Why Scientific Evidence is Not Enough to Fight the Climate Crisis

The European Union declared the climate emergency, calling for immediate action in 2019; and so did 18 cities in the US, Australia as well as the Catholic Church (Europäisches Parlament, 2019). But still, on a global scale, humans are as far away as ever from the 2°C target agreed upon at the Paris Climate Conference 2015/16. CO2 growth rates continue to increase globally instead of decreasing, and if humans want to hit the 2°C target, the reduction of carbon emissions must be tripled (Irving, 2019).

But why is it so hard to tackle the climate crisis? Are climate emergencies nothing more than symbolic policies? And how can actions towards a sustainable future be set on the agendas of politicians worldwide?

Climate Change is a Wicked Problem

Basically, wicked problems are policy problems that are not clearly definable. They cover almost all policy issues and are never definitely resolved: they reoccur over time and have to be solved over and over again. Wicked problems can be framed in multiple ways, meaning that they can also be solved in multiple ways. This creates a complex field of tension between actors and interests which are entangled through power relations and social structures. For climate change, this implies that the complexity of the whole policy issue is making it almost impossible to find a solution because – and this is another factor that makes wicked problems so wicked – solutions are never true or false but always good or bad, depending on the political and public judgment. There is no definite solution, because there is no clearly defined problem! (Connolly, 2015)

But what about “Evidence-Based Policymaking” (EBP)?

From a scientific point of view, climate change, its impacts, and its causes are rather well outlined: “The SYR [Synthesis Report] confirms that human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed across all continents and oceans. [The] SYR finds that the more human activities disrupt the climate, the greater the risks of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems […].” (IPCC, 2014, S. 5) One of the main demands of the #fridaysforfuture movement is that policymakers should finally listen to science; Greenpeace stated recently, referring to the State of the Union speech by President Ursula von der Leyen: “You can’t beat #ClimateBreakdown with political convenience & accounting tricks. There’s no middle ground when it comes to science.” (Sandford & Olavario, 2020) But what is problematic about this call for evidence-based policymaking?

At first, the call for more evidence in policymaking seems valid; the assumption, experts would enable a more rational and therefore better decision-making is widely spread throughout society. The hope of de-politicization of difficult topics, e.g. climate change, goes alongside the idea that (scientific) evidence is the better advisor than installed politicians. But this is exactly where the core problem of evidence-based policymaking is rooted: scientific evidence is never neutral, but always context-dependent, requiring interpretation and judgment. It is thus always intrinsically political.

The danger of EBP lies within the neglect of the political nature of policymaking processes. Instead of understanding policymaking as a competition of values, worldviews and interests, EBP suggests that only one kind of “uncontested” scientific evidence should guide the policymaking process. But the policymaking process is more complex than that: based on the argument that evidence/science is never neutral, it is important to ask who generated the evidence, how they did it, and who they did it for – and who decides how to use it?

Before this background, it becomes clear that scientific evidence cannot be the answer to stagnating climate policies. More information does, under these circumstances, not necessarily mean more action, but rather more competition over powerful influence. With various actors, operating in an environment defined by power dynamics and political structures, engaging with contesting (and never neutral) evidence, the policy issue of climate change is likely to be the most challenging of our times. Not because there are no solutions, but rather, because there are too many.

For further information:

  • Connolly, J. (2015). The "wicked problems' of governing UK health security disaster prevention: The case of pandemic influenza". Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 24(3), pp. 369-382.

  • Europäisches Parlament. (2019, 11 29). Europäisches Parlament ruft Klimanotstand aus. Retrieved from Aktuelles: Presseraum: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/de/press-room/20191121IPR67110/europaisches-parlament-ruft-klimanotstand-aus

  • Greenpeace. (2020, 09 26). Climate: Environmental Justice. Retrieved from Greenpeace US: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/issues/environmental-justice/

  • IPCC. (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (R. Pachauri, & L. Meyer, Eds.) Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC.

  • Irving, M. (2019, 09 22). Climate report highlights how far off track we are from Paris goals. Retrieved from Newatlas: Environment: https://newatlas.com/environment/united-science-climate-summit-report/

  • Parkhurst, J. (2017). "Introduction". In J. Parkhurst, The Politics of Evidence: From evidence-based policy to the good governance of evidence. Oxon: Routledge

  • Sandford, A., & Olavario, D. (2020, 09 17). State of the Union: What are the key takeaways from Ursula von der Leyen's speech? Retrieved from Euronews: https://www.euronews.com/2020/09/16/watch-live-eu-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen-delivers-state-of-the-union-speech


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