19 February 2014
Hans von Storch delivered the first Mobilar Lab Lecture at the University of Bern. In an interview, political scientist Karin Ingold responds to the ideas put forward by the prominent German climate scientist. She is assistant professor of political science at the University of Bern, a member of the Oeschger Centre and also of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag). The subject of her doctoral thesis was an analysis of the decision-making mechanisms in Swiss climate policy, and her interests currently include the analysis and design of political processes and instruments.
In his book "Die Klimafalle" (The Climate Trap) Hans von Storch warns of the dangerous proximity of climate research and politics, and claims that this has a negative impact on the quality of the science. Do you share this view?
I wouldn't speak of a dangerous proximity, and it is never a bad thing to make political decisions on the basis of sound science. The problem is that the two areas – politics and science – function according to two completely different sets of logic. The drivers of a political system are still always power and the authority to take political decisions. The aim of politics is to find solutions to social problems. Research, on the other hand, functions according to the rules of scientific freedom and assessment by academic peers. That means that innovation in science comes about almost entirely independently of political, economic, or other fields. Von Storch's criticism is comprehensible if political demands restrict academic freedom, or even do away with it. Climate researchers' ability to come up with independent scientific ideas and solutions would indeed seem to be endangered if they depend largely on politicians, or if politicians make excessive demands on them.
Hans von Storch's criticism does not refer directly to Switzerland. Do you see climate research as problematically close to politics here too, or are things different in Switzerland?
Things are quite different in Switzerland. Most of the connections are between scientists and the administration, not directly with the political system. The administration's aim is to back programmes, measures and strategies with strong scientific evidence – in particular in matters of climate adaptation. One thing that is specific to Switzerland is the Advisory Body on Climate Change (OcCC), which is a kind of information platform linking researchers, parliament and government. It performs a sort of buffer role, and guarantees that climate-relevant information emerging from Swiss research is incorporated in political decisions. It ensures that researchers do not produce only politically relevant results, and it also guards against restrictions of academic freedom.
What role do you think climate scientists should play in public? Should researchers get involved in political debate?
That's a delicate question for a political scientist. People very often assume that my own area of research lies close to the political arena. As political scientists we observe and explain political processes and decisions, but make a conscious effort to distance ourselves from the subject of our research. As political scientists we do not wish to be seen as political advisors, and even less as politicians. After all, a biologist doesn't become a virus either. This is probably less of an awkward issue in other disciplines. But scientifically-grounded political decision-making is thoroughly desirable. However, this presupposes that the direction of the information is clear: from research to politics, and not the other way around. It only becomes an issue if scientists find they have to carry out research commissioned by politicians. That is what von Storch sees as a threat to the quality of science.
And what about public debates with climate sceptics? Should scientists cross swords with sceptics on television?
Scientists are always interested in dialogue if it contains the potential for new insights. As a rule climate sceptics are not scientists, and discussion with them, in my opinion, creates little potential for innovation, which is why I advise against it.
Also because this is a way to give climate sceptics a platform? The mere fact of researchers discussing with sceptics on an equal footing lends the latter legitimacy after all...
... the importance of a group or of a person increases only if you exchange ideas with them. Ignoring them is more effective than criticising.
A lot of people have the feeling that it's a matter of making up their own minds about climate change on the basis of equally valid arguments. Isn't that a problem?
The question is what climate mitigation and adaptation means for every individual citizen in concrete terms. Both strategies require individuals to change their own behaviour, and this can have an impact on their quality of life and standard of living. So there is a danger that people will give a sympathetic hearing to the arguments of climate sceptics for selfish reasons: if climate change were not man-made, there would be no need for any change in personal behaviour.
Atmospheric water parameters in the WRF model and in observations
Federico Cossu, Institute of Applied Physics and Oeschger Centre, University of Bern
14 Mar 2014, 10:15
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