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No facts without values

Climate change is still not widely recognized as a burning issue. Despite illusions, climate skepticism is not dead yet but only evolving, shaped in different forms, each with different underlying reasons and meanings. Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III, identifies* five types of climate skepticisms and one possible pathway to tackle them.

1) “The physical question is over”, he states, “Global Warming is human-driven as clearly demonstrated by Working Group I of the IPCC. It may still be a public debate, but this is not a scientific debate anymore”.

But other kinds of skepticisms have emerged, with a growing level of complexity.

2) The second kind of – straightforward – climate skepticism is related to the impacts of climate change, and more precisely to the huge uncertainties which still persist in this respect. “The IPCC is often blamed for advertising the worst case scenarios,” says Edenhofer while calling for a reflection on “whether average scenarios of impacts may be more appropriate. Climate scientists and economists should therefore indicate under which specific conditions a worst case scenario is more suitable to be communicated than an average one. To be more precise, this would entail embedding the impact issues in a risk management framework.”

3) The third type of skepticism pointed out by Edenhofer relates to “the priorities to be addressed, if we want to tackle climate change. Given the difficulties the international community is facing to reach an agreement on halting global emissions, certain climate skeptics argue that efforts should concentrate on adaptation measures rather than on mitigation”. Adaptation certainly is necessary, Edenhofer points out, but it could only complement, not substitute emissions reductions.

4) A fourth type of skepticism has to do with the sense of urgency for immediate action, both on the mitigation and adaptation sides. These skeptics trust that there will be major technological progress in the future – maybe even breakthroughs – to mitigate or adapt more efficiently to a changing climate. In these skeptics’ opinion, “it may therefore be too early to act, as it may be preferable to wait for applicable solutions which are now only at a prototype stage, such as Geo-engineering including Carbon Removal, or even Solar Radiation Management.” However, the risks of a wait-and-see approach are  quite high because the feasibility and acceptability of these technologies are not proven yet, according to Edenhofer.

5) The last type of skepticism holds that while “climate policy is indeed desirable, it may be very difficult to solve the global collaboration shortcomings between different countries. While this is true of course, it would be all too convenient to just sit back and resign – given the potential impacts of unmitigated climate change”, says Edenhofer. “The delay in international cooperation could on the contrary inspire the exploration of new pathways to a sustainable future.”

According to Edenhofer, the main reason why these different forms of skepticisms still persist is that “there is not a clear distinction between facts and values. Is it reasonable to expect the IPCC to reach a scientific consensus, when we  – scientists  – present at the same time facts and values? The only honest way to solve this problematic is to use the best available scientific methods to explore the relevant solution space, and to present the results as well as the associated opportunities and risks, and uncertainties, to the persons in charge of deciding. The scientists should therefore enumerate the options the policy makers have, but also be explicit about the underlying value judgment and valuation criteria embedded in these options.”

Edenhofer further states: “Scientists who are called to give advice to Policy Makers on particular issues should in fact beopening the solution space, instead of closing it: this means we should switch models in the policy-science interface. From the nowadays dominant technocratic model – where scientist prescribe to policy makers what they should do – we need toswitch to a pragmatic enlightened model.

“The pragmatic model says that there are no facts without values: what scientists accept as a fact depends on their theories, and these rely on epistemological values, such as consistency, coherency etc. So facts always have to be presented together with their underlying epistemological and ethical values, that have to be made explicit.”

Recalling the German sociologist Max Weber, Edenhofer suggests nevertheless to try to “distinguish between facts and values in the research process itself. Also, there should be a clear distinction of roles between scientists and policy makers. Politicians are responsible for formulating the values and the goals, while scientists are responsible for exploring the facts and the means” that are needed to achieve these goals.

Nevertheless, the distinctions between means and ends may not be so easy. Take for instance the widely advocated 2°C policy target: this climatic goal entails relying also on negative emissions for the abatement of greenhouse gas emissions – typically through biomass plus Carbon Capture and Storage. But these potential solutions may have severe consequences for other spheres, such as biodiversity and food security. These means (Biomass plus CCS) might have the potential to touch the underlying value judgment of sustainability, which is actually the basis for setting such a climate target.

In other words, “we therefore need an iterative process between means and goals, evaluating explicitly the side effects of our means, and if these side effects are able to undermine our goals, an adjustment is necessary.”

Luckily, “this approach is well reflected in the upcoming 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC, and particularly in Working Group III, where the scientists, with the help of sociologists and philosophers, have first of all defined a set of important framing issues to make explicit the underlying values judgments across the different chapters: issues of risk & uncertainty, economic & ethical concepts and methods, sustainable development & equity.”

This approach can hopefully help to detox the climate debate from embedded political and social meanings. It is in fact important to focus on the consistency of knowledge to advance the climate debate.

*This interview was originally featured on FEEM’s e-magazine Re3.