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To Tackle Climate Change, Can We Separate Science from Politics?

Can we separate science from politics in order to head off the worst impacts of climate change? How?

by Countable | 12.13.18

This year’s annual United Nations climate change talks are drawing to a close, and politics and science have once again clashed amidst global efforts to head off the worst impacts of a warming planet.

A heated debate over whether the parties “welcomed” or “noted” a landmark climate change study couldn’t be resolved. Ultimately, the parties failed to endorse a major scientific report they had commissioned themselves.

Is there a better way?

As the topic of climate change continues to be politicized, thereby stymieing meaningful action at a policy level, some scientists point out that it’s because the science and politics of climate change have become unhelpfully and even dangerously intertwined.

Chuck Watson, a geophysicist who’s been involved in climate change research and policy since the mid-1990s, recently wrote a piece outlining the hazards of conflating science and politics. In it, he reminds us of the three essential questions to ask about any major challenge:

  1. What are the facts? In this case, what’s the climate doing, why is it doing it, and what is it likely to do in the future?
  2. What are the potential implications and impacts?
  3. Given the likely impacts, what (if anything) should we do about it?

Watson notes that the first two questions deal purely in science, and the third is mostly a policy matter:

“In my not so humble opinion, one key problem is the current system tries to do all three in a single process… Another key problem is that because the ‘left’ … has fully taken up the cause because it fits with their worldview, and allows many of their agenda points to be pressed under the rubric of ‘doing something,’ even if those things wouldn’t really do much about the underlying problem. Likewise, much of the opposition on the ‘right’ … is based more on a reaction to the policy proposals of the ‘left,’ and the false concept that anthropogenic climate change is a fake issue to promote those policies.”

Watson provides a quick primer on climate science that’s well worth reading, but the highlights are these:

  • Human activities are causing ahistorical, unnatural changes in both weather and climate, and those changes are increasing.
  • The best science indicates that there are and will be increasingly negative impacts for both humans and the natural world.

Watson believes that the existing international approach to climate change, embodied by the United Nations conference that’s currently underway, doesn’t work, precisely because the science and the politics are too entangled. He notes that as a scientist, he doesn’t really know how to fix the political process to make it work better. Somberly, he concludes:

“But I know for sure we are headed for some really bad times ahead if we don’t. It’s a pretty planet, with amazing places and wonderful people. Let’s figure out a way to not screw it up…”

What do you think?

Can we separate science from politics to tackle climate change risk? How? Tell your reps what you think, then share your thoughts below.

—Sara E. Murphy

(Photo Credit: NASA / Public Domain)


Written by Countable

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