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Exploring the discovery of global warming, Spencer Weart describes the complex scientific and social processes that were involved. Today, says Tang Hao, the world cannot wait for consensus on political action.

The Discovery of Global Warming
Spencer R Weart (Gong Zhaoli, translator)
Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 2008
(Originally published in English by Harvard University Press, 2003; revised and expanded edition, 2008)

Spencer R Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming describes the identification and acceptance of the phenomena of global warming. “Who made the discovery of global warming – that is to say, the discovery that human activities have begun to make the world warmer?” he asks. “No one person, but a number of scientific communities.”

This is easy to accept, of course, but also worth noting is the non-scientific process that Weart’s book describes: “Their achievement was not just to accumulate data and performs calculations, but also to link these together. This was obviously a social process, the work of many people interacting with one another. The social process was so complex, and so important, that the last stage was visibly institutionalised: the workshops, reviews and negotiating sessions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (IPCC).

The link between human activity and global warming was not a matter of pure scientific research; it also involved political, economic and social considerations, and a long and arduous struggle. The process demonstrates that scientific discovery is no easy task, and obtaining recognition for this particular discovery was no easier than gaining acceptance for Galileo’s discovery that Earth revolved around the sun.

Although the discoveries have been confirmed, they are still a long way from bringing about changes in behaviour – both for the public and for politicians. It was only after repeated exposition that the IPCC gradually came to its current position on the link between human production of greenhouse gases and global warming. In 1990, an IPCC report said that climate changes over the last century may be caused by natural fluctuations or by human activity”; in 1995, the panel’s second report said that human influence on climate systems was “discernible”. Its third report, in 2001, stressed that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse-gas concentrations”. By the time of the fourth report in 2007, the IPCC said clearly that the chance of human activity causing global warming was now nine in ten – up from two in three in 2001.

When a scientist publishes a paper based on his or her observations and data, other scientists often will regard it with scepticism. All scientific explorations require repeated verification. But this slow process may have huge costs, as research will not find the answers it is looking for immediately, if at all.

As Weart writes: “Faced with scientists who publish warnings, the public’s natural response is to ask them for definitive guidance. When the scientists fail to say for certain what will happen, politicians habitually tell them to go back and do more research. That is all very well, but in the case of climate, waiting for a sure answer would mean waiting forever. When we are faced with a new disease or an armed invasion, we do not put off decisions until more research is done: we act using the best guidelines available.”

Continued research may result in missed opportunities. After all, it took 100 years for global warming to be identified and accepted.

At the same time, however, science is defining the fight against global warming. The only reliable method to evaluate humanity’s actions and identify the necessary policies is to look for authoritative scientific conclusions. But Weart’s book then points out the limitations and powerlessness of science. Besides the long and arduous processes spoken of previously, it is no easy task to have scientific advice accepted by the public and politicians and become the basis for political action.

The obstacles are political and economic interests. Anti-environmental politics always has been the major enemy of the environmental movement. For example, interest groups and public attitudes in the United States put efforts to slow global warming, such as the Kyoto Protocol, into doubt. Regarding the public, Weart writes, “… it would be good to do something about global warming, most people thought – but not if that would mean changing anything very much.”

But to be fair, global warming has done some good. It threatens public interests, but benefits a few countries and interest groups. This has led the public to make more demands for environmental action; it has become a new motive for political pressure and participation. Environmentalist political parties, civil society, the news media and public debate – all of these are tools for the public to participate in politics. The increasing recognition of the global-warming issue has brought with it increasing participation in environmental politics and indirectly spurred global democracy.

And there is a positive change brought about by that new political pressure and participation: politicians who fail to speak out against global warming will face criticism. But this is nowhere near enough and there are many factors preventing those words being converted to action. New laws and systems are required to ensure that actions match words. Political reforms are necessary to bring politics in line with the new political demands of the people. In this sense, there is a new motive for reform and advances in democratic politics.

In our era, interaction between scientific research and politics is crucial. Public pressure may have forced a political consensus on fighting global warming, but this is inadequate when compared with the speed and danger of the problem itself. The United States – the world’s strongest nation and the country most responsible for global warming –has not yet taken effective measures to control it. This demonstrates that pressure from civil society and democratic navel-gazing are inadequate.

It took a century for scientists to convince the public that humans were causing global warming, and we cannot wait this long for a consensus on action – because we do not have that long. Scientific research can take its time; political action cannot.

Tang Hao, an assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University, is deputy editor and columnist for Shamin (Citizen) magazine. His essays and opinion articles have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Southern Window, Southern Metropolitan Daily and the Yangcheng Evening News.