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Donald Trump, climate denial and other obstacles to 'science diplomacy'

Saturday, 21 January 2017 11:23am

Image of Robert Patman 2016_profileProfessor Robert Patman
The New Zealand Listener, January 21, 2017

The most urgent challenges facing the planet will be solved only if governments recognise that knowledge must come before self-interest in policymaking.

It hardly needs saying that scientific advances, particularly in information and communications technology, have transformed the way we live and communicate. But science is playing an important role in diplomatic relations.
The term science diplomacy has entered the vocabulary of policymakers, scientists and scholars of international ­relations. It refers to the way states use scientific knowledge to address problems and to build international partnerships to deal with some of the planet’s most urgent challenges.

Science diplomacy’s direct relationship with government interests and goals distinguishes it from other forms of international scientific co-operation, which are driven by research or commercial imperatives and often occur without direct state participation.

In 2008, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) established the Centre for Science Diplomacy, which sought to use science “to build bridges between countries and to promote scientific co-operation as an essential element of foreign policy”. Two years later, the AAAS and the Royal Society in the United Kingdom produced a report called New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy: Navigating the Changing Balance of Power. And in the past six years, research institutions and universities, including my own, have hosted conferences on science diplomacy.

The United Nations and the European Union, along with the US, the UK, Switzerland, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, have collaborated in building policymaking capacity to conduct science diplomacy. In particular, the New Zealand Government’s chief science adviser, ­Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, has worked to establish an International Network of Government Science Advice. In August 2014, the first international meeting on science advice to governments was held in Auckland. It was attended by more than 240 delegates from 44 countries.

Furthermore, in 2015, the US National Academy of Sciences released its own assessment of science in the US Department of State in a study entitled Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Embedding a Culture of Science and Technology Throughout the Department of State.

Mixed results

The results have been mixed. Science diplomacy has been used to initiate and manage large-scale international science projects. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is a multilateral diplomatic effort aimed at extending scientific collaboration to establish a large radio telescope that will dramatically improve human capabilities to survey space. The development of SKA will intensify next year, incorporating antennas in open areas, free from radio noise, that will relay information to central cores in Australia and South Africa. The project’s headquarters are at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England.

New Zealand is a partner of Australia in this project, and some 20 countries, including India and China, are participating and sharing the estimated €2 billion (NZ$3 billion) cost. The SKA project aims “to provide answers to fundamental questions” about general relativity, galaxy evolution, cosmic magnetism, the cosmic dawn and extraterrestrial life. This is one way in which diplomacy can expand the scope of scientific collaboration.

Antarctic example

Since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, nations with a presence in Antarctica have largely embraced scientific co-operation and the area has become something of a peace zone. In 2016, after five years of diplomatic negotiations, 25 nations agreed to establish the world’s largest marine protection park in the Ross Sea.

By contrast, science diplomacy has notably failed to address global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international group of more than 2000 scientists established in 1988, concluded that not only was global warming perhaps the most significant threat to the planet, but also that the culprit was atmospheric greenhouse gas generated by human activities: industrial pollution, traffic emissions and intensive farming.

International treaties designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions were signed at successive high-profile meetings at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto, Copenhagen and, most recently, Paris. To date, however, little has been achieved and the targets set are woefully short of what scientists say is needed.

Climate diplomacy has faced two obstacles. President George W Bush and, more recently, president-elect Donald Trump have found it politically and economically expedient to ignore or dispute the evidence. In particular, Trump has repeatedly described climate change as a “hoax” and nominated a climate-change denier, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Moreover, diplomats have often lacked a clear grasp of the scientific evidence and negotiated in an incremental fashion at odds with the “tipping-point” nature of the threat.

In short, many of the planet’s major problems – in climate, food, water, energy and health – are of global proportions and almost all are linked, in some way, to science and technology. Yet many states still cling to the Westphalian doctrine of unfettered sovereignty.

Bridging the gap

How, then, to bridge the gap between policymakers and science? First, scientists must insert themselves more frequently into national debates. Scientists are widely respected in many societies, and they must not flinch from sharing their expertise with officials and the public on such issues as climate change.

Second, sovereign states must come to terms with a fundamentally new global environment, which allows instant communications and financial transactions across borders. States, including the most powerful ones, must recognise that unilateralism is a dangerous fantasy, and failure to recognise shared interests can be catastrophic for their citizens and those of other states.

Third, it is high time the United Nations – the chief custodian of the international interest – was reformed to ensure the organisation can help bring diplomacy and science together to address global problems that can be solved only on a multilateral basis. If the UN is going to be more functional and relevant to the current world, the veto powers of the five permanent members of the Security Council must either be substantially constrained or abolished.

Science diplomacy has not yet fulfilled its promise, but the rapid physical decline of our planet makes it imperative that it does.


Reproduced with permission from the New Zealand Listener. Read the original article here

View Professor Robert Patman's staff profile