Science advice is crucial

The scientific community is taking a clear stand on the CO2 Act. Given their expertise, they are not only permitted, but obliged to do so, asserts Reto Knutti.

Over a hundred scientists from Swiss universities and research institutes have issued a statement in strong support of the CO2 Act.1 Does this mean they’re stepping outside of their traditional role? Yes - and in doing so, they’re also fulfilling their responsibility.

Bare numbers have no substance

In the science-fiction classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, hyperintelligent beings create a supercomputer to determine the answer to the "ultimate question of life, the universe and everything". It construes the answer as 42, but the beings can’t make sense of the number because they don’t know exactly what the question was in the first place.

Numbers alone are meaningless. Only in situations that we can assess in the light of previous experience, where the risks are manageable and the consequences of various decisions known, may a number be sufficient - because the context is clear. For a freeze warning, say, a temperature indication of minus two degrees Celsius is enough to decide whether to protect vines at night.

But where much is at stake and we lack experience, for example in the case of an illness, the context is missing. Expert assessments are then of crucial help for decision-making. Often we even seek out a second opinion, in order to understand as best as possible the risks, possible courses of action and consequences.

Making values transparent

No interpretation is entirely unbiased. Facts and figures are only assessed through a particular viewpoint, and of these there are always several. Mani Matter aptly describes this in his song "Ir Ysebahn".2 Two people are sitting opposite each other on the train; one sees what’s coming, and the other sees what has gone by. Although they’re both on the same train, looking at the same landscape, they argue about it because their perspectives are different.

So numbers need a context, interpretation, and discussion of uncertainties, advantages and disadvantages from different perspectives - be it ethics, economics, or sustainability. And this involves value judgements. Is a one in a thousand risk of a landslide or Covid-19 infection justifiable? What value do we place on one human life? Will the course of action proposed achieve the goal that has been set?

Party representatives and lobbyists often have simple answers to these questions, based on the values and interests of the organisation to which they belong. When it comes to important political issues, a wide variety of sectors and actors always get involved - the same is true of the CO2 Act. There’s no reason why the scientific community shouldn’t get involved, as long as it separates the facts from the scenarios and interpretations, and can justify how it reaches its recommendations.

A testing time for policy dialogue

As the pandemic has shown, social discourse can be difficult. Scientists get annoyed when politicians keep ignoring them and then claim they didn’t know. And on the other hand, some politicians get het up about the cacophony of experts and would rather not hear unpleasant truths. Universities, meanwhile, draw up guidelines for communication and try to suppress any dissent.

But this is precisely the essence of democracy. The exchange between science, business, politics and society is crucial for shaping opinion. We must allow discourse (and dissent). In the age of social media, it can no longer be prevented anyway.

Why we’re taking a stand

The scientific community cannot, should not, and will not preempt political decisions. But it does have the right to point out blind spots and dangers. And indeed it must do so - in 2009, seismologists in Italy were put on trial for manslaughter for failing to give adequate warning of earthquakes.3

It’s clear to me that it is our duty as scientists to assess the consequences of measures, to show whether the action plan will achieve the goal, and to point out when facts are distorted or manipulated. Of course, society may ignore these recommendations, as it does now and then. But it should always be aware of what’s at stake.

Climate change is very real, and our actions are the overriding cause of warming. The law passed by Parliament won’t be enough, but it’s a consensus supported by a broad majority and a major step toward global net-zero greenhouse gases. And this is the goal to which Switzerland committed itself when it ratified the Paris Agreement.

Without the law, we’ll lose precious years, and increase the risk of heatwaves, heavy precipitation and dry summers. The benefits outweigh the costs. This is why, as scientists from a number of disciplines, we support the CO2 Act.

References

1 Statement by scientists from Swiss universities

2 Listen to Mani Matter’s song "Ir Ysebahn" and read the lyrics

3 Scientists on trial: At fault? Nature (2011)

Prof. Reto Knutti