Close this search box.

A More Honest Climate Science? Maybe scientific journals are ready to move past the era of politicized pronouncements

By James Freeman

A plague of our age is the abuse of scientific credentials to advance political ideologies. But maybe there’s hope that establishment scientific journals will now chart a different path. Giving cause for fresh hope is Nature magazine’s publication of a comment by Ulf Büntgen of the University of Cambridge, who writes on the importance of distinguishing scientific discovery from political advocacy:

… I am foremost concerned by an increasing number of climate scientists becoming climate activists, because scholars should not have a priori interests in the outcome of their studies. Like in any academic case, the quest for objectivity must also account for all aspects of global climate change research. While I have no problem with scholars taking public positions on climate issues, I see potential conflicts when scholars use information selectively or over-attribute problems to anthropogenic warming, and thus politicise climate and environmental change. Without self-critique and a diversity of viewpoints, scientists will ultimately harm the credibility of their research and possibly cause a wider public, political and economic backlash.

Likewise, I am worried about activists who pretend to be scientists, as this can be a misleading form of instrumentalization. In fact, there is just a thin line between the use and misuse of scientific certainty and uncertainty, and there is evidence for strategic and selective communication of scientific information for climate action. (Non-)specialist activists often adopt scientific arguments as a source of moral legitimation for their movements, which can be radical and destructive rather than rational and constructive. Unrestricted faith in scientific knowledge is, however, problematic because science is neither entitled to absolute truth nor ethical authority. The notion of science to be explanatory rather than exploratory is a naïve overestimation that can fuel the complex field of global climate change to become a dogmatic ersatz religion for the wider public. It is also utterly irrational if activists ask to “follow the science” if there is no single direction. Again, even a clear-cut case like anthropogenically-induced global climate change does not justify the deviation from long-lasting scientific standards, which have distinguished the academic world from socio-economic and political spheres.

Even scientists convinced that human activity is warming the planet should be careful to acknowledge the limits of current knowledge. Mr. Büntgen continues:

… I find it misleading when prominent organisations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest summary for policymakers, tend to overstate scientific understanding of the rate of recent anthropogenic warming relative to the range of past natural temperature variability over 2000 and even 125,000 years. The quality and quantity of available climate proxy records are merely too low to allow for a robust comparison of the observed annual temperature extremes in the 21st century against reconstructed long-term climate means of the Holocene and before. Like all science, climate science is tentative and fallible. This universal caveat emphasises the need for more research to reliably contextualise anthropogenic warming and better understand the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate system at different spatiotemporal scales. Along these lines, I agree that the IPCC would benefit from a stronger involvement in economic research, and that its neutral reports should inform but not prescribe climate policy.

Ensuring honest research is the most important reason to separate scientific investigation from policy-making. But there are other compelling reasons, especially when it comes to the study of the climate.