Science in international negotiations
The Climate Change Convention: a load of hot
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
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
- 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.