Politics of climate expertise

by Judith Curry

“Concerning the inability of expert knowledge to resolve environmental controversy and the pressing need for a pragmatic reframing of policy problems to allow for solutions based on bipartisan values.”

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on this topic.  A new paper by Peter Tangney hits the ‘sweet spot’ and provides some fresh insights into the ‘climate wars.’.

Peter Tangney (2018): Between conflation and denial – the politics of climate expertise in Australia, Australian Journal of Political Science, https://doi.org/10.1080/10361146.2018.1551482

It’s behind paywall, so here are some excerpts:

“This paper describes an ongoing tension between alternative uses of expert knowledge that unwittingly combines facts with values in ways that inflame polarised climate change debate. Climate politics indicates a need for experts to disentangle disputed facts from identity-defining group commitments.”

“Political deployment of expert knowledge by the climate science community has perpetuated expectations that climate science can (if not now, then in the future) predict the future impacts from, and therefore optimise policy solutions to this problem, while filling a deficit of understanding to resolve public conflict. Climate models cannot provide decision-robust predictions with the reliability and specificity generally expected to prescribe optimal policy. Even if they were possible, providing this evidence is unlikely to resolve climate politics, given its polarising connotations for present and future socio-culture and economy. Moreover, climate science is only one part of the evidence-base needed to inform both the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.”

What is climate science for?

“In liberal democracy, we generally expect that experts and expert knowledge should be given some privileged status in public decision-making to temper political values. Yet, even when expertise is explicitly embraced, it can be manipulated for political ends.”

“The political use of climate science for the purposes of agenda-setting is employed to bolster advocacy groups’ strategic positions concerning whether and (broadly) how to act on climate change in the first place. In this role, climate science and expertise needs, at a minimum, to be sufficiently credible to promote the argument that climate change hazards exist and that humans are causing it. Alternatively, skeptics may employ political science use to highlight intractable climate change uncertainties.”

“Until strategic political debates concerning the legitimacy of a policy problem have been largely settled, the willingness of policymakers to instrumentally use science to direct the content and implementation of specific policies at local and regional scales, is necessarily limited.”

Conflating evidence with expert judgment

“A significant difficulty with climate change communication is that understandings about its existence and severity are significantly more nuanced than a binary choice between belief in, or denial of, the ‘truth’. Climate scientists nonetheless often deliver expert judgment in ways that perpetuate this unhelpful dichotomy. When answering questions like: what is dangerous climate change? scientists’ messages about impending disaster and expert consensus exemplify the importance of often-implicit normative positions underpinning scientific judgment.”

“There is no truly objective determination of the level at which climate change becomes dangerous, of the corresponding likelihood of that amount of change occurring, or how we should compare this risk with others. Climate scientists’ risk interpretations, therefore, contain inevitable normative components rarely acknowledged. When high profile scientists and advocates cast the problem as a noble struggle between truth and ideology,  they presuppose that the evidence for impending disaster and the need for urgent policy responses, speaks for itself.”

“What climate change means, however, depends upon what one values.”

Can consensus compromise scientific authority?

“Perhaps due to the lack of traction arising from the political use and poor instrumental usability of climate science in recent years, scientists and their supporters have sought to reinforce their expert authority in ways that do not lean so heavily on the available evidence per se, and more upon their consensus views relating to the existential threat posed by climate change.”

“Although scientists might wish to be considered apolitical agents for the promotion of objective knowledge and revealed moral truths concerning climate change risks, sceptics argue that undue emphasis upon consensus makes scientists vulnerable to epistemologically significant claims that they are no longer performing as a scientifically-healthy community.

“For conservative opponents, the suspected politicisation of expert judgment through consensus messaging provides one more good reason to ignore climate science, and to walk away from substantive deliberation on, or commitment toward, climate change policy.”

“Undue emphasis upon climate disaster and expert consensus may be harmful to the credibility and bipartisan acceptability of the climate science community as privileged expert advisors.”

How should climate experts promote their authority in policy decision-making?

“In the absence of some calamitous event that might cement political opinion in favour of a rapid policy paradigm shift, climate scientists must now accept that their arguments concerning climate change risk and the value of climate change science and expert consensus are unlikely to win sustained bipartisan support for substantive policy action. Direct climate change policies have largely failed and may never achieve lasting bipartisan success. Nonetheless, [there are] bipartisan aspirations for resilient society, environment, and robust rural and urban economies.”

“In this context, the most intuitively appealing rhetoric from experts is actually counterproductive. Climate scientists are well advised to stand back from political uses of science and allow others to appeal to what communication theorists refer to as ‘gain- frame advantage’.”

“Although climate change does indeed present a risk magnifier, it is one that can be subsumed in large part within existing bipartisan priorities for robust disaster risk management, infrastructure planning and enhanced resilience to chronic and acute climate extremes. Under the branding of ‘adaptation science’, climate science is an aid for exploratory scenario planning, vulnerability reduction and the enhancement of climate resilience, both now and for the future.”


“It is now well recognised internationally that expert authority is unlikely to be politically incisive if experts tacitly subsume contested political values and priorities within their privileged judgment. I propose that the rhetoric of climate change prediction, risk, disaster and expert consensus has reached its useful end.”

“Politically astute scientists would do well to limit their promotion of climate models as the principal means to rationally optimise policymaking. Instead, they should highlight the applications of climate science for enhancing climate resilience. Meanwhile advocates from a broader range of disciplines should focus on presenting a business case to government about the economic and social advantages of clean energy innovation. Renewable energy policies must now target conservatives’ aspirations for jobs, economic prosperity and healthy local environments; all the ancillary benefits we should expect from a well-planned transition to environmental sustainability.”

JC reflections

Given the publication of the U.S. National Climate Assessment almost two weeks ago, and the massive amount of publicity that the authors and the usual advocates  have received, it is worth reflecting on why political and public support for the Paris agreement actually seems to be declining.  Peter Tangney’s paper provides some insights and recommendations for the way forward that are aligned with the Hartwell Paper.


via Climate Etc.


December 3, 2018 at 03:36PM

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