Where Science Meets Politics

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, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Peter Bjerregaard


In Italy six seismologists have just been convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people in the Italian city L'Aquila. The verdict is interesting for several reasons. It presupposes that scientists have the ability not only to look through the Earth's crust but to look into the future. But what would happen if a group of scientists -- for example the UN Climate Panel -- actually gave unambiguous forecasts of impending catastrophes and no political action was taken? Would scientists be able to accuse politicians of neglecting their responsibilities? Probably not. Nevertheless, this is the situation within the area of climate change.

Prior to the Rio+20 world summit, which took place in Rio de Janeiro this past summer, scientists stressed the urgency of the situation. "We are running out of time," said Yuan Tseh Lee, president of the International Council for Science, which represents academic institutions in 140 countries. "We need real leadership, practical solutions, and concrete action to set our world on a sustainable path." He also said, "Scientific evidence shows convincingly that our way of development is undermining the resilience of our planet." However, the result of the summit was not a political agreement reflecting the scientific community's call for change but an agreement that reflected what was politically feasible.

It probably doesn't come as a surprise that political action often lacks behind scientific recommendations, but it should inspire reflection when scientists consider the lack of communication between the scientific community and politicians to be one of the most pressing issues of this century. This point became evident earlier this year when the UN released the report "21 Issues for the 21st Century," in which where scientists cited the communication deficit between politics and science as one of the most important issues of the 21st century, on par with ensuring food security for 9 billion people.

 

The Summer of 1941

 One of the first serious attempts to build a bridge between politics and science took place in 1941 at the Royal Institution in London. Despite being only a 90-minute flight distance from Nazi bombers, the world's leading scientists, Nobel Prize winners, allied politicians and ambassadors from more than 20 different countries came together under the title "Science and World Order" to formulate a plan for how the world should be organized after the war.

The main message from the conference was that politics and science should be closely aligned, with political decisions being based on the best available knowledge. However, knowing that this would not happen by itself, the participants of the conference also warned that good intentions would not be enough. Taking the next step of fostering the scientific spirit in governments and people would be necessary. Consider the postscript from the summit: No one would think of putting a minister at the controls of a bomber and expect him to pilot it successfully without any previous training. The situation is really the same with regard to the utilisation of the theories and facts of science. It does not follow that because many of these can be dealt with by scientifically trained persons sitting at a desk, they can be dealt with by anyone sitting at a desk.

The conference also brought about other, more concrete recommendations. Some of these were that the world economy be based on renewable resources. Fossil fuels were regarded as a short-sighted solution for the energy demand and it recommended that we use North African deserts, for example, as a great center of electricity generation, something a European consortium decided to invest in only a couple of years ago. And here lies an important point. Even though the recommendations from 1941 were crystal clear, the lack of political will and economics incentives meant approximately 70 years of freeze in the technological development. The exact same technologies that we today speak of as new green technologies and view as opportunities for jobs and growth can just as must be seen as a historic example of unnecessarily slow technological development.

 

The Persistent Reality Gap
To comprehend the current discrepancy between science and politics, compare their respective agendas. For example, consider what is on the agenda among geologists and biologists.

While the agenda-setting issues in the general public currently revolve around the fiscal cliff, taxes and the lack of jobs, geologists are discussing whether we are entering a new epoch. It is the job of geologists to understand and categorize the different time periods on Earth, and this is specifically the job of the good folks at the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which has the trusted task of naming the different time periods, such as the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. As a result of climatic changes the last couple of decades, they are now examining whether we actually are in a new period. (The current epoch is called the Holocene and represents the last 12,000 years of stable conditions.)

The argument is that human activity can be detected geologically, with the exploitation of fossil fuels and other natural resources changing most of the natural processes (the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, ocean acidification, etc.), and to such a great extent that humans have to be recognized as a geological force in itself. In the last decade the discussion has mainly been limited to scientific journals, but it is now beginning to seep into the mainstream media. The proposed name for the new era is the Anthropocene, the age of man.

Biologists find themselves in a similar situation. There have been five mass extinctions in the last 540 million years, but due to a dramatic loss of biodiversity, biologists now think we might be in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. The current speed of species dying is estimated to be faster than the period when the dinosaurs died off. However, this issue is still far from taking a serious place on the political agenda.

So what should be done? What can we as citizens do? At the Rio+20 conference this past summer, one situation left the greatest impression on me. On the last day of the conference, Chinese career diplomat Mr. Sha Zukang, who had been assigned the role of Secretary-General during the negations and the conference, spoke in an unusually candid manner, which might have had something to do with the fact that he was about to retire. In any case, at the last press conference he took off the diplomatic gloves.

"I can be honest now, 'cause I'll leave the UN in a couple of days," he started. "We have heard so many commitments from different governments. Lately in Copenhagen [in 2009] -- do you remember your commitment? Ask the governments if they have lived up to their commitments. Ask them! Nobody forced you to make commitments. But why don't you comply with your commitments? It's voluntary, but you voluntarily lied to your people, because you're not honoring them." At this point, the main press room was filled with a staggering silence and surprise at the sudden outburst of sincere anger and frustration from this top diplomat. "But before I end," Zukang continued, "I would like to explain the difference between a commitment and good intentions. One word: accountability." He concluded, "That is why you ask the ones giving commitments to make objectives with dates and evaluations regarding the progress."

In a nutshell, this is what it's all about. When UN climate chief Christiana Figueres told reporters earlier this week that the main source of frustration for her was "the fact that we are very far behind what science tells us we should be doing," it also reflects a much larger democratic problem. We need to get better at holding our representatives accountable on their understanding of scientific facts and insights, or at the very least on their promises.

 

Also published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-bjerregaard/where-science-meets-politics_b_2234217.html