These days we read of yet another appeal by prominent scientists concerning the issue of climate change. At the 2015 annual Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau more than 30 laureates signed a statement in which they call upon the nations of the world to tackle the issue of climate change more decisively. Quite contrary to their usual scientific sobriety, researchers, when it comes to climate change, seem to be hardly short of dramatic words. Humanity must counteract the increasing consumption of raw materials, otherwise this “will lead to wholesale human tragedy,” says the appeal of Nobel Laureates from the fields of physics, chemistry and medicine. Lack of action would mean that we expose future generations to undue risk. The facts on which these insights are based, are far from new. Pretty much the same the “American Physical Society” had already formulated in 2007.
Now already in itself it is quite unusual that scientists almost in unison and with such fervent belief express a strong opinion like this on something they can model only reasonably well and which they can measure only with relatively large error bars. In view of such judgements on the part of those who firstly are most familiar with the facts and secondly qua their professional ethos rather naturally entertain doubts about fixed truths, one should think that these extremely clear words would have a rather meaningful effect on the actions of political and economic decision-makers.
Even the rather bizarre appearance of a critic of the theory of global warming from the illustrious circle of scientists itself does not change much. On the contrary, appearances like this illustrate once more how critically and free of dogma scientists discuss among each other. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the presentation given by the Nobel Prize winner in Physics in 1973 Ivar Giaever received the greatest public attention of all. According to his own words he understands nothing of climate science (he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of superconductivity), and he is not even particularly interested in the field, as he admits. But for the sake of participating on some panel he “has once looked around on Google for half a day,” which apparently was enough for him to declare the global warming a hoax. Thus, conservative think tanks use his name on advertisements, and the equally conservative “Wall Street Journal” refers to him as evidence of a “collapse of consensus in climate science”. Hundreds of real experts do not receive an equivalent degree of public attention! (Note: the signing scientists do not see themselves as experts in the field of climate change, but “rather as a diverse group of scientists who have a deep respect for and understanding of the integrity of the scientific process”).
In fact, scientists often wonder what – or better how little – effect their efforts have in the public debate. In their view, it may seem completely irrational that humanity has not yet responded adequately to a threat so obvious. Already at probabilities of 50% (or less depending on the assessment) that we are facing a threatening man-made climate change, a dramatic reaction on the part of humanity ought to taken, including massive changes in our consumption patterns. A simple risk assessment as well as any kind of rational cost-benefit analysis demand this. However, the actual likelihood of such a development in case we show a “business as usual” attitude stands rather at 95%! The denial of human-induced climate change (or, equivalently, the statement that its probability is so low that rational cost-benefit assessments suggest rather keeping the status quo in our consumption patterns, i.e. that probability being somewhere less than 10%) appears to scientists as an act of pronounced ignorance and stupidity.
From a rational point of view, it is exactly this, of course. But scientists need to realize that their way to detect and solve problems is very much different to how it is done in business and politics. Scientific problems are more like math problems, which one strives to solve by intellectual effort or sometimes by simple trial and error. Once solved, the solution is considered final (or at least valid for a long time). “Problems” in business and politics on the other hand take a radically different shape. They mostly come in the form of diverging interests between different parties. Accordingly the solutions to these “problems” are different. They are about the assessment of certain interests over others and finding a balance between those. In other words, the goal is an optimal solution for the interests represented. Solutions therefore mostly take the shape of “deals” and are accordingly of short-lived nature.
We thus understand, why at climate conferences participants negotiate and haggle over C02 restrictions as if there are on a bazar. For scientists who are able to extract the necessary reductions more or less reliably from their models this may seem quite strange. Furthermore a typical and well-to-interpret cynical reaction on the part of “climate skeptics” in discussions with scientists can be explained. They attack the researchers personally what often leaves these dismayed and perplexed: the scientists would follow “personal interests” with their models and predictions. Anyone who has worked in science will know that although the egos there are by no means less developed than elsewhere, research results based on personal interest of the involved parties are generally very short-lived. However, such as outrageous as absurd claims are more easily understandable in a world where problems represent themselves mostly as collisions of one’s own with foreign interests and in which research results primarily appear as a threat to the former. And finally this explains that despite their own very limited knowledge about the matter the protagonists characterize the corresponding research results as outright false. But this is not just some lack of intellectual modesty. It is simply about their own interests!
However, the differences between science and economics-based realpolitik at last goes deeper. They relate to a fundamental question concerning “intellectual integrity” itself, i.e. how to achieve in our cognitive efforts the best possible match between knowledge and opinion, as free as possible from emotions or interests. Only with that freedom, (in the words of the philosopher Thomas Metzinger) “to no longer lie to ourselves”, moral action is ultimately possible at all. In some old-fashioned formulation the philosopher Immanuel Kant tells us what is at stake: “the purity of intentions towards oneself to be sincere.” We do not need long to realize where we see this ideal being realized to a higher degree: in the long-term quest for knowledge in order to suggest an adequate rational action or in the short-term optimization of particular economic or political interests?