Azara Blog: On climate change, are scientists and politicians speaking a different language?

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Date published: 2007/02/03

The BBC environment correspondent, Richard Black, says:

Is it so difficult to curb the growth of greenhouse gases because scientists and politicians are speaking a different language?
The crux of the matter, it seems to me, lies in the different ways that scientists and politicians use language.

Science is nothing without precision. You mislabel a larynx as a pharynx, call a nematode a trematode, and your career is done.

Political language, on the other hand, is a triumph of misrepresentation. A failure becomes a success when some little crumb of your plan has worked; winning a battle allows claims of victory even as the war slips away.

So you can describe climate change as 'the biggest threat confronting humanity' even when you are demonstrably doing more about hospital finances, say, about prisons, or some ill-defined threat from abroad.

When a scientist talks about 'reducing greenhouse gas emissions' - I told you we would end up back at this phrase - he or she means just that; actually reducing them. But what it is coming to mean in the political lexicon is something very different

This is a rather naive view. For one thing, although science might be precise, scientists are actually pretty sloppy and incomplete when reporting their work in journals. It is nearly impossible for anyone, except an uber-expert, to easily reproduce any such work because so many details are left out, and the raw data is often unobtainable. And most scientists will tell you that no matter how precise they word things (e.g. stressing uncertainty in climate change work), journalists will completely change the meaning when they write their story. (Of course journalists misrepresent everyone, not just scientists.)

On the other hand, politicians misrepresent because the media and the public force them to misrepresent. Any politician speaking the truth would immediately get chucked out of office. And, for example, the public cares more about hospitals and crime than it cares about climate change, because the former hits them in the face and the latter does not much yet. And further, with carbon emissions, the voters in the rich west are currently getting something for nothing, i.e. they are not, on the whole, paying a carbon tax for their energy consumption (European car drivers being the big exception, although this carbon tax does nothing to compensate people who are affected). Voters always like to get something for nothing. And politicians are always willing to oblige them, since they want to be re-elected.

With climate change the only real way forward is an international agreement which works much better than, and makes more sense than, Kyoto, and until that happens, any country that jumps first is committing economic suicide. (The EU is slowly going down this route, but that is a large group of economically significant countries.) This is why not much has happened on carbon emissions, in spite of all the scientific evidence. It has nothing to do with the idea that "scientists and politicians are speaking a different language".

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