Why scientists don’t always inform climate policy

Peter Makwanya

SCIENTIFIC knowledge is regarded as transformative in terms of breaking new ground, forecasting and creating new knowledge through research and innovation.

While science is driven by intellect, human capital, technological orientation and immersion, environmental policy is captured and informed by political will or lack of it.

Although any government of the day recognises the indispensable nature of science and innovation in gathering scientific data, carrying out research, guiding and shaping the world, it is the politics of the day which provides the final decision on how global environmental matters should be governed.

In this regard, the conference of parties, the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy, the slow transitions to renewable energy including pegging of the pollution benchmarks from 1,5 to 2 degrees Celsius are political rather than environmental decisions.

Scientists and environmentalists have transformative knowledge and technical knowhow but they don’t run countries.

Issues of national governance, policy formulation and implementation are for the governments of the day to give direction and guidance.

That is where conflict of interests arises as scientists would want to see the full implementation of their research outcomes while governments would want to protect their territories and guard their space, nomatter the ramifications and costs.

Even in the context of available well-formulated policy and environmental Acts, governments can be seen turning a blind eye on pollution, deforestation, land degradation through illegal mining, dumping of toxic wastes into water bodies despite the environmental policies being clear.

Therefore, scientists become handy only when governments want to use them for their own benefit. While it is the duty of scientists to better understand and explain the global, regional and local impacts of climate change, including proposing the relevant response options and strategies, the policymakers are there to validate them.

One possible undoing about the scientific stable is that while their means are strategic, transparent and sometimes consultative, they are not inclusive. This would point towards gatekeeping and fear of their outcomes being nuetralised or misrepresented.

Theirs is particularly knowledge dissemination and not essentially sharing. Policymakers would also do the same when some environmental issues appear to undermine national interests. They would rather gate-keep, rubber stamp, ignore and become less consultative.

In this regard, nations would rather continue burning coal to produce energy because it is a national requirement even when the scientists declare that fossil fuels should be kept underground.

Despite calls by scientists to invest in renewable energy which is clean and user friendly, many countries are now into oil and gas explorations, the same fossil fuels that have changed the complexion of the atmosphere because there are dividends to be realised.

These are some of the policy inconsistences and double dealings which cannot be avoided.

It is well acknowledged that scientists are enlightened, informed and literate, but after such ground-breaking innovations, they present them to policymakers, who are mainly politicians — some of them without the gift of education, depth and scholarship to validate the scientific findings.

These have the power to override the informed decisions of the scientists, leading to lack of value-addition.

Therefore, while scientists have knowledge and transformative skills, policymakers have political power to get things done.

Scientific findings always propose innovative practical, policy and scientific options to strengthen the conservation and safeguarding of the ecosystems.

These need to be taken seriously by policymakers for environmental sustainability that we all envisage.

The scientific communications and debates always lead to prospects for nurturing our current state of knowledge, technological innovation and access to resources which can also be used by politicians to inform policy.

It is also the scientific projections that forecast more or less precipitation, extreme heat or cold, violent floods, tropical cyclones, water stress, droughts, other looming ecological disasters, among others.

To avoid or manage these, collaborations and collective efforts are required from scientists and policymakers.

While science and innovation can be powerful tools to transform environmental policy systems, it is significant for all stakeholders concerned to visualise climate change issues through cross-cutting and interdisciplinary lenses.

In this view, political will, which sufficiently informs policy, is always in short supply from many policymakers around the world.

This is due to the fact that environmental issues don’t always come first, but continue to be backgrounded by national aspirations and energy sovereignty issues.

As a result, these would continue to widen the energy divide and inequalities between the Global North and South.

Some of the scientific drawbacks are that scientific evidence is sometimes associated with uncertainties, while results and outcomes can be contested too.

The scientific uncertainties sometimes sow seeds of doubt which normally require influence and support from the policymakers.

Regrettably, scientists and policymakers do not always collaborate, consult for policy interface, alignment and coherence which normally lead petty conflicts and policy ambivalences.

It is also without doubt that scientists are a critical component of human capital, important in tackling sustainable development goals (SDGs), knowledge processing and skills improvement for the welfare of the planet for future generations.

Policymakers usually concentrate on policies that ring-fence them, their immediate needs and not future ones. In this regard, governments have roles to play by translating SDGs into effective policies that build strong relations, institutions and infrastructure.

Universities play important roles in nurturing scientific knowledge and expertise, through investing in research and innovations.

This is critical in churning out intellectual capital required to help government inform its scientific policies but somehow not always engaged and consulted as knowledge experts who can add value.

Overall, scientists and policymakers need each other to contribute geopolitical resilience required to avoid the planet getting further fragmenting.

It is resilience which is the cornerstone of withstanding the risks of climate change and it can only be achieved if scientists and policymakers reach out to each other, collaborate and inform policy.

Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on: [email protected] 

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