Science and politics make uneasy bedfellows

There’s a world of difference between careful, methodical scientists and the public world of politics, but we need the two to get together and stay together for the sake of our future on the planet. [13 May 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Of all the unlikely alliances thrown up by the challenge of climate change, the most problematic has to be that between the opposite poles of science and politics.

For politicians, appearances are all-important. In a world where voters’ decisions can be made on the basis of three seconds on the television news, knowing something is less important than seeming to know it.

This smoke-and-mirrors, leap-of-faith existence is anathema to scientists, trained to observe phenomena, collect evidence, create hypotheses, and subject these to testing and re-testing before coming to carefully-worked conclusions.

Scientists aren’t above politics themselves (especially when it comes to funding), and politicians sometimes like to be seen to support science, but the normal situation is two separate entities with a lot of daylight between.

Until now. With the pressure on to make serious headway in understanding climate change and curbing greenhouse emissions, circumstances and public opinion have thrown these unlikely partners together. It happened something like this.

Science: There’s a problem with our climate. Politics: So what? Science: We’re the cause of it. Politics: Sounds unlikely, but what do you expect us to do about it? Science: We have to use less energy. Politics: You don’t expect us to tell people to make do with less, do you?

And so on – you get the drift.

This isn’t the first time scientists have got into the faces of politicians to tell them that action is needed. But dire warnings from scientists have usually allowed a degree of wriggle room. Now, two decades into the climate debate, the wriggle room has gone.

Politicians, having to confront without delay the reality of a physical condition requiring physical action, are under the hammer as never before, and I’m not unsympathetic. I put things off – like writing this weekly column – as much as the next person.

There has been some useful collaboration. Climate Futures for Tasmania is a collaborative effort between Tasmanian government agencies, private organisations and various research institutions that by 2010 will complete fine-scale climate projections and research into water and catchments, general climate impacts and extreme events.

There’s now a growing informal connection between scientists and the Tasmanian Office of Climate Change to help work out how, and how quickly, we can get our emissions down. There’s a “can do, must do” atmosphere and a palpable sense of urgency in these meetings.

We need all our politicians to share the sense of urgency, and we need scientists to continue to provide solid, dependable, relevant data and advice, and to do this with some awareness of the demands of political life. Just as partners in marriage need to adjust to the other’s differences.

The present union of science and politics is not a marriage made in heaven, but both sides – with the help of the rest of us – have to make this work. We can’t afford the luxury of separation, even on a trial basis.

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