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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.

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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

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

真理的非普遍有效性

如果忽略了一个人的观点,那么我们整个世界的损失就太大了。研究一下美国落基山研究所的首席科学家洛文思先生的书籍和思想,我们就可以看到,节约能源以及应对气候变化实际上是个经济学问题,使用目前就有的技术我们完全就可以做到这一点。在他划时代的“气候变化:有利又有益”这篇论文中,他详细描述了经济学意义上的气候变化。可惜,我们共同认可的接近真理的理论往往不被现代所接受,往往在作者死后才能焕发青春。这确实是个遗憾。

the non-universal validity of the truth

If we ignore one person's opinion, the whole world suffers a great loss. By studying the books and theories of Mr Amory Lovins, Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, we come to understand protecting the environment and tackling climate change as economic issues and which we can feasibly tackle with the technologies we already have. In his epochal-making thesis about climate change, Mr Lovins explains in detail the economic significance of climate change. The pity is, the theories that we all accept as truths are usually only embraced by the youth after the writer passed away. This is a real pity.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

the blance of science and politics

all in all,the two aspects are interwinded and interdepedent.

科学与政治之权衡

总的来说,这两方面是互为因果的。(Braden Latham-Jones翻译。)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

科学与政治

作者说出了一个重要的观点:为了政治利益,人们往往会对真理加以曲解。整个人类是一个相互依存的整体,有人说过:“每个人的命运殊途同归,地球与它的子民一荣俱荣,一损俱损”。
但是,在国际社会里,主权国家是依据其国家利益来行事的,所以多年来气候谈判之路充满坎坷与曲折。发达国家要求新兴的发展中国家提高减排量,发展中国家指责富国站着说话不腰疼,只是要求却不给予实质性帮助。

Science and politics

The author makes an important point: people often misrepresent the truth to serve their political interests. Human beings are an interdependent whole, someone once said: "everyone's destiny is to reach the same goal by different means, for the earth and its inhabitants, if one flourishes they all flourish, if one is harmed, they are all harmed." However, in the international community, sovereign states act according to their own interests, so for many years the path of climate negotiations has been rough and winding. Developed countries require newly emerging developing countries to increase their emissions and developing countries condemn rich countries for speaking inconsiderately and irresponsibly, just making demands but not providing any substantial help. (Translated by Jodie Gardiner)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

来自国会的制衡

有消息称,奥巴马很可能推迟签署气候变化协议,原因是难以在国会获得多数支持。看来,即使是奥巴马一心想要将气候议题作为重点来抓,但美国的政治体制决定了即使是民主党人,如果其选区是重工业支撑经济,那么也会在气候问题上与总统唱反调,极力反对履行温室气体的减排承诺。一旦美国的脚步放缓,那么今年的哥本哈根多半会无功而返。

Check and Balance from the Congress

It seems that even though Obama places importance on climate issues, the whole country's policy might not be affected. Due to the American political system, if a particular electoral district is industry-heavy, there will still be contrary opinions to the president despite of the Democratic Party, protesting strongly against his promise of reducing greenhouse gases. Once America slows its steps on this issue, there will be little to influence the happenings in Copenhagen this year.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

抽象思维是令人烦恼的

虽然对于作者政治与科学的观点,他的说法是比较抽象的。在上下文中,美国政治家对他们各自组分进步的观点需要发表演说.只有他们的组分要求环保生活,政治家就往作者评论的破坏性的路一直走。
(Translated by Braden Latham-Jones.)

Abstract Thinking Troublesome

Notwithstanding the author's point relative to politics and science, he seems to be speaking in abstract. In context, US politicians must address issues relative to their respective constituents' perception of progress. Until their constituents demand a reduction of life-style to save our dear planet, politicians will continue down the destructive path noted by the author.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

制约与平衡

每一个政治体系都会有权力的制约和平衡,甚至在中国。在美国我们看到这种权利制约与平衡是合理的。在中国,政府面临的压力来自地方政府,商业,各种关于社会稳定的担忧,但是这种制约与平衡没有像美国那么明显。

本评论由陈丽英翻译。

check and balance

Every political system has checks and balances, even China. It's just that in the US you can see them. In China the government gets pressure from the provinces, from business, from all kinds of worries about social stability, but they are not as visible as in the United States