by Judith Curry
In which wicked scientists are the good guys.
Activism by climate scientists has been the topic of numerous prior blog posts at Climate Etc. Such activism is generally focused on eliminating fossil fuels. This post presents a new framing for the activism issue. While many scientists prefer to remain in the ivory tower, others desire to engage in the messiness of politics and policy making. Why most scientists reject admonitions to “stay in their lane,” there are more and less useful ways for scientists to engage with politics.
Simpleton climate scientists
I’m defining ‘simpleton climate scientists’ to be academics, mostly in disciplines that are far afield from the core discipline of climate dynamics, who think that both the climate problem and its solutions are simple. Their preferred modes of activism are twitter rants, demonstrations and increasingly civil disobedience.
The issue of simpleton scientists was brought to the forefront last week by a publication in Nature Climate Change entitled Civil disobedience by scientists helps press for urgent climate action. The authors are faculty members in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Cardiff:
- Stuart Capstick, psychologist
- Aaron Thierry, social scientist
- Emily Cox, psychologist
- Oscar Berglund, policy studies (U. of Bristol)
- Steve Westlake, psychologist
- Julia Steinberger, geography (U. of Lausanne)
The Nature article is behind paywall, but a Guardian article interviews the authors. It is clear that this is not just a scholarly article on civil disobedience. The quote that really popped out for me was by Berglund:
“We have a kind of what we call epistemic authority here: people listen to what we are saying, as scientists, and it becomes a way of showing how serious the situation is, that we see ourselves forced to go to these lengths.”
Since when do psychologists have epistemic authority to speak on climate change, its impacts and relevant policies?
Inside Climate News has another choice quote from the actual paper:
“Civil disobedience by scientists has the potential to cut through the myriad complexities and confusion surrounding the climate crisis.”
Ya think? Is this all it takes?
Also cited in this article is a statement from Peter Kalmus:
Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, agrees. In April, Kalmus was arrested for locking himself to the front door of a JPMorgan Chase bank branch and has since urged other scientists to join him in protest, saying it’s their duty as experts to convey the weight of their findings to the public and convince elected officials to take proper recourse.
“For the sake of our children, for the sake of the future of humanity,” Kalmus said, “you have a responsibility to do everything you can to get that information out there.”
Exactly how does civil disobedience get meaningful information out there? These scientists seem to be taking their cues from Michael Mann’s book for children entitled The Tantrum That Saved the World
Kalmus told me that he’s “disappointed” that, so far, fewer scientists than he had hoped have joined in his call to action, but he sees Monday’s article as a positive sign and believes more researchers will join the movement—especially as extreme weather and other consequences of global warming accelerate in scope and severity.
Have any of these climate scientists actually read the IPCC AR6?
So why haven’t more climate scientists joined this call to action? Maybe because they find this kind of behavior embarrassing and counterproductive.
More credible approaches to climate activism
Jim Hansen was probably the first high-profile climate activist. Has anyone ever heard Hansen claim “epistemic authority” to speak publicly on climate change? Of course not. Hansen doesn’t need to claim such authority – he has it. Hansen has worked assiduously to communicate with public. He has done the hard work to understand the economics and politics of carbon pricing and also nuclear power. He has worked closely with policy makers, most famously with Al Gore. Have some of his actions been over-the-top? Yes. Whether or not you agree with Hansen, it is undeniable that he has been effective in the political and policy arenas. Hansen is now in his 80’s, it would be interesting for him to write an essay that reflects on his activism, what worked and what didn’t, any general or specific regrets, and recommendations for current activists.
I am not sure what sort of activism will be most effective to bring about transformative change. I certainly cannot speak to where you will be most effective in your activism. Those who do have political influence – real influence – should recognise what a rare commodity that is; they should neither casually discard it nor should they waste it. The climate movement must be a thriving mosaic of approaches, with each leveraging the successes of the others to increase cultural, popular or political capital and drive a Just Transformation.
We must find what activism is most effective, is most genuine, for each of us – but be self-critical when doing so. Some of us DO need to engage governments, some of us must be IN government. But let us not be complicit in our own deception. After all, engaging politicians is difficult but activism is hard. You sacrifice more than your time, but also your reputation, job prospects, even your freedom. Sometimes the logical choice is the right choice; sometimes it is just the easy choice.
But you do have to make a choice. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot be the vizier to the king as well as the court jester. We cannot participate in civil disobedience and still serve on government advisory boards.
Activist scientists must also be humble and remember that we are not experts on what is effective. We did not know what would be effective when we allowed ourselves to be bound by others´ rules of engagement, when we allowed ourselves to be captured by governments and by extension the lobbyists and special interests who influence them. Because we are not experts on how policy is made, we were tricked. So perhaps rather than deciding who and how to engage, we should join those who do know.
Finally and most importantly, I would urge you to consider that maybe we should stop partnering with governments and start partnering with communities. “
Pangost’s essay reflects scientists attempting to work constructively with policy makers, planners and stakeholders, primarily on the issue of mitigation (reduction of CO2 emissions) and associated societal changes. There are clearly frustrations, but this approach is far more effective than simpleton tantrums.
And finally we come to wicked scientists. As I have written in multiple previous posts, a wicked problem is characterized by multiple problem definitions, contentious methods of understanding, chronic conditions of ignorance, and lack of capacity to imagine future eventualities of both the problem and the proposed solutions. The complex web of causality may result in surprising unintended consequences of attempted solutions that generate new vulnerabilities or exacerbate the original harm. Further, wickedness makes it difficult to identify points of irrefutable failure or success in either the science or the policies. Wicked problems are both complex and political.
Although much has been written about wicked problems and the need to address them, there is not much in the way of guidance for effectively tackling wicked problems. Two recent articles have addressed this issue:
“Wicked science” is a process that is tailored to the dual scientific and political natures of wicked societal problems. As such, wicked science is massively transdisciplinary, including natural sciences and engineering along with social sciences and humanities. Wicked science uses approaches from complexity science and systems thinking in a context that engages with the political roles and perspectives of decision makers, planners and other stakeholders. Wicked problems and the strategies devised to address them cannot be deﬁned by scientiﬁc experts alone, but include the experiential and operational knowledge of a range of stakeholders.
Two recent papers by atmospheric/climate scientists have articulated something similar to wicked science for the climate sciences, that notably focus more on adaptation than mitigation.
Adam Sobel’s paper “Usable climate science is adaptation science” emphasizes that the localness of adaptation implies much greater uncertainty in the relevant climate science. Climate science for adaptation is more about characterizing uncertainty for robust decision making. Usable climate science requires that scientists engage in co-production of usable science with stakeholders, with a willingness to learn to understand how the human factors are manifest in a particular setting.
Regina Rodrigues and Ted Shepherd’s paper entitled “Small is beautiful: climate-change science as if people mattered” addresses strategies for grappling with the complexity of local situations. The strategies include expressing climate knowledge in conditional form in terms of scenarios developed via the storyline approach, and working with local communities to make sense of their own situations.
Combining and integrating knowledge from diverse disciplines and other sources to provide insights, explanations and solutions to wicked problems is a substantial challenge. For the solution orientation of wicked science to be meaningful, we need an overarching philosophy for navigating wicked problems. We need to acknowledge that control is limited, the future is unknown, and it is difficult to determine whether the impact you make will be positive. We need to accept that climate change will continue to disrupt natural systems and human wellbeing; this acknowledgement helps avoid the urgency trap. By acknowledging that there is no road back, we can focus on the road ahead.
Wicked scientists are willing to become embroiled in political debates and thorny social problems. As such, wicked scientists are not activists that are advocating for a preferred political/policy solution and recognize the reality of political disagreement as a key aspect for dealing with wicked problems.
Wicked scientists are needed to break the hegemony of disciplinary researchers, particularly those who are strident political activists, as being regarded as experts for solutions to the wicked problem of climate change. While the IPCC has operated via a loose cooperation between multiple disciplines, genuine transdisciplinary understanding and collaborations, across disciplines and with a broad range of stakeholders, is needed for meaningful contributions to wicked problems.
Some universities are starting to grapple with how to train wicked scientists. Working in the private weather/climate services sector provides a crash course in being a wicked scientist, in terms of becoming conversant with additional disciplines, working in transdisciplinary teams, an emphasis on uncertainty, and actually listening to and working with policy makers, planners and stakeholders. Not only is activism not needed for problem solving, but it mostly seems counterproductive to actually formulating and evaluating solutions.
The road ahead can be facilitated by broader, transdisciplinary thinking about the climate change problem and its solutions. This requires moving away from the consensus-enforcing and cancel culture approach of attempting to restrict the dialogue surrounding climate change and the policy options. We need to open up space for dissent, disagreement and discussion about scientific uncertainty and policy options, so that multiple perspectives can be considered and broader support can be built for a range of policy options. Bring on the wicked scientists.
But if a scientist is dominated by their political instincts on this issue, they will continue to take the court jester path and not contribute to solutions in a meaningful way.