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Science, politics and climate change

By Michael Rowan - posted Thursday, 30 December 2010

We are witnessing something very unusual and important in the public debate about climate change and how we should best respond to it. One part of the political spectrum, the conservative or right-wing parties, particularly in Australia and the US, is rejecting the science of climate change itself, rather than focusing on the political question of how we should respond to what the science tells us is happening.

In Australia the Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott, has been reported as saying that the science of climate change is ‘crap’, though his comments on the record are much more moderate. Not so Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, however, whose web site in a piece on the Prime Minister (dated 29 November 2010) declares (without providing any evidence or sources for his assertion):

"Every day, new evidence emerges that the climate alarmists have got it wrong. The earth is no longer warming and the alarmist camp has been exposed as riddled with scoundrels, shysters and snake oil salesmen."


Senator Bernardi holds a senior position in the Liberal/National Party Coalition as the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Supporting the Leader of the Opposition. It would appear that many others in the Party hold similar views. Certainly the Coalition’s Direct Action Policy on Climate Change suggests climate change does not need to be tackled as a priority.

In the US, the Republican Party has opposed the Democrat’s proposed action to cut US emissions, and the incoming Leader of the Congress John Boehner’s saying ‘the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical’ certainly suggests he has a limited grasp of the issue.

The politicisation of the science of global warming in the US is starkly revealed by Gallop polling, which shows that an issue which was not a line of political cleavage ten years ago is now a political chasm.

In the decade since 1998 the number of Republican voters who agree that the effects of global warming have already begun has fallen 5%, from 46% to 41%, while among Democrat voters those who agree that the effects of global warming have already begun has increased almost 30% (47% to 76%).

In the same period, the percentage of voters from both parties who agree that most scientists believe global warming is occurring increased significantly, by 17% amongst Republican voters (39% to 56%), and 23% amongst Democrat voters (51% to 74%).

The statistics show two aspects of the politicisation of climate science: the deepening cleavage in views along party lines; and the fact that a majority of Republican voters deny that the effects of global warming have already begun while accepting that most scientists believe this to be the case. Political considerations would appear to be overwhelming evidence and expert opinion in the minds of Republican voters.


Of course it is not uncommon for science to bear on hot political issues – for example, ecology and hydrology inform decisions about how much water should be taken from a river system and used for irrigation. In such circumstances scientists might find themselves drawn into political controversy, asked to comment on how this or that proposal lines up with the science. But this is not the same as the science itself being the subject of political controversy.

Rather, politicisation of science occurs when political parties or similar groups more or less formally take a position for or against the science of some phenomenon, not on the basis of the scientific evidence, but rather according to the how they see the science aligns with their political interests. While there is a history of such politicisation, it is now an unusual event, and fraught with danger for both science and the political interests involved. Three examples stand out.

First, the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo and other scientists who proposed that the sun rather than the Earth was the centre of the solar system. The church opposed the new science not on scientific grounds but on the basis that a geocentric theory of the solar system had been incorporated in Catholic theology and to challenge this was therefore seen to challenge the authority of the Church itself. The matter ended badly for the Church, but not before many scientists were harmed, including Galileo himself.

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About the Author

Professor Michael Rowan was the foundation Pro Vice Chancellor of the Division of Education, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of South Australia. He trained as a philosopher.

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