? What kind of ‘energy mix’ should that taxation system be striving towards?

These are all important questions which have little to do with climate science, and everything to do with value judgements. In an ideal world we decide on a policy through a mix of democratic discussion (including everyone) and expert input (recognising that some people know more about policy options than others). Most climate scientists cannot claim to be policy experts. As citizens it is their right to engage in the discussion about what should be done, but it’s irresponsible to place themselves as experts when they’re not. It helps no-one.

A crystal-clear separation of science and policy would prevent them from hiding behind ‘but the science isn’t settled’ and force dissenters to articulate why they actually object.

Some object because they perceive calls for climate action as a critique of their wasteful, consumption-based way of life, and they simply can’t handle that critique. Some object because they see climate policy as something which can only be driven by the State, which they mistrust. There may be a way to deal with these objections and move forward with good climate policy, but only once we remove the scientific veil and address why they really object.

What kind of world do you want?

For advocacy groups, the science is somewhat irrelevant. They know what kind of world they want to live in already. The Taxpayers’ Alliance knows what kind of world it wants to live in. Greenpeace know what kind of world it wants to live in. Neither of their conceptions of the world is determined by climate science. They will inevitably use scientific conclusions to back up their pre-conceived notions of how the world should be.

For example, an overzealous left might institute climate policy which is inconsistent with the science. Perhaps they assume climate change is reversible (on near-term timescales it just isn’t). Perhaps they waste public money compensating people for extreme weather events despite plenty of scientific uncertainty about the link between climate change and weather extremes. I don’t know what they might do, but it’s important that everyone gets the correct scientific information, because otherwise everyone will just twist what little science they know to fit with how they want the world to be. If scientific errors are highlighted, it is up to the policymaker to justify their choices in other ways. The left could justify by talking about their particular values, but once again, that’s not to do with science.

Policy options are as much a matter of values as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Scientists aren’t policy experts, and shouldn’t pretend to be. If they pretend, they enable dissenters to set up a strawman and dismiss both the particular policy they are pushing and the generality of the science. If scientists (in their professional capacities) stick to describing the consequences of certain policies their credibility as honest brokers is strengthened. Policymakers can then make policy choices based on credible facts and the values and preferences of the citizenry. Climate scientists are free to hold and express policy views, but in my opinion they should be very careful about doing so when they are speaking in a professional capacity.

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Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

One thought on “Climate policy is a question of values as much as it is a question of science

  1. Pingback: A year of throwing stuff into the Internet and seeing what bounces back | Angus Ferraro

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