The inevitable politics of climate science (part 2)

In my previous post, I gave several reasons why a blanket condemnation of climate scientists for publicly staking out positions on climate policies seems unwise. Scientists don’t have all the answers, but they have perspectives that deserve to be aired at least as much as those representing other social, economic, and political concerns. Climate researchers may be wary of getting mixed up too much in politics, but unfortunately, politic significance is so pervasive when it comes to the issue of global warming that avoiding it is all but impossible.

What I promised to address this time was the idea that the climate debate was politicized long before scientists came to it. As evidence, I’ll offer an excerpt from a Storify I compiled last year to recap the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s conference on “Science Writing in the Age of Denial.” At one session, speakers historian Naomi Oreskes, journalist Bill Blakemore, and researchers Nancy Langston and Steve Ackerman traced the the long, deep, political and psychological roots of climate change denial. Here are some of the highlights.

(After the Storify, I have a postscript that may also be worth reading.)

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s 2012 conference on “Science Writing in the Age of Denial,” speakers traced the the long, deep, political and psychological roots of climate change denial.

In closing, let me elaborate on Steve Ackerman’s recommendation that researchers speak out honestly as scientists and not as politicians. I didn’t think that he had meant scientists should avoid commenting on policy, but it has been more than a year since I’d heard him, so it seemed wise to make sure. Here was his email response (quoted with permission):

I think scientists must be advocates of good science and the appropriate employment of science in decision-making. This requires scientific awareness, something we need also advocate for.  I don’t think one needs to ‘stick to the science’ to be viewed as an ‘honest broker’. I think it is honesty that gets you the ‘honest broker’ reputation.

On the one hand, I don’t think it wise to advocate prescriptive policies as solutions to complex political and scientific problems. But, I think it appropriate when scientists advocate against prescriptive policies that are based on incorrect science – as long as they do it honestly.  In order to advocate for the employment of science in decision-making, we sometimes need to demonstrate that through engagement in the political process.

… The perception of an ‘honest voice’ is not something you gain by engaging in a climate policy discussion or through avoiding such encounters or through acting neutral. It is something a scientist earns through open, truthful and genuine debate.

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