Climate science and politics – where two worlds collide

Last week the UK’s former chief climate diplomat John Ashton addressed scientists at the UK’s Meteorological Office. The speech was called Climate Change and Politics: Surviving the Collision.

In it Ashton argues that it is in scientists best interests to actively communicate their findings – but under certain conditions.

You can read an extract below – or download the full speech at the bottom of this page.


Speech by John Ashton at the Met Office, Exeter, 11 April 2013

Everyone is entitled to a view about 2°C or any other aspect of the debate. But the message from analysis is that there is no technology reason why we should not give ourselves a fighting chance of keeping within 2°C.

My view, which also has no special authority, is that we can do it if we can find the will to embark on Plan A, to treat this problem as Promethean, Imperative, Transformational and Urgent. We must do the politics, not just observe the politics.

Here are a few suggestions about how you can contribute to reality-based politics on climate, without straying into crude advocacy or otherwise sacrificing your values.

First, as I said, distinguish between where you have professional authority and where you do not. Never cloak a political judgement in the mantle of a scientific one.

Second, always put scientific integrity first. Never say anything that you could not substantiate, not just in a newspaper but among your peers. Simplify as far as possible but never oversimplify. What you say should be compelling, not necessarily simple. Life is complicated and people know that.

Never of course exaggerate. This dossier does not need sexing up. But integrity also means calling things as you see them. Never tone down a statement that has a scientific basis for fear that it will be too shocking. That just helps those who want plan B and in the end undermines your authority.

Third, always speak with clarity. Use language that reaches people. Make it easy for them to place what you say in narratives that resonate with them, to derive meaning from the information you give them.

Fourth, show transparency in the conduct and presentation of scientific findings. You have nothing to hide – so don’t allow anyone to claim that you are hiding something.

Fifth, speak with confidence. Don’t let your opponents make you sound defensive, as some try constantly to do, because it serves their “disputed science” narrative. The stronger the appearance of dispute, the weaker the impulse to act.

The Met Office CET dataset is the longest instrumental record of temperature in the world – the mean daily data series begins in 1772 (Pic: Met Office)

Authority, integrity, clarity, transparency, confidence. All five qualities must be audible in your voice. But there are deeper preconditions for making sure that they are. Here are three.

First, get on the front foot sometimes. Don’t be imprisoned on ground where it helps your opponents to conduct the debate.

Is the apparent “hiatus” in the rise of global mean temperature a sign that your theory might be wrong? Or should it make us even more concerned about climate change?

Wouldn’t we have more reason to hesitate if the temperature curve just kept rising smoothly? Episodes of this kind are a feature of your models, and this one is surely signalling that the theory is strong not weak. Moreover, the consequences of climate change could still be catastrophic if the climate sensitivity were zero, as the global mean smooths out local departures.

The Office for Budgetary Responsibility often has to explain why growth in the latest cycle turned out to be slower than it had forecast. It does so with admirable nonchalance.

The theory and the modeling it draws on are less rigorous than yours, but no newspapers call for a rethink. It seems to me you could – you should – an powerful intellectual challenge to that community, drawing on what you know about complex systems and how to model them.

Second, be aware that what you say will be heard and responded to not scientifically but politically. You are after all reaching across the interface between science and politics, between the world of knowledge and the world of choice.

So if you want to have the impact you intend, make an effort to map the landscape on the other side of the interface.

Don’t just say “that’s politics”. Don’t call for policy responses that may seem sensible to you without first trying to understand what impact your calling for them might make on the politics of climate change. Otherwise your intervention could be counterproductive.

Politics has different rules from science – it’s a different realm of discourse – but these are not mysterious.

Sometimes the same word,  “uncertainty” for example, means different things on either side of the interface. There are different criteria of truth, and different values.

It is not understood in the world of politics that scepticism is a core value for you, that if you are not the sharpest critic of your own conjectures you are not a good scientist.

Of course, your opponents know that in public debate you have to play by certain rules as scientists – rules they do not have to observe. Some try to make you so frustrated that you break your own rules. Never satisfy them.

Third, most important, attend to what climate change means for your foundation, the social contract on which the scientific endeavor is based.

Collision Speech by John Ashton to the UK Met Office April 2013

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