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Climate Change Science Conflicts and Pluralism: The Subtext at COP21 in Paris

“What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious — because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement — because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible — because different nations have different needs. And if we can come together and get this...

“What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious — because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement — because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible — because different nations have different needs. And if we can come together and get this right, we can define a sustainable future for your generation.”   –  U.S. President Barack Obama, Climate Change Speech at Georgetown University, January 26, 2013

Traversing the costs and benefits of policy options to a changing climate will likely be a delicate balancing act similar to what these youth traverse every day in Bangladesh (among the most vulnerable countries to climate change). Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

The Climate Change Summit in Paris (COP21) is being presented by the United Nations as a last ditch effort to gain global consensus on climate change policy.  Yet, despite our best efforts at achieving consensus, climate science is robust but not quite settled at every level. The Australian Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) has summarized the scientific situation quite well in October 2015 as follows: “There is ample, well-supported evidence to provide a basis for action through mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and for adaptation to reduce our vulnerability to climate change impacts. At the same time, further research is needed to reduce the uncertainties and quantify confidence levels.”

No doubt the scientific evidence for increases in greenhouse gases (GHG) which trap heat and the physical impact of these processes has been well-known to science for decades and is not contested.  However, the interaction of these processes with other natural cycles and the observable changes in temperature being short-term versus long-term remain contested. The debate on the magnitude and causality of climate change has been increasingly polarized by various interest groups that continue to challenge each other’s credibility. Even the popular media has picked up on the polarization of the debate exemplified by movies such as The Day After Tomorrow and the much acclaimed documentary produced by former US Vice President Al Gore titled An Inconvenient Truth. Skeptics of climate change have been equally strident in their publications, ranging from titles such as State of Fear by late bestselling author Michael Crichton to the Cato Institute book titled Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming.

Questions on which the conflict is predicated

Over the past decade there has been vast engagement in academia with the social context of climate change with a plethora of specific journals and anthologies devoted to the topic. Dessler and Parson (2006) provided the first systematic examination of the climate change debate and suggest that four key questions first need to be recognized:

  • Is the climate changing?
  • Are human activities responsible for the observed changes?
  • What are the likely climate changes in the future?
  • What will be the impacts of the future changes?

I would add to this series a fifth question: Can human intervention to reduce these changes have any impact? This fifth question is particularly important to consider in order to formulate effective policy recommendations at an international level because of extreme income inequality that the world faces.  Limited resources being expended on prevention rather than adaptation by development donors thus become highly consequential  — hence the importance of ensuring efficacy of The Green Climate Fund. The fifth question also ties in with Dessler and Parson’s suggestion that we extricate positive from normative statements about global warming – the former being expository material about the state of the world’s climate and the latter implying how we would like the world to behave.

Unravelling scientific orthodoxy

The main challenge arises regarding the interface of natural versus anthropogenic impacts on the climate. Scientific methods and peer review processes are considered the touchstone for ensuring objectivity. However, proponents of climate change are also limited with an important additional imperative of time constraints to ensure effective remedial action. Therefore, the peer review process must proceed with an important normative concern in mind – if climate change is occurring, action must be imminent or else the research will be in vain. This inherent normative element in climate change research does indeed give proponents of climate change a more activist edge than other scientists.

Critics of climate change such as MIT Professor Richard Lindzen have also argued that the peer review process has itself been corrupted by the preponderance of views about climate change. In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal Lindzen (2015) describes several instances where skeptics of climate change were chastised for their views not just by activists but by politicians. He also tries to show how any opponents of the dominant orthodoxy about global warming are discredited and dismissed as stooges of the fossil fuel industry.  Lindzen has been trying to clear his name for the past decade and affirms that he has never communicated with the auto companies involved in the lawsuit and only received a total of $10,000 from any fossil fuel sector for his research in the early nineties. 

Indeed the conflict in this regard was stepped up a notch in 2006 by a lawsuit filed in California in which scientists who are skeptical of global warming became  ensnared – giving further credence to allegations of censorship. Such legal skirmishes have continued and their justification has been by notable academics such as Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, who has labeled climate skeptics, alongside nicotine-impact deniers, in her eponymous book as “Merchants of Doubt.”  There has also been defensive action by some climate change proponent scientists to minimize criticism of their work. Of particular note was the defamation lawsuit that Penn State scientist Michael Mann lodged against think tanks critical of climate change science (link to his November 15, 2015 interview). In early 2015, a  Canadian climate change proponent scientist sued The National Post newspaper for defamation of his views and won damages of $50,000.

In order to comprehend the complexities of this conflict, it is essential to understand the evolution of arguments for and against global warming. As shown in Figure 1, the problem of global warming starts with an empirical observation about an increase in various GHGs from human sources. There is no debate about this issue, as well as the next step (rise of GHGs in atmosphere) which are accepted by all sides in the controversy (hence italicized). It is important to note that the question of endogeniety (causal directionality – or the ‘chicken and the egg problem’ – which came first?) is also posed at multiple levels. For example, some scientists have raised questions about whether the rise in carbon dioxide is caused by a change in climate itself, reversing part of the assumed causality. The diagram is constructed in the conventional engineering format.

Figure 1: Argument Flow for Climate Change Debates (Diagram by author)

Starting off with what is known for certain, we can move along and see how differences in opinion arise, based on differing assumptions. The two decision diamonds in the diagram critically suggest how we can get stuck in a loop of uncertainty and decision paralysis in the global warming debate. The first point of indecision occurs with observational uncertainty because of the enormous complexity of variables in climate science. The second point of indecision, that can lead to a spiraling of inaction, occurs when we consider prescriptive means to reduce the impact of climate change. At this point, the inevitability of change shifts the argument to adaptation without considering. Part of the problem with using the inevitability of change as a pretext for inaction is that the initial intention of the Framework Convention on Climate Change is missed.

The convention and the subsequent Kyoto protocol was never intended to abort climate change but rather to allow for adaptation to proceed with minimal disruption to human activities. As Article 2 of the convention states:

“The ultimate objective of this Convention is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

While critics may still feel that there is little we could do to adapt constructively to climate change, it is important to at least appreciate that there was a measured resignation to climatic change even in the original convention rather than any draconian notion of aborting change – whether natural or anthropogenic. Some of the recent changes to the climate change convention and the series of measures that have been proposed are summarized in Table 1 that try to grapple with issues of fairness in bearing the cost of mitigation across developed and developing countries.

Table 1: Policy measures under International Climate Change Governance Mechanisms

Policy MeasureFocal areas and purposeKey Advantage and Disadvantage
Carbon taxationMaking polluting industries less cost attractive, leading to alternative sectors gaining competitive advantage and government supportAdv: Immediate government  revenue generation through existing accounting mechanisms

Disadv: Creates adversarial relationship with industry with potential for tax exemption lobbies

Emissions Cap and Trading SchemesScientifically determined upper limit on emissions coupled with market mechanism that creates incentive for cleaner performance as a means of cost savings and business engagementAdv: Upper limit on emissions easier to manage in terms of mitigation targets

Disadv: Complicated enforcement system needed to ensure monitoring of emissions for trading

Clean Development MechanismCreating a fund for developing countries to adopt clean technologies, acknowledging responsibility of developed world’s greater share in GHG emissionsAdv: Fosters cooperation and links climate change to development goals.

Disadv: Can lead to complacence on emissions reduction, particularly for rapidly developing countries


and REDD+

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation through carbon credits (REDD). REDD+ includes role of conservation, sustainable forest management and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.Adv: Moves conversation from punitive pollution control to alternative positive conservation mechanisms.

Disadv: Challenges forestry-dependent economies and reduces carbon price through flooding market with credits

Division among environmentalists

Another interesting aspect of climate change has been its propensity to create divisions even within environmental ranks. This is largely due to the fact that the time sensitivity of policy response has led some environmentalists to consider this as a priority and a global emergency at the expense of other ideals. On the one hand it has led to structural condemnation of the environmental movement by writers such Schellenberger and Nordhaus, who in 2005, accused “environmentalists’ failures to the incuriosity about the human (read: social) sciences, like social psychology and their scientific fetishization of the ‘natural’ sciences.” At the other end are green activists who are in such a state of panic about global warming that they are willing to embrace erstwhile ecological taboos such as nuclear power and large-scale hydroelectric energy. One famous confrontation of this kind occurred in the United Kingdom when veteran environmentalist James Lovelock (originator of the Gaia hypothesis) declared that only nuclear energy could save the world from global warming. However, many mainstream environmentalist have rejected this view. According to Stephen Tindale, former executive director of Greenpeace UK, “Lovelock is right to demand a drastic response to climate change; he’s right to question previous assumptions. But he’s wrong to think nuclear power is any part of the answer. Nuclear creates enormous problems, waste we don’t know what to do with; radioactive emissions; unavoidable risk of accident and terrorist attack.”

There are two factors contributing to this internal conflict: the global scale of the threat posed by global warming for those who believe it has apocalyptic ramifications. Therefore, using the precautionary principle in such a context puts global warming ahead of other environmental factors. Furthermore, the immediacy for action tends to negate due diligence and care in policy formulation and quick solutions such as nuclear or large-scale hydropower are tempting to pursue. That is not to say that such alternatives might not be worth considering, but rather that much of the rhetoric from activists such as Lovelock is spurred out of intense fear rather than reasoned analysis.

Apart from such structural factors related to global equity concerns, there are also serious problems with the way the climate change debate is presented in public forums which leads to escalation of the conflict. For example, Levy and Egan (2003) quote a former vice president for an auto company vice president about his misgivings about climate change as follows: “There are people who have cast the automobile as a villain. It is a puritanical view, that we are having too much fun, that we have too much mobility and freedom, that suburban sprawl is bad. They think we should all live in beehives.”

Clearly the defensive posturing here is caused by a perceived threat to the car industry itself. However, the major connection between cars and climate change has more to do with the fuel being used rather than any inherent misgivings about cars per se. Since many environmentalists conflate their concerns about excessive consumption in general with climate conflicts, the results can be a framing of the debate in terms of whether cars are good or bad, rather than the more immediate question of whether fossil fuel usage should be reduced.

The recent forest burning in Indonesia has highlighted the comparative impact of practices in developing countries, versus car or coal consumption in the developed world. As reported by The Guardian in October 2015, the Indonesian fires this year will emit as much carbon as the entire UK’s annual carbon emissions. The role of  mismanaged forest policy also gets neglected by many climate change activists. Success stories in curbing deforestation in Brazil should be used to strengthen an integrated approach to international forest policy. In 1992 when the Climate Change convention was signed, there was also a proposal to have a separate convention on forests. However, this was generally opposed by a majority of civil society groups and governments and what resulted was merely a United Nations “Forum on Forests.” It may now be worth considering that the climate change convention perhaps should have a protocol on forests which could be further deliberated through groups such as the Center for Integrated Forestry Research (CIFOR).

It is also important to note that the conflict over climate change is exacerbated because visual drivers are often less palpable in climate change. When we do get large-scale visual drivers such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 that are tenuously linked to climate change, there is dramatic dissent that dilutes any likely policy impact. Such dissent is nevertheless genuine and not easily dismissed as exemplified by the resignation of researcher Chris Landsea from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in protest of a speech given by the lead author of the IPCC Kevin Trenbirth at Harvard in which he linked the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season to climate change.

Thus climate change continues to be a pervasive source of dissent and discord within the scientific community as well as among policy-makers. However, such dissent should not be an excuse for inaction, especially in these heady days of preventative warfare. Comparative security analysts might also argue that since the United States is willing to incur over 2 trillion dollars in preventative wars in the Middle East (with limited success), some measure of serious consideration to preventative strategies on climate change is also in order.

Conclusion: Constructive Confrontation on Climate

If the main goal is reduction of global warming effects, we should invest our scientific resources to provide solutions to these challenges in ways that are most socially acceptable. However, if the goal is to go beyond just global warming and change consumer behavior on ethical and moral grounds, then simply focusing on global warming as a driver is likely to muddle the planning process for preventative action.

Focusing on other derivative impacts of some drivers of global warming might also resolve the conflict because there is less teleological uncertainty about some other resource constraints. The most significant focal point of such action is the “peak oil” movement that seeks to look for alternative sources of energy on the very simple and irrefutable premise that fossil fuels are indeed nonrenewable. There is, however, a complication to this approach since one can also argue that despite being nonrenewable it makes sense to at least harness all the energy we can from existing supplies of fossil fuels. At this point the security argument for measured conservation of these limited supplies is likely to be more productive. Investing in alternative sources of energy is more useful in the long-run because diversification makes sense from a risk management perspective. There must also be a willingness to engage with broader questions of how resources to combat climate change or to adapt to its impact will require material choices. The Paris summit unfortunately does not have on its agenda fundamental questions about resource scarcity of vital minerals that are needed for renewable energy technology, many of which could also be extracted from states that have high vulnerability to climate change, such as small-island states. Organizations such as the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) must be brought directly into the conversation around planning for such transitions.

Following and informing the science and politics of climate change will be a defining feature for the next several decades and it is essential that we are willing to engage on these matters systematically. Constructive confrontation between optimists and pessimists must not be stifled, even if we end up with a sub-optimal outcome. Such sub-optimality is the precious price of pluralism that will, more likely, make us a suitably creative and resilient civilization. The international system and scientific research processes are slow and some level of risk of planetary impacts by commission or omission of policy action is inevitable.  However, debate on prioritization, persistent scientific inquiry, as well as climate activism, must all be part of a deliberative process that world leaders embrace in Paris.

For a broader discussion of environmental diplomacy and ways of reforming the international treaty-making system refer to our recent book : Susskind, Lawrence and Saleem H. Ali (2015). Environmental Diplomacy: Negotiating more Effective International Agreements (second edition). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.