My fiancee Kate (a computer scientist) and I often have long rambling debates about the nature of science. She believes that good science should lead to good policy – and therefore change - and that this is a simple and obvious progression. She becomes enraged when this is not the case. I see the logic in this argument, but believe that the link between science and policy can never be that easy. I believe that they are so inextricably entangled that it is sometimes impossible to distinguish them.
Here, I am going to step into the world of climate change. It is a) possibly the most complicated example I can think of (!) and b) it is a topic that we are both familiar with and debate over often.
Argument 1 – The Communication of Uncertainty
The main scientific reference points for those engaging with climate change policy are the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesis reports (see here). Much of the science represented in these reports is based upon climate modelling, which is based on several sources of predictability that exist within the climate system – Milankovitch cycles, for example. However, predictions can never be made with 100% accuracy because the climate is a chaotic system. Global climate oscillations like ‘the El Nino affect’ (more correctly known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO)) cannot be predicted. When creating a climate model, this means that any single set of conditions put into a model may produce a wide range of different outcomes.
Now, it took me quite a long time to make the above as short and simple as possible. It still contains links to systems explanations which I felt were beyond the limits of this argument, and I feel that I have not done the problem justice, or come anywhere near to it. The more detailed information presented in the IPCC report consists of 4 volumes. As a politician attempting to understand all of the implications and inaccuracies of climate science and synthesizing them into a message to convey quickly and effectively to parliament and the general public, I would be extremely daunted.
Luckily, the IPCC has produced the synthesis report – a 104 page document crammed with single sentence summaries of each chapter of the longer document. In an attempt to present uncertainty in a non-subjective way without going into details about statistics and chaotic climatic processes, it frames statements of uncertainty using pre-defined terminology and percentages: ‘There is an 85% probability that the frequency of droughts will not increase’; ‘It is likely that heat waves have become more frequent.’ (IPCC, 2007). These statements, however, can be interpreted in different ways according to the context in which they are read. To over-simplify, take the difference between these two hypothetical neighbours: ‘Ooh, good, more heat waves! That will make summers much nicer’; ‘Aargh! Heat waves! Not more hosepipe bans!’.
By reading just the synthesis report, politicians have created a false confidence in the abilities of the IPCC to predict the future. Take, for example, the idea of climate stabilisation. The concept that there is a measurable target for CO2 emission reductions that can be derived from a maximum acceptable increase in global temperature has been grasped by policymakers, who rely on the IPCC to model what the target should be. In fact, the upper limit on climate stabilisation is often described by scientists as the ‘holy grail’, since the uncertainty in the system is so great that, in reality, it may be the case that no upper limit exists (Allen and Frame, 2007). As a result of miscommunication, climate science is now being driven by the political pressure to find the holy grail. Science and policy have thus, in some cases, been co-produced, and, due to the complexities and uncertainties within climatology, there is no direct link between science and policy.
Argument 2 – The Precautionary Principle and Differing Priorities
So, what happens to policy decisions when science cannot provide an accurate answer? Should we prepare for the worst, or assume the best and make sacrifices to climate change policy in favour of other political priorities? In these cases, governments are encouraged to follow the Precautionary Principle, outlined by the United Nations in the 1992 Rio Declaration :’ Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’ As discussed above, science is not able to define the levels of CO2 emissions that are classed as ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference.’ The interpretation of the Precautionary Principle in this case therefore varies wildly across the world. For example, sea level rises that are considered acceptable to the US may not be acceptable to island sites like the Maldives. Furthermore, the action taken by a state in the face of ‘lack of scientific certainty’ may depend on whether they believe that scientific certainty may be provided in the future or not (Gollier et al, 2000).
Furthermore, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the main document on climate change policies – differs from the IPCC in its definition of climate change. It includes only anthropogenic influences on climate change, ignoring all natural forces. This reflects the fact that climate change policy is focused on anthropogenic needs rather than purely on scientific predictions. This adds a new slant to policy making before it has begun. For example, the interpretation of the Precautionary Principle within the UNFCCC iis flawed because, due to its definition of Climate Change, it is unable to realise that the most cost effective management strategy for climate change may be adaption.
It is clear from this example that there is not always a direct link between science and policy. The uncertainty within climate science produces numerous different interpretations of both the science itself and the policy which is created from it. In some cases, this policy is then fed directly back into the science itself, requesting answers to specific questions which may divert the course of the investigation. It seems to me that science and policy are, more often than not, co-produced. Scientists act as policy advocates and political agendas guide their research and funding. And this is not true solely of climate change. There are numerous other environmental problems for which science alone cannot produce the answer.