• Dirk

Power to the people - lessons learned for science-policy dialogue

Updated: Dec 14, 2019


In the past, researchers had the image to be sitting over microscopes, taking unreadable notes in their books and mumbling terms incomprehensible to any other than their closest colleagues. That image contributed to making their warnings about changes of climate and biodiversity unheard for a long time. Warnings of the effects of increased levels of CO2 on the climate date back to 1896 when Svante Arrhenius calculated that a doubling of the CO2 concentration will lead to an increase of surface temperatures by 5-6 °C. About 50 years later, the rise of CO2 concentrations have become evident and the first warning of scientists has been issued. It took another 40 years until the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was created. That is an awfully long time for politics to react to a major threat and we still miss on the serious implementation of the scientific recommendations how to mitigate climate change impacts. We still have rising levels of CO2 and a couple of other problems to deal with due to an increasing world population, such as land loss, pollution, increasing resource use, among many others. Mind that any positive change we do now on our greenhouse gas emissions will only positively impact the climate after decades (40 to 100 years!). This climate lag is the reason why scientists are afraid that we, humans, react way too late to mitigate climate change.

So, as a modern scientist you reach out to the public, to politicians, and to other peers. In my new position as a professor for functional mountain ecology, funded by AXA Research Fund, this outreach is part of the job description. The first of those discussions with a local politician was quite interesting, done in a very friendly atmosphere, but with some interesting turns. You might have read my earlier blog, comparing Earth with a Petri dish on which resources are limited and comparing the human population growth with that of a bacterial colony. Once the resources are gone, there is an inevitable result – decline. When I was talking about future resources with a local politician and the risks current trajectories have for our current population, I got the remark that we have enough resources, as we have the sun… okay, so, agreed the sun is an important source of energy, but the exploitation of that energy is just not straight forward, except we start to become green due to chlorophyll production and live on the energy of the sun doing photosynthesis. Ah, wait a minute, even if we would go down that road we may run out of water… another resource essential to us. As it is not very likely that we will be able to produce suddenly chlorophyll and become photosynthetic beings, we may rely on nature to produce digestible energy for us in form of vegetables, fruits and animals, which needs quite a range of resources, such as nutrients in the soil, water, and the sun. So, the sun is good, but actually the least of our problems, except it heats our planet a bit strongly at the moment, as we produce several greenhouse gases, such as methane and CO2. If the sun would be enough for a resource, we would also currently not see this massive migration from the African continent, which is actually a first result of a changing climate, resource shortage, fights for resources and a simply adaptation to our changing world.

Agreed, we can purify salt water from our oceans, but mind that taking out the salt is not enough. There is way too much mercury in ocean water (and likely many other pollutants) and with increasing plastic pollution, we will also find more and more nano-plastic particles in our oceans, from which drinking water needs to be cleaned of. At the moment, purification of salt water costs 10 times more than drawing freshwater from our rivers and lakes. That figure does also not account for water transport from purification plants to the inland. Hence, that would be a very salted addition to a household’s daily costs, which I am sure not all households can cope with easily. Even our water from rivers and lakes becomes more and more polluted and more and more sophisticated purification might be needed in the future, if we do not want to continue negatively impacting on our health due to increased residues of hormones, medicines, pesticides and other harmful substances (check a podcast on the topic here). In many regions around Europe, we already have a shortage of clean drinking water, and it will surely not get better, if our decision makers are hesitant in making the right decisions at the right time (rather early that is).

In my discussion with the local politician, I also offered my scientific knowledge and expertise to serve for the common good. I somehow, no idea why, got the idea that my counterpart thought that they had enough expertise to have thought of everything and that solutions are at their hands when they need them, including modelling the future. Ah, btw., models are good for making PREDICTIONS of the future, but mind that they all come with uncertainty, resulting from the quality of data and knowledge put into them. They need to be regularly adjusted and at the moment, we actually see that many of the climate predictions were off, and that climate changes much more rapidly than predicted. So, politicians have learned nothing over the last decades, they do still not realize that listening to scientists early on may drastically change the trajectories of our future and the means we need to put into mitigation measures. Yes, as scientists we do not always agree with each other – ON THE DETAILS – but we agree on climate change and biodiversity loss. Biodiversity loss, another topic I shortly discussed with my local politician. He did not know anything about the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and even less about the recently mediatized global assessment. Not a good sign neither, especially not as we have learned above that the sun is not enough for a resource and we may need to have bees and other pollinators for food production. If bees disappeared from earth, the human population may only have four years left… four years in which you will then use your smartphone to seek where to find more food and water.

(c) Dirk Schmeller

The most memorable remark my local politician did make, and that made me re-think my strategy, was: “In the past five years we have increased our efforts enormously to accommodate mitigation of climate change impacts, clean up the environment and make life more livable”. The reason for these actions? No, they did not have a scientific committee with recommendations that they followed, but it was the ever increasing public pressure to finally do something.

So, the lesson for me as a scientist is that engaging with a politician might not be worth the time, they might not be open-minded enough, too self-convinced and too occupied with many tasks, hampering the larger view on things. A better strategy might be to continuing to educate and communicate with the public, so that the public can then increase the pressure on our politicians and decision makers. Power to the People! I am ready for that challenge and will start a series of public interventions and events to keep on raising awareness about the issues at hand and to call for active fellow citizens with new ideas, an open mind, and the energy to make politicians do what they want and not the reverse.


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