Should Scientists or Politicians decide the future of Climate Change policy?

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Since 1972, the ESU has awarded yearly grants for up to three UK resident postdoctoral scientists - allowing them to carry out their cutting-edge research in the USA. We asked two of our most recent fellows to debate the hot topic of climate change. Dr Nicholas Phillips and Dr Steven D. Quinn debate the motion:

This House Believes Policy on Climate Change Should be Made by a Panel of Experts Instead of a Panel of Politicians

Proposition by Dr Nicholas Phillips

Climate change as a result of air pollution has been accepted by many across the globe but is still referred to as just a theory by many doubters.  Debating between experts and sceptics has led to a range of local policies around the world, with the new leadership in the USA determined to pull out of the recent Paris climate agreement (COP 21).  This illustrates how fragile political agreements like this can be when passed between political administrations.  Politicians often have a vested interest in either economic growth, e.g. developments in fracking technology, or in their own public image.  Whilst the latter generally will correlate with positive action on climate change, policies may only seek to addresses issues that can be solved in time for the next election.

Politicians are already advised by a panel of scientific experts, who have full access and understanding of primary research addressing climate change and clean energy production.  Armed with this knowledge and expertise, such a panel would be able to invest wisely in areas of research that may have the greatest potential long-term, e.g. clean energy technologies, and short-term benefits, e.g. carbon capture and storage, without selecting which actions may serve them best at the next election.

Dr Nicholas Phillips, Lindemann Trust Fellow (UC Berkeley, 2016-17)

Opposition by Dr Steven D. Quinn

Scientists can and must help decision makers at the national and international level by providing informed analytic, evidence-based facts. But scientists alone cannot and must not directly make climate-change policies. Scientific evidence alone represents a small piece of the larger picture a climate change policy maker has to consider. Factors including fiscal responsibility, consequences, uncertainty, legalities, outcomes, conflicting objectives, accountability, interactions with other policies and a need to ensure policy is regulated and scrutinised from a wide range of institutions and angles, must be considered. Fiscally-responsible, democratically elected officials (many of whom have excellent scientific credentials), who not only take advice from scientific advisors but who also take public opinion from their constituents into account, are necessary for this task. Our democracies necessitate that public opinion is a critical component of the policy-making process, especially those requiring major economic investment, and whilst scientists must strongly influence the political landscape, only politicians who represent the democratic will of the people and have control over intrinsically-related policies, must make and be accountable for the final decisions.

Dr Steven D. Quinn, Lindemann Trust Research Fellow, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 2016-17)

For more information on the Lindemann Trust Fellowships and other ESU programmes click here.