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A closer look at how climate policy gets derailed

Published Dec 02, 2015

On the long and winding road toward climate policy action, scientific evidence is often the first casualty. A KTH study reveals how the political process loses its way in Sweden.

When it comes to climate policy action, scientific evidence is often the first casualty. Karin Edvardsson Björnberg and Mikael Karlsson study the sluggish process of decision-making on climate policy. (Photo: Marc Femenia)

What's holding politicians back from acting on climate issues? Bureaucrats and science deniers are among those putting the brakes on a forward-looking science policy. The path from research to political action is a long and winding one, say researchers in the Mind the Gap project. And, nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of climate change.

Mikael Karlsson, a researcher in environment and energy, and Karin Edvardsson Björnberg, a researcher in environmental philosophy, are involved in a research project called Mind the Gap - Delay Mechanisms and Goal Failures in Swedish Environmental Policy.

Mind the Gap focuses on how delays in fulfilling official climate goals are made worse by misuse and misrepresentation of scientific knowledge.

"Why don't we reach our environmental targets in Sweden? It is understandable that things take time, but that does not explain everything. We want to drill deeper into the matter in order to raise consciousness among politicians and other policymakers about the obstacles and distractions in this process," Edvardsson Björnberg says.

The researchers are mapping out what they describe as deliberate attempts to slow down the environmental policy process. The study describes more than 100 articles they characterized as "scientific denialism," on the matter of climate change.

Climate science denial comes in many shades. One variant of the practice is to highlight differences in the details of individual research data while turning a blind eye to the big picture. Another method of science denial is to cite experts whose expertise is not actually in the area under examination.

Deniers can also fabricate disagreements within the scientific community. And, they place unreasonable demands for evidence, before political action can be taken, according to the Mind the Gap researchers.

Edvardsson Björnberg points out that science deniers of all stripes are a strong influencing factor in slowing the development of science-based climate policy, especially in the US. Deniers in Sweden have lost influence somewhat — but not entirely.

But where is the line between denying research results and skepticism. Isn't the progress of science based on questioning and trial?

Mikael Karlsson sketches out some obstacles on the road between science and politics.

"Sure, there is always uncertainty when new research is presented. But if scientific consensus prevails, uncertainty is reduced, and it is no longer reasonable to deny the foundation on which the research is based," Edvardsson Björnberg says.

One goal of the project is to systematize the image of the delay mechanisms, looking at the obstacles in the political decision-making. Karlsson says the study counteracts the inertia of the Swedish system turning against more climate-friendly policies.

"The burden of proof is commonly laid upon those who want change, while advocates of business as usual are favored by how decision data, evidence and the investigation system are designed," he says.

Swedish government investigations have, for example, a distorted focus that affects the ability to drive environmental policy based on scientific grounds, Karlsson says. These inquiries attach great importance to the calculations of the costs, while beneficial effects and overall thinking often fall by the wayside.

"The system is rigged so that it is difficult to provide a balanced basis for a new political course. Costs are investigated in a narrow monetary perspective, with the price we have to pay being considered on a separate plane. The combined benefits of running a sustainable environmental policy are rarely taken up in the process.

Is not it good for a lawmaker to be cautious and make sure they're on the right footing before making a political decision?

"Of course, but to not take action is also a decision," Karlsson says. "And, concerning climate, inaction is clearly the more expensive path to take for society. What is lacking is balance. Being careful on climate change is about taking even the significant probability of extreme outcomes seriously.

"There is sufficient scientific evidence to justify immediate political action if the policy goals are to be achieved."

Christer Gummeson

Mind the Gap

The research project, Mind the Gap - Delay Mechanisms and Goal Failures in Swedish Environmental Policy, is three years and is financed by Formas. Currently, the team includes Mikael Karlsson, PhD in Environmental and Energy, and Karin Edvardsson Björnberg, assistant professor, both at the KTH Department of Philosophy, in two sub-studies:

Review of approximately 150 scientific articles in the field of "scientific denialism," a concept which is mainly discussed in relation to the ongoing climate change and climate science. One purpose of the study is to describe the strategies of the actors in science denial.

Study of climate policy decisions regarding demands to investigate the benefits and costs. Studies analyzing the reasonableness of the requirements in relation to concepts such as the precautionary principle, scientific consensus and probability calculation.