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Climate politics: hockey-stick to hamster-wheel

The containment of greenhouse-gas emissions requires political will. But to get to that point the debate about global warming needs to escape from two key diversions, says Øyvind Paasche. 


In her opening speech at the International Polar Year (IPY) conference held in Montreal on 22-27 April 2012, Norway's former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland reminded the several thousand attendees of the importance of the Kyoto protocol on climate change. "Global emissions are steadily increasing", she said. "In 2010, the emission of greenhouse gases was at its highest level ever. We must therefore continue to encourage action by all countries and build the basis for a new global regime."

In making this point Gro Harlem Brundtland, who served as special envoy on climate change to the United National secretary-general from 2007-10, and was director of the World Health Organisation from 1998-2003, was doing something quite familiar: looking to a past achievement for inspiration in order to offer hope for the future - but at the same time, failing to explain why we are not making any noteworthy progress now. In fact, the growing emissions of greenhouse-gases are evidence, if anything, for the case that climate-change action is going backwards. So crossing our fingers, closing our eyes and hoping for the best is not exactly the roadmap we need.

Harlem Brundtland also stated: "Bringing science to bear on public policy, and thereby enabling more sound political choices, has always been very important to me: We need to build on evidence."

To highlight missing evidence or insufficient data, and to use this to explain a lack of action, is something we all do from time to time. But data that document climate change are abundant. There is plenty to build on. It is political action to halt the emission of greenhouse-gases that sadly remains in short supply.

Another recurring explanation for stalled movement in climate policy is that scientists themselves are to blame. A January 2012 editorial in Nature, the world’s most renowned scientific journal, was introduced with the words: "Where political leadership on climate change is lacking, scientists must be prepared to stick their heads above the parapet." As the column went on to discuss, anyone trying to do just that runs the risk of being shot down - an experience that has become not wholly uncommon within the scientific community. Yet the editorial insists: "In the face of climate-change contrarians and denialists, some of them with political clout and voices amplified by the media, climate scientists must be even more energetic in taking their message to citizens."

In the context of recent tendencies in the politics of climate change, the view that more data are needed or the call for scientists to become more active in public discussion are in my view diversions from real understanding.

The path to public scrutiny

In 1975, an exceptionally talented climate scientist from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) in New York called Wallace S Broecker wrote a prophetic letter to another well-known journal, Science. The letter, entitled "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Warming?", is arguably one of the first public-outreach efforts made by climate researchers to draw attention to the case for global warming as a result of increased levels of atmospheric CO2.

Wally Broecker's publication stimulated and encouraged other scientists (albeit indirectly) to engage in what seemed to be a political issue, as well as a scientific one, that could only grow in importance. Yet it was only at the very end of the 1990s that climate change was lifted into the global limelight - the point at which the policy response took a new turn.

In 1998, three scientists - Michael E Mann, Raymond S Bradley and Malcolm K Hughes - published a seminal paper showing just how anomalous the recent temperature development had been in the context of the last 600 years (the graph depicting this trend was later famously referred to as the "hockey-stick"). The paper, and the results, immediately became the focus of public attention. They were widely discussed and ferociously attacked. The graph itself was a "red rag" that vexed all sorts of people - and the anger it provoked was typically directed towards the scientists behind it! The sheer scale of the onslaught, ranging from widespread web-slander to the scorn of high-profiled politicians targeted at individual scientists, surprised both researchers within the community and non-academics.

More worryingly, the aggression directed towards the hockey-stick (read: climate science) created an unhealthy precedent for how the public, and in particularly the webworld, viewed and criticised scientists and their science. Regardless of the steady progress made by climate researchers in the ensuing decade, the bellicosity towards them continued and even grew.

In 2005, the Texas congressman Joe L Barton, head of the House of Representatives' committee on energy and commerce, led an inquiry that assailed the scientists behind the hockey-stick. In the aftermath, it seems clear that the only purpose was to undermine climate science, and perhaps hinder the scientists from carrying out their basic research. In 2010, the Oklahoma senator James Inhofe resumed the campaign against the United States's science community, and called for a criminal investigation of some established climate researchers.

Two of the three authors of the hockey-stick paper have published books which recount the personal and and professional consequences of their decision to "stick their head above the parapet". The experience of reading Raymond Bradley's Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down on Scientists As the Earth Heated Up and Michael Mann's The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines is troubling, and - especially for future generations of climate researchers eager to engage in public debate - likely to be discouraging.

Between science and politics

The crash-encounter with media can be startling, especially for researchers used to spending long periods in the splendid isolation of the office, laboratory or fieldwork. Two scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), Phil Jones and Keith Briffa, were both stigmatised following the hacking and circulation of their email accounts in 2009. When researchers are publicly victimised for being involved in climate science, the warning-bells should ring with stakeholders and politicians alike.

In these circumstances, to demand that climate researchers should devote their time to engaging in public debate is perhaps asking too much. More importantly, it is (like the missing-evidence argument) a distraction. True, it is a good thing when scientists get involved in public debate, but this cannot substitute for political action.

"From knowledge to action" was the catchy slogan of the International Polar Year's conference in Montreal. But knowledge needs to be put to good use, not wasted. How do you create and maintain an organisation that is able to involve people in helping to transform knowledge into political action on a local, national and global scale? In the case of climate change, such an organisation must take care not to compromise the climate science which is its foundation and which it seeks in the first place to mobilise.

If information alone was enough to press governments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions then there would have been sound progress by now. But that is not happening, nor is there any indication that the situation is likely to improve in the years to come.

At present, the climate debate is caught in a hamster-wheel, where it spins at impressive speed and with unswerving energy - but goes nowhere! There is mounting evidence to suggest that we are indeed heading towards a future where climate change will exert a great, varied and in some ways critical impact on societies. Instead of acknowledging that, however, participants are busy arguing that we need more data and that scientists need to become more engaged in an already impotent argument. Only when we climate scientists and advocates escape from the hamster-wheel and recognise that it is not the way forward, can the logjam of political action be broken.

About the author

Øyvind Paasche is the leader of the Bergen Marine Research Cluster, Norway and chair of research at the University of the Arctic

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Øyvind Paasche is the director-leader of the Bergen Marine Research Cluster, Norway and vice-chair for research at the University of the Arctic

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