Science and Public Policy

September 18, 2014 Stephen Murgatroyd
How should science shape public policy?


This is not a theoretical question. It is in fact a very practical one and is at the heart of the debate taking place at COP19 – the Climate Change conference taking place in Poland. The issue on the table is deceptively simple. Africa, small island states and others are seeking compensation from the developed world for the impact climate change “is having” and “will have” on their States. The sums in question are in the billions of dollars. Africa alone estimates that it requires $20 - $30 billion annually to 2035 and then significantly more, perhaps up to $60 billion a year.


The call for cash is based on the assumption that extreme weather events are “a result of” climate change. Super-storm Sandy, the Hiyan typhoon and other such events are cited as examples of the consequences of high levels of CO2 emissions.


The problem is that the scientists most closely involved in understanding extreme weather events do not see a direct link between climate change and extreme weather or between levels of CO2 and extreme weather. Indeed, the body which governments use to establish the “state of science” – the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – has explicitly said in both 2012 and 2013 that it cannot establish any clear link between climate change and the levels of man-made CO2 in the atmosphere and extreme weather events. Other researchers who have worked on this file for their careers, such as Roger Pielke Jnr from Colarado,  also agree with this conclusion (see here). While there are always some who will say that there is a link – James Hansen and Michael Mann can be relied upon to make such leaps – these are the new deniers of science.


Another rationale for this call for cash is the threat of rising ocean levels. Yet there is disputed science here. A paper published recently in Global and Planetary Change finds global sea level rise has decelerated by 44% since 2004 to a rate equivalent to only 7 inches (17.8 cm) per century – well within the boundaries of natural events. According to the authors, global mean sea level rise from 1993-2003 was at the rate of 3.2 mm/yr (± 0.4 mm/yr), but sea level rise "started decelerating since 2004 to a rate of 1.8 ± 0.9 mm/yr in 2012."  Given that the science showing a link between climate change and sea level rises are not crystal clear, is this a sound basis for the redistribution of substantial sums of scarce funds?


A part of the rationale for the redistribution is the invocation of the precautionary principle. But this is a “weaponized” version of this principle and  the scientific community is now speaking out against this “weaponised” use of the precautionary principle.


For example, eighty-one of the world’s leading toxicologists recently signed a letter to the EU Chief Scientific Advisor expressing their concern at the EU’s lack of proper scientific procedures in assessing potential endocrine disruptors and their impact on health – yet the EU is seeking to ban the use of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are present in a large number of everyday items, such as food packaging, cosmetics and pesticides. A small number of studies have suggested a possible connection between EDCs and the decline of sperm counts, hormonal changes in women and the increase in certain cancers. The signatories emphasized the importance of using the best science to find a sensible, rational way of setting policies. But the EU is not interested in “science” just in looking to be doing the right thing (a.k.a. as political correctness).


That is what is happening in Poland. On the basis of “being seen to do the right thing”, countries are contemplating the creation of a $100 billion a year fund to compensate states for the impacts of climate change, despite the lack of strong and compelling scientific evidence that the connections being made between extreme weather events or sea level rise and climate change.


The transfer of wealth from rich to poor has always been on the agenda in these conversations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Maurice Strong, the Canadian who was Secretary-General of this summit, said at its opening “we should consider new taxes, user charges, emission permits, citizen funding all based on the polluter-pays principle”. Also involved here is the requirement that such funds should be managed through “global government” organizations, such as the UN. Indeed, a document leaked in 2010 makes it clear that wealth transfer and global governance are explicit goals of the UN (see here).



So is this all about science? No. Is this all about politics and political correctness? Yes. Are science and political correctness connected? What is occurring is the hijacking of science by politicians – including President Obama and others. Is this desirable? No. Is this good for science? No. We should refine our critical skills and our sensitivity to science as a practice so that we can challenge the politics of wealth transfer by challenging the claimed links to science – they simply are not there.

Written by Stephen Murgatroyd - contact stephen.murgatroyd@shaw.ca for permissions.
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