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Science in international negotiations

The Climate Change Convention: a load of hot air?

By Peter Hulm


Science is neutral, objective and fact-based, right? At an international level, this is one way to escape nationalist competition, emotionalism and special interest pleading. For politicians anxious to broker a deal, whether internationally minded or not, scientific opinion can provide the impetus for accepting an agreement whose impact on the national interest is uncertain. Such, I think, is the generally accepted political and bureaucratic view in international organizations of the role of science in global issues.

So at the global level in particular, politicians often turn to specialists, and notably to scientists, for their opinions on the technical aspects of issues subject to public policy decisions. Almost every international agreement depends on a series of expert reports that are thought to give the framework for the negotiations.

In such issues, scientific consensus is considered a major requirement. Politics and science are often contrasted, with science praised for its neutrality in policy issues. However, especially on environmental questions, the search for consensus has significant shortcomings, as the history of the 1992 Climate Change Convention indicates:

  • Pressures for a common view force advice-givers to gloss over important scientific uncertainties.
  • These uncertainties can be exploited by stakeholder governments to the detriment of effective action.
  • Artificial polarization, particularly as portrayed by the media, can then work against the interests of democratic decision-making, though it makes interesting (and therefore profitable) reading.
  • Scientists in one nation or group of nations can themselves take over the consensus process for their own purposes.

What conclusions can we draw, then, about science in politics or politics in science as revealed by international negotiations for a climate change convention? Neither a 'realist' (nation-state based) nor a liberal-pluralist view of such activity - the two most common approaches used by political scientists - provides an adequate understanding of the forces involved. The most common alternative political explanation - based on a neo-Marxist approach - fails to account for a large part of what took place. A combination of these perspectives, which might be termed 'post-realism' in approach, suggests that 'civic science' (Lee, 1993) is as political as any other public activity, subject to the same pressures and exploited in the same way.



The scientific consensus

The problems of consensus

The politics of consensus

The threshold of danger

The politics of science

Knowledge-based communities


Buying scientific credibility

Science and the three paradigms

A utilitarian hypothesis

A cobweb model, modified



What the Panel Said

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11 December 2000 Webmaster