Speech – The Attentive Relationship of Science and Politics

By on sep 15, 2013 in English, Speeches | 0 comments

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This speech was written to Danish Minister for Climate, Energy and Building, Martin Lidegaard to be delivered at International Symposium on Science and Policy Advice at the Royal Academy of Science and Letters, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 5, 2013.


The Attentive Relationship of Science and Politics

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen of the Royal Academy. Honoured ambassadors of Science and Letters. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you, today.

For me science and politics belong together. In fact I believe in a marriage between science and politics and I know what I am talking about. I am a politician and my wife is a scientist. My wife has a remarkable ability to explain even the most deep-seated problems over the kitchen sink. I truly admire that. But when I ask what we should do about it, she says: “That is not my department”. It is a very frustrating experience.

From my point of view: Science can focus politics’ attention on challenges we might otherwise have overlooked. Science can point politics’ towards viable options and where they will lead us. Science can educate citizens for an informed public debate to the benefit of politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge the need for independence and room for science to explore. Just like in any marriage you need space to develop and thrive. Still. I do not see two different worlds. I see an attentive relationship with two different parts to be played on the same stage. So what kind of role does science play?

Much of scientific discovery seems to be understood through the prism of the American Wild West experience. Scientists are the cowboys and gunslingers. They boldly go where no man has gone before. They explore the unknown frontier. And they move on when established society comes along with railroads, law enforcements and politicians – such as me.

I like the metaphor. It rings true to me. We DO need you to be out there, on the borders of the known world. We need you to expand our horizons for what can be done. And we need to increase our common understanding of our world. When it comes to climate change, we ABSOLUTELY need that.

But there is one thing missing from this picture of Science and the Wild West. We forget that Science and Politics have an attentive relationship. And we forget that the cowboys came back for their families when the frontier was discovered and secured. They used the telegraph to say: “I cleared the land. I built a house. Now come along – let us built a family”. And the families came on coaches and settled one by one. Establishing communities – villages – towns. In time, a society formed on the ground they cleared. We forget that.

The science of climate change might still expand and be elaborated, but the facts are clear: Climate change is no longer on the edges of the known world. It is already felt and its effects are experienced. It is now safe within the borders of common sense. In fact, 97 % of all scientists say that climate change is happening, that climate change is man-made and that we can do something about it. Yet in Denmark only 2 out of 3 people believe the Earth is warming. One in four still have doubts. The numbers might be even higher for other countries.

Yes, we need you to seek out new land. But we also need you to bring us along when the land has been cleared. That too is the role of science. As politicians we have to know what challenges lie ahead and what their nature is. We have to know what roads we have available, where they will lead and what they will take. And we have to make political choices in an informed public debate with an acute understanding of the challenges and their consequences

In 1985 there was a science article in Nature about ozone depletion. Politics was listening and two years later the Montreal Protocol was signed. Today the ozone layer is expected to recover by 2050. Kofi Annan called the protocol “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date” and I agree. It would not have happened without an attentive relationship between science and politics.

Yet some science advice demands greater political action than a ban on gasses. Climate change is a much greater transitional challenge. It demands more of science – and more of politics. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a good example. Their scientific reports points Politics to the scope of the challenge and they offer different scenarios for handling it. And Politics listened.

The political process can be slow, ugly and disappointing. But make no mistake – we are moving.

We listen to science: Science warned us about the consequences of climate change. Politics listened. Science warned us about what would happen, should global temperatures rise above 2 degree Celsius. Politics decided to stay below. In that case, Science recommended us to reduce our emission of CO2 by 80 – 95 % by 2050 for developed countries. Politics agreed. Science told us that – for it to be realistic – it would mean a 40 % reduction in 2020 compared to 1990. That is what you see playing out in your television and newspapers these days.

In 2012 we made an Energy Agreement that reduces CO2 with 34 % by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. Now we have presented a Climate Policy Plan with climate proposals to fulfil the remaining 6 percentage points. Next spring we present a climate change bill to secure the scientific monitoring of the climate mitigation efforts and to secure public access to climate policy decisions. And all this in view of becoming a fossil fuel free society by 2050. As Science recommended us to.

In any democracy a transition as big as the green transition, will have to rest on an informed public debate. Visionary politics can only be stretched so much longer than the general public opinion. Most visions – after all – take longer than the 4 year election cycle.

That is why I want to highlight a recent example. A couple of weeks ago a Danish newspaper published an article. The article persuasively demonstrated how science can – and should – debunk public misunderstandings. Without undermining its scientific legitimacy, it used science to inform the public: That global warming IS happening and it is happening at an accelerated speed. That global warming comes from Greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. And that yes, global warming IS man-made.

Not just by saying so. It brought us all along by explaining that nature actually reduces the effects of human emissions in the atmosphere, that the CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the same sources that we burn and that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere rises in line with our emission. Thank you for that. And thank you to any scientist informing the public debate on climate change.

Climate change is a tremendous challenge. And our success rests not only on the contribution of the natural sciences.

With the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery in ‘The Little Prince':

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

We need the leadership and the ship. We need the sailors and the sails. But we also need the yearning ‘for the vast and endless sea’. Here lies a task for all of science – no matter the kind. I look forward to your advice. I hope politicians will listen. I know I will.

Thank you!