“Climate Action is Slow for a Combination of Understandable Reasons”

 

Professor Philip Kitcher (London, 1947) is John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University, New York. He is a mathematician, historian and philosopher by training, and he is regarded as one of the leading figures in the field of philosophy of science today. 

He has authored over 15 books on topics including evolution, epistemology, pragmatism, and secular humanism. His 2017 book ‘The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts’, co-authored with Evelyn Fox Keller, has been characterised as a “landmark work of environmental philosophy that seeks to transform the debate about climate change”, presenting the realities of global warming through a human-centered narrative to better assimilate the science of climate change and its very real implications for human beings.

On 2 November 2021, Professor Kitcher delivered a lecture titled ‘Why Is Climate Action So Hard?’ as part of the PERITIA Lectures Series ‘[Un]Truths: Trust in an Age of Disinformation’. His lecture took place virtually as part of the Berlin Science Week. You can watch it here.

Question: What do you think is the role of philosophy in the conversation about climate change, and how do you think philosophers can contribute more to this critical conversation?

Philip Kitcher: Philosophers have done some truly outstanding work on climate modelling, posing and addressing the kinds of methodological questions that are the bread-and-butter of philosophy of science. Our discipline has contributed much less to the other issues that arise about climate change, and that is something that ought to be remedied.

The most basic work philosophers can do consists in offering a structure for the full range of disputes. Evelyn Keller and I tried to do that, by considering six major questions that need to be taken up in sequence.  After that we attempted to organise the discussion of each of them, thinking first about framing questions about the evidence for global heating, second about how to assess the impact, third about our obligations to future generations, fourth about how to evaluate the economic consequences of various plans for assuring our descendants a manageable future, fifth about how to answer the legitimate demands of developing nations, and finally sixth, about the transnational democracy that we seem to need (and lack). There are aspects of all these issues that require philosophical treatment.

 

Q.: Climate action – particularly on the part of policy makers – has been far slower than we need it to be, even in countries where the reality of climate change is not widely contested, and even as climate change scepticism is waning overall. What can philosophy tell us about our apparent inability (or reluctance) to think and act in our own (and the planet’s) long-term best interest?

P.K.: Climate action is slow for a combination of understandable reasons. First, there are large numbers of vulnerable people, in every country, including the affluent world. These people worry that their already precarious lives will be devastated by the kinds of things young activists clamour for. Young people are right to ask for attention to the future but, since they haven’t yet committed themselves to a definite place in society, they do not worry about large changes that might impoverish older generations, or leave middle-aged people without a means to support themselves. Second, the problem of assessing the various kinds of futures that might emerge from the different proposals for limiting the rise in temperature is extremely hard. It is probabilistic in character, and we can’t give serious estimates of any number of important probabilities. Hence, lots of fearful people understandably don’t want to see radical change, because they can hope that things will turn out well even if little is done now. My PERITIA Lecture elaborates on this predicament in much more detail, and (I hope) it shows more clearly how philosophy can contribute.

 

“Young people are right to ask for attention to the future but, since they haven’t yet committed themselves to a definite place in society, they do not worry about large changes that might impoverish older generations”

 

Q.: Your 2017 book ‘The Seasons Alter’ is in part an attempt to present the realities of global warming in a digestible way for the general public to understand the science and politics of climate change more readily. What can your research tell us about the effective ways – and the not-so-effective ways – to talk about climate change with people who remain sceptical about it?

P.K.: Our book imagined dialogues between an activist and a sceptic with respect to each of the six questions I mentioned earlier. It’s hard to say whether we succeeded in providing models for constructive conversations between members of these two parties. I’ve received a fair number of enthusiastic emails from readers who thought the book was a must-read for their sceptical friends. In retrospect, though, I’d have written the third chapter differently; the dialogue there didn’t probe deeply enough into the vulnerabilities many opponents of climate action feel. I think the participants should have been people who were actually seeking jobs (rather than people who had just found them), and that the difficulties of economic disruption should have been presented more deeply and more vividly.

 

Q.: In their 2012 book ‘Merchants of Doubt’, science historians Naomi Oreskes (who recently delivered a lecture as part of the PERITIA Lectures Series) and Erik M. Conway ring the alarm on ‘mercenary scientists’ – high-level scientists with strong ties to particular industries – who use their influence to “keep the controversy alive”, actively misleading the public by denying well-established scientific knowledge, including on climate change. How can experts and science communicators help the general public identify these ‘contrarian scientists’ and pinpoint their underlying motivations?

P.K.: As my review in Science indicated, I think Merchants of Doubt is an exceptionally important book – one of the greatest contributions to public understanding of climate change.

I would love to see greater transparency in how the money flows into science labs and into particular projects. I suspect (though I don’t know) that there are all sorts of barriers to getting the information. But, assuming those barriers were broken down, journalists would have a moral responsibility to recognise who is getting funding from Big Oil or Big Pharma, adjust their assessments of controversies accordingly, and let the public know which of the alleged “contrarians” are getting handsomely paid for their efforts. If journalists could find out how the funding flows, and then live up to their responsibilities, the result would be a great legacy of Oreskes’ and Conway’s pioneering work.

 

“I would love to see greater transparency in how the money flows into science labs and into particular projects. I suspect that there are all sorts of barriers to getting the information.”

 

Q.: Many news platforms – and even some science journals – like to talk about “both sides of the global warming debate” to seem more balanced and unbiased, presenting unsubstantiated alternatives as though they are on equal footing with the scientific consensus, which can make it harder for people to distil fact from fiction. At the same time, not mentioning such ‘alternative positions’ may lead some people to feel suspicious and think that certain facts are being hidden from the public. How should we address this paradox?

P.K.: I have been appalled by the tendency of many reputable newspapers to write articles that “balance the conflicting views.” Of course, doing that is just fine when a debate is genuinely unsettled. When a scientific community has reached a consensus, however, it’s either cowardice or a misguided effort to “make science exciting” and so woo, or retain, readers. A whole generation of science journalists seems to fear being sued, sacked or vilified if they take a firm stand. Their editors also appear to want them to emphasise the “personal aspects of the story” – as if readers wouldn’t read an article about science unless it were jazzed up. My guess is that the root of the problem lies with the sense, on the part of journalists and their bosses, that they don’t know enough about science to give their own assessments. That could be remedied if people with a strong background in science were actively recruited, if journalists were offered paid leaves to keep up to date, and so forth.

You are right to hold that people will protest that a newspaper, website, or news channel is “taking sides.” The trouble is that, in our epistemically fractured world, people already believe that about the media they are taught to despise. Getting back to a situation in which media don’t always tell their adherents what they think those people want to hear will be extremely hard.

 

“[Balancing conflicting views] is just fine when a debate is genuinely unsettled. When a scientific community has reached a consensus, however, it’s either cowardice or a misguided effort to ‘make science exciting.’”

 

Q.: What is your position on the argument that individual changes (e.g., reducing meat consumption, flying less, recycling more, etc.) are just as important as – some might argue even more important than – systemic changes (e.g., eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, introducing carbon pricing, etc.) in reducing our carbon footprint on the environment?

P.K.: Completely straightforward. It’s a good idea for individuals to do what they can. But they should realise that individual effort alone is never going to do the trick. Even if decisions by people began to create incentives sufficiently strong to outweigh the bribes producers currently get under the status quo, the process would be far too slow to do much good. Giving up meat is a good idea for at least two other reasons. Installing solar panels is a good idea, too. But without very large systemic changes, probably far more ambitious than anything any climate summit is likely to yield commitments to (let alone live up to), emissions will continue to accumulate at dangerous rates.

 

Q.: Renowned climate scientist Michael Mann has argued in his latest work that outright climate denialism is now fading, and in its place we are seeing what he describes as a new form of ‘soft denialism’, which ultimately has the same goal of slowing actions to curb CO2 emissions. Do you agree? If so, what do you think would be some effective strategies to combat this new form of soft denialism vis-a-vis the more traditionally overt forms of climate change denialism?

Michael Mann is a brilliant climate scientist, an excellent writer for the general public, and a brave man. He’s basically right. I’d just add that there are all sorts of forms of “soft denialism.” Some ex-sceptics say “It’s too late to do anything.” Others say “Why do we take the interest of people who have not yet been born more seriously than those of all the living people who are suffering?”  Others might say “The best we can do for future generations is to keep the economy going.” Others say “This is a collective problem, and requires collective governance – but we’re never going to get that (a good thing too, nobody wants to be run by the UN or faceless bureaucrats in Brussels).” Yet others might say “What we need is geo-engineering. The current forms are either too risky (sulphur in the atmosphere) or only applicable at small scales (carbon capture). Let’s wait until technology discovers the solution.”

I could go on and on about this. We argue that the concerns of the living are important, but that they need to be balanced against our obligations to future generations. It cannot be a matter of ignoring either constituency. Similarly, rich nations, the countries that have created the current mess, have ethical obligations to parts of the world that would otherwise be denied the opportunities for economic development that the mess-makers have long enjoyed. Problems of collective actions have different scales at which all parties must come to agreement – and it is therefore foolish and irresponsible to retreat from joint deliberations, simply out of aversion to transnational entities (or faceless bureaucrats in different places). Finally, to do nothing, and bet on technology finding a way out is an irresponsible gamble on the human future.

 

Credit cover picture: Shutterstock

Towards a New European Research Area — Interview with Kerstin Sahlin

Kerstin Sahlin (Royal Swedish Academy of Science) is the Chair of the new ALLEA Working Group on the European Research Area. Picture credit: Umeå University/Mattias Pettersson

Professor Kerstin Sahlin (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) is Professor of Public Management in the Department of Business Studies at Uppsala University. She is also the Chair of the new ALLEA Working Group on the European Research Area, which held its first meeting on 7 October. The group will contribute to the further development of the ERA, its political framework, implementation and monitoring. In this interview, she provides us with an overview on the key issues at stake for the future of ERA.

 

Question: You are the chair of ALLEA’s new working group on the European Research Area. Could you tell us a bit about the objectives of this project?

Kerstin Sahlin: The group will address strategic issues of importance to accomplish the ERA such as free circulation, research inequalities and widening participation, young researchers, academic freedom, and global approaches to R&I. The programme of action will include engaging with the European Institutions, particularly the European Commission, on the development of the ERA, its implementation, monitoring and evaluation. The group will also continue to contribute to the monitoring and shaping of EU research and innovation framework programmes.

 

“The programme of action will include engaging with the European Institutions, particularly the European Commission, on the development of the ERA, its implementation, monitoring and evaluation.”

 

Q.: The European Research Area (ERA) was created in the 2000s as a mechanism to address the fragmentation of the EU’s research and innovation systems. After more than 20 years in development, could you mention one key achievement of this project and one relevant pending issue ahead of us?

K.S.: The European Research Area (ERA) is the ambition to create a single, borderless market for research, innovation and technology across the EU. In 2018, the European Commission initiated a process to revitalise the ERA and in 2020 launched what is called the new ERA. This new ERA seeks to strengthen mobility of researchers and the flow of knowledge, incentivise investing in research and innovation, promote gender equality and diversity in science, and enhance cooperation among universities, business and other research and innovation actors.

 

Q.: After the recent Communication of the European Commission on the future of ERA and the new EU Pact for Research and Innovation, the new ERA is taking off. In your opinion, is the ambition and the framing of priorities of this policy initiative moving towards the right direction?

K.S.: In general, we are very positive to the ambitions of strengthening the European Research Area. The new ERA – and the EU pact for Research and Innovation that was formulated as an agenda for the new ERA – includes a long list of topics. It is still a very open and complex process. The programme of action will include engaging with the European Institutions, particularly the European Commission, on the development of the ERA, its implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

 

“We want to see a new ERA that facilitates cooperation, improves framework conditions for science and research across Europe, facilitates good research practice (…)”

 

Q.: In which areas can European academies work together to contribute the most to the future of the new ERA?

K.S.: We want to see a new ERA that facilitates cooperation, improves framework conditions for science and research across Europe, facilitates good research practice, defends academic freedom and trustworthy science, strengthens diversity and inclusivity, and helps us think and act globally. An ERA, in other words, that forms along the strategic priorities of ALLEA.

 

Members of the new ALLEA Working Group on the European Research Area in their first meeting on 7 October, 2021. The breadth of expertise and geographical representation of the group’s membership reflects the heterogeneity of the ERA itself.

 

Q.: An often-antagonising debate among scientists is the role citizens and policymakers should play in defining their research agendas. How do you think this question should be addressed?

K.S.: I think most researchers welcome an openness to citizens and policymakers. Of course, this should not be set up in such a way that the independence, freedom and trustworthiness of science and research is compromised.

 

Q.: You are Professor of Public Management at Uppsala University.  Could you tell us about your main research interests?

K.S.: I have studied various aspects of organizing and governing public sector organizations. My interest has mainly concerned organizational reforms, the global expansion and circulation of management ideas and developments of global standards and regulations. I am also interested in public – private relations and in the social responsibility of corporations. More recently I have largely focused my research interest on the governing and organizing of higher education and research.

 

Q.: What is the latest project you have been working on?

K.S.: I currently conduct an international comparative study on collegiality in the governance and organizing of higher education and research.

 

Cover Picture Credit: Shutterstock

“A Transition to Climate Sustainability Requires a Change in Culture in Science”

Astrid Eichhorn is chairing the ALLEA Working Group on Climate Sustainability in the Academic System. Credit: Sebastian Neumann/Latest Thinking

 

Climate sustainability in academia is emerging as a pending, urgent task for all research institutions and individuals. How can science reduce its own emissions without compromising excellence and international collaboration? Can the academia travel culture be re-examined and transformed into a more sustainable model?

Astrid Eichhorn is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology (Denmark) and junior researcher at the University of Heidelberg (Germany). Her day-to-day research focuses on quantum gravity and dark matter, but beyond the world of physics and astronomy, she has recently led several initiatives in Germany tackling key questions for reducing the scientific system’s carbon footprint.

As the Speaker of the Die Junge Akademie Board, she is now chairing the ALLEA Working Group on Climate Sustainability in the Academic System, which brings together researchers and stakeholders from across Europe to develop a proposal for a sustainable transformation of academia. In this interview, she addresses some of the fundamental trade-offs for making our scientific systems more sustainable.

 

The climate impact of academia cannot be ignored. We must engage with the topic.

 

Question: Scientists have felt alone in their warnings about the climate crisis and its unprecedented impact on humanity. It is not widely known how science itself has contributed to climate change. Why do you think it is timely to talk about this now?

Astrid Eichhorn: The last reports of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have made it crystal clear how severe the climate crisis is. Now there is still time to react and introduce swift changes across all sectors of society and that includes science. I see several reasons for science to transition to a climate-sustainable mode of operations.

First, the climate impact of science (which I will use in the broader sense of the word to include social sciences and humanities) may be small compared to the largest global sources of emissions – but that is, I think, not the relevant comparison. The climate impact is not so small when you consider the emissions per researcher. For instance, the greenhouse gas emissions for a single conference trip can be as large as the annual per capita emissions in a developing country (See source).

Second, now the academic community has the opportunity to determine their own path towards net zero and do so in a balanced and deliberated way without harming research quality and international collaboration. If instead we continue with “business as usual”, there may come a moment when policymakers decide to impose strict rules, across-the-board regulations, prohibitions and bans. I think it is better for the academic community to be proactive and to steer and determine the transformation towards climate sustainable academia themselves.

Third, I think there may be a connection to the impact of scientific policy advice and science communication. I have been wondering why during the Covid pandemic scientists are being listened to very carefully in their scientific advice for policy making in so many countries, in contrast to the scientific advice on the climate crisis. One difference between the two is, that scientists themselves were following the scientific advice on Covid: For instance, universities and research institutes went into lockdown alongside other sectors in society. The academic community showed that they are taking both the Covid pandemic and their own advice how to combat it, seriously. Analogously, I think we can make the urgency of the crisis even clearer and increase the impact of scientific policy advice, if we become a sector of society that leads in reducing its climate impact.

 

Q.: You are a physicist working on quantum gravity and its interplay with matter. Why did you become interested in working and researching about climate sustainability in academia?

A. E.: My research questions on the quantum nature of gravity and its interplay with matter are rather far removed from everyday life and from most people’s experiences. However, to me this does not mean that it is legitimate to close my eyes to the real-world impacts of my work, including its climate impact. In my work, conference travel is the main source of emissions. I became very concerned with the climate impact of my own work, when I compared the emissions caused by my intercontinental flights to international conferences and workshops with the “available emissions budget” that were calculated in 1.5-2 ° warming scenarios. These budgets are only about 1-2 t per person per year until 2050. A few years ago, my emissions from conference travel were significantly higher than that.  At that time, I was a junior group leader on a non-permanent position and I heard from many senior researchers, how crucial these conferences are for my academic career (both for the list of invited talks in the CV and for the networking) and so I accepted the invitations – in hindsight, I am second-guessing this decision. As a compromise and provisional solution at that time I instead bought CO2-compensation for all flights that I (and the members of my research team) undertook. However, it was very obvious to me that such individual attempts to reduce the climate impact of science are insufficient and must be accompanied by structural changes. This led me into a project in the German Young Academy (Die Junge Akademie) and later ALLEA.

 

Q.: One of the key questions addressed in the ALLEA Climate Sustainability in Academia project is the assessment of the climate impact of academia. Could you provide some figures or examples of academia’s carbon footprint?

A. E.: The climate impact of science as a whole is actually not very well investigated and documented. Keeping track of greenhouse gas emissions is only now starting to be more common among universities and research institutes and is not yet very widespread. Further – as in other sectors of society – it is challenging to keep track of all emissions, in particular the so-called scope 3 emissions, which include all emissions from purchased goods (e.g., research equipment), food production and transportation (e.g., for university canteens) and travel (e.g., commuting to university as well as conference travel). Many of these are not yet included in universities’ climate reports and many universities only include business travel in their scope 3 emissions. Climate reports from universities therefore typically constitute a low estimate of the full emissions. On average, this results in an estimate of roughly 20000 to 70000 tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year for a “typical” European university.

In addition, there is alarming data, e.g., from the Max-Planck-institute for Astronomy in Germany that has recently calculated the emissions of each of their researchers (See source). They found that the work-related emissions per researcher at their institute are 60 % higher than those of the average person in Germany. To me, this per-capita comparison is one example that shows that the climate impact of academia cannot be ignored and that we must engage with the topic.

 

The greenhouse gas emissions for a single conference trip can be as large as the annual per capita emissions in a developing country.

 

Q.: What are some of the most relevant trade-offs to consider when making our scientific systems and practices more sustainable?

A. E.: This is probably the key question to discuss in this context. There are several areas in which careful deliberation is required to bring climate sustainability together with the needs of a well-functioning research community.

One of those areas is physical mobility. Science thrives on global exchange and international collaboration. Conferences can be key places of networking, exchange of ideas and inspiration. Thus, physical mobility cannot simply cease in science, and not all trips can be undertaken without air travel. However, physical mobility can be complemented by, and in many – although of course not all – cases substituted, by virtual mobility. Thus, it is about finding the right balance, and factoring in not just economical, but also ecological costs, when planning trips.

In addition, I think it is also relevant to consider co-benefits that arise from a transition to virtual formats. For instance, those workshops and conferences which are hybrid or fully online, are much more inclusive. In-person meetings often (unintentionally) exclude researchers from the so-called Global South (because of lack of travel budgets and cost and complications of visa applications) and researchers who cannot travel for health reasons or because they have family or care obligations. Thus, making workshop and conference formats more climate sustainable at the same time makes them more (globally) inclusive, which in my view is a huge benefit. As a personal example, at virtual workshops last year I have seen a surge of participation of research groups from countries like Brazil and India, with graduate students who were telling me excitedly that this is the first international workshop they participated in and that they would not have been able to attend, had this been an in-person workshop.

Mobility hence provides one example of how, in thinking about climate sustainable academia, we should remember both the challenges as well as the opportunities.

 

Making workshop and conference formats more climate sustainable at the same time makes them more (globally) inclusive.

 

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Q.: We all have lived through the sudden transition to a digital work life due to the ongoing pandemic. What positive and negative lessons have researchers learnt from the impact of Covid-19 on their working modes?

A. E.: I think that is has been a positive and empowering experience to see, how swiftly the academic community can adapt to sudden disruptions. We managed to continue teaching our students, collaborate internationally and conduct research – not always perfectly, of course, but still! I think this shows how resilient and creative the research community actually is. This makes me very optimistic that the research community has the capacity, creativity and ability to adapt to a climate sustainable mode of operations, and do so swiftly.

A negative lesson to me has been that we do not have robust and high-capacity systems in place to deal with mental health challenges. The added challenges of working life during a pandemic have exacerbated the stress and immense pressure many researchers are under.

First, this affected early-career researchers who often work on short-term contracts and are under huge pressure to be mobile and move, not just countries but even continents, when they change jobs – which has definitely been made more challenging in the insecure situation of the pandemic, with often unclear funding situations and closed borders.

Second, this also affected more senior researchers, on whom an added burden was placed, namely, to act as mentors for students who were struggling with the pandemic and were dealing with associated mental-health challenges. Acting as a mentor is not something that a researcher is typically educated in. The academic system so far has often relied on researchers figuring this task out as they go – with mixed results!

Thus, the pandemic has also served as a reminder of aspects that do not function so well in our current academic system and which should be improved.

 

A negative lesson (of the Covid-19 pandemic) to me has been that we do not have robust and high-capacity systems in place to deal with mental health challenges.

 

Q.: What stakeholders or sectors are you targeting to include in the Climate Sustainability in Academia project’s discussion?

A. E.: Our selection of stakeholders is determined by the conviction that a transition to climate sustainability requires a change in culture in science, because some of our habits and behaviours have to change or adapt. In turn, a change in culture requires two things: First, it requires a change in individual behaviour – for instance, considering the climate impact of various decisions we make. Second, it requires a change in the framework conditions and the system of incentives.

To provide two examples: i) when universities install competence centres with expert staff and state-of-the-art-equipment to support virtual/hybrid meetings, it becomes easier for each individual researcher to consider virtual/hybrid formats as an option; ii) when the number of invited conference talks is not considered as a measure of impact by grant agencies and reviewers, it becomes much easier for (early-career) researchers to accept only invitations to those conferences which they actually find scientifically interesting and worthwhile attending.

To also target such framework conditions, we consider not only students and individual researchers, but also universities and research institutes, conference organizers, funding organizations, academies and learned societies and ranking agencies as important stakeholders.

 

Q.: Taking action to make science more sustainable may imply different costs depending on types of researchers or organisations and considering factors such as resources, career stage or location for instance. How are you tackling the unequal footing of actors within the global scientific system?

A. E.: It is critical to be mindful of unintended consequences that generate inequalities. For instance, senior researchers often insist that early-career researchers should get the same opportunities to network that they had during their careers. To address such points adequately, it is crucial to not just talk about early-career researchers, but also with early-career researchers to allow them to make their voices heard. Thus, in the composition of the working group we paid attention to their being a generational balance, and both senior as well as junior researchers are included.

There is also the important point of global inequalities. In discussing the consequences of a transition to climate-sustainable academia, we have to be mindful that we are starting from a deeply unequal system: For instance, resources that researchers in the so-called Global South have access to, are typically much than in the so-called Global North. Thus, in discussing how to adapt the travel culture in academia, it is key to think about ways that decrease, instead of increasing, such inequalities.

 

Q: You are also the Speaker of Die Junge Akademie. Could you give us an example of any of your projects addressing climate sustainability in academia?

A. E.: Die Junge Akademie has first considered its own climate impact in 2019, when we released a statement demanding that CO2-offsets for work-related trips can be covered by public bodies, such as universities or indeed academies. We combined this demand with a voluntary commitment to avoid, if possible, air travel for trips related to our work in the young academy. However, to us this was only a very small first step to engage with the broader issue of climate sustainability in academia. We continued to focus on air travel with a set of recommendations to reduce the amount of travel and substitute physical with virtual mobility. It goes without saying that the team that wrote the recommendations did so without physical meetings – similarly, all meetings of the ALLEA working group to date have been virtual meetings.

With Die Junge Akademie’s inauguration into ALLEA, it was a natural next step to bring together a diverse set of experts from various European countries to engage with climate sustainability in academia in all its various aspects – including, but also going beyond the questions of air travel and physical vs virtual mobility.

 

Credit cover picture: Shutterstock

What Europeans Think About Science and Technology

What are the overall attitudes of European citizens towards science & technology? How do Europeans view the role of science in their own lives and in society at large? At the ALLEA Digital Salon, we take a closer look at the latest  Eurobarometer survey on ‘European citizens’ knowledge and attitudes towards science and technology’ to find data-driven answers to these questions.

Law, Human Rights & Climate Change: A Conversation with Helen Keller

Professor Helen Keller is a renowned lawyer, international judge, and professor of law, and she is the 2021 Madame de Staël Prize laureate. She was chosen as the 2021 laureate on account of her contribution to the development and consolidation of human rights jurisprudence in Europe as well as her commitment to fundamental rights. 

Professor Keller is Chair for Public Law, European and Public International Law at the University of Zurich. She is a former member of the UN Human Rights Committee and served as Judge at the European Court of Human Rights between 2011-2020. In December 2020, she was appointed Judge to the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We are privileged to have the opportunity to sit with Professor Keller and ask her some questions about her academic and jurist career.

 

“There are two big themes that have always interested me in my research: one is the question of how to engage the law in the protection of certain groups or interests. The second deals with the clash of different legal masses.”

 

Question: Professor Keller, what does winning the 2021 Madame de Staël Prize mean to you?

Helen Keller: I am honored and humbled, indeed. It is wonderful that my efforts in research, but also as a judge, for a strong and peaceful Europe are taken note of. This gives me strength to continue workingOf course, the prize also goes to the University of Zurich, which has always generously supported me in my involvement with the UN or the European Court of Human Rights. 

Finally, the prize comes at a special time for Swiss research in general: because the Swiss government has broken off negotiations on a framework agreement with the EU, access for Swiss researchers in Europe is restricted. So this prize comes at just the right time: It should show the academics in Switzerland that we should nevertheless continue to work on European topics and that our voice is and can be heard in Europe.

 

Q.: Your work has focused on such diverse areas of jurisprudence; you have written extensively on issues pertaining to federal as well international law, and on topics ranging from the death penalty to environmental law. What would you say are your main areas of academic interest and why?

H.K.: There are two big themes that have always interested me in my research. One is the question of how to encourage and engage the law in the protection of certain groups or interests that are a priori badly protected. This concerns the research topics that revolve around human rights and environmental protection. The second theme deals with the clash of different legal masses, be it international law on national law or soft law on hard law. I have examined how courts deal with these situations.

 

As a researcher, I always thought that the courts would write a judgment as if it were a scientific essay. But when you take part in deliberations, you see that the passing of a judgment is a process influenced by various opinions.”

 

Q.: Since the early 2000s you established yourself as a scholar of law, serving as visiting scholar at various academic institutions. Additionally, you have served as judge at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) from 2011 to 2020 and you now serve as judge at the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina. How has this interplay between theory and practice throughout your career impacted your work and your mindset as a scholar and as a judge? 

H.K.: Once you have sat on a bench, you certainly read judgments differently. As a researcher, I always thought that the courts would write a judgment as if it were a scientific essay, that the text would be a unified whole. But when you take part in deliberations, you see that the passing of a judgment is a process influenced by various opinions. Often compromises need to be made in order to win over enough judges for the majority. Sometimes compromises are made that are not always advantageous for the coherence of the text. When I go over judgements today, I recognise these fractures and I will try to pass on this knowledge to my students.

 

Q.: What are the greatest achievements of the ECtHR that come to mind from your time as judge there? Any particular court cases that stuck with you throughout the years? 

H.K.: The Court fulfills a very important task: it repeatedly reminds the 47 states of their obligations to protect human rights and democracy. The Court has to do this in a very difficult environment, as there are many states with unstable democratic structures that regularly trample on basic human rights.  

One case that has forever tainted my memory is El-Masri v. Northern Macedonia. The complainant in this case had the misfortune of having a very similar name to a man who was directly involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. That is why the Macedonian security forces mistakenly arrested him at the behest of the CIA and then handed him over to the CIA. He was later forcibly transferred to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was tortured for several months. In this judgement, the Court ruled in favour of the complainant, addressing for the first time the secret renditions and the secret prisons in Europe after 9/11. This was a taboo-breaking case, which was very important for the upholding of human rights in Europe. 

 

Intersecting Law & Climate Change

 

“Climate change is where my two research topics come together. On the one hand, there is the question of how we can better protect the environment against exploitation; on the other hand, different bodies of law collide and need to be harmonized.”

 

Q.: Climate change is a multifactorial problem that has far-reaching consequences in different aspects of human life. In a broad sense, how is the field of law and the different judicial systems in Europe being impacted by climate change?

H.K.: Climate change is where my two research topics that I mentioned earlier come together. On the one hand, there is the question of how we can better protect the environment, the ecosystem and the climate, which we have used more or less for free for so many centuries, against exploitation. On the other hand, different bodies of law collide and need to be consolidated/harmonized: international and national law, hard law and soft law (e.g. voluntary commitments by companies) and administrative law and human rights.

 

Q.: What is the link between climate change and human rights? In a recent article you say that, when dealing with cases related to climate change, courts must be careful not to behave like activists, as this could jeopardize the legitimacy and reputation of a court. Why is this?

H.K.: We face a major gap in international law to combat global warming. Although there are more or less binding requirements for states to reduce CO2 emissions, we do not have an international body that would review violations of these obligations. This is where human rights come into play. In various countries, individuals file lawsuits against states (sometimes also against large international corporations such as Shell), claiming that their human rights have been violated because the state has done too little to combat global warming. This is the link between global warming and human rights. Because the latter are secured regionally and internationally by various judicial bodies (such as the Inter-American Court of Justice, the ECtHR, the Human Rights Council etc.), these people hope to succeed in the fight against global warming.

However, courts have to be careful. If judges want to force something that society is not ready for, courts risk having their legitimacy questioned. That ultimately also means that their judgement will then not be accepted and implemented.

 

“Climate disputes exist all over the world. We often focus on North America and Europe, but a lot is happening in Asia and Africa in this area. I think we can learn from each other.”

 

Q.: The number of lawsuits linked to climate change has grown exponentially in the last years. For instance, on 29 April 2021, the German Federal Constitutional Court, following a complaint brought by young climate activists, held the 2019 German Federal Climate Change Act as partially unconstitutional. What do you think about this decision? 

H.K.: I consider the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court to be courageous and forward-looking, in the truest sense of the word. After all, the Federal Constitutional Court not only looked at the current situation for the climate and for the young applicants but said that it is important for politics to keep an eye on a period that goes beyond the current generation. Here we are facing an important problem in legal dogmatics: how do we protect the concerns and rights of future generations? The Federal Constitutional Court’s statement that politics must still enable these young complainants to have a life worth living in around 30 years’ time and beyond is an important step in the right direction. 

 

Q.: What can your research with the Climate Rights and Remedy Project at the University of Zurich tell us about such cases?

H.K.: The first phase is to show that these climate disputes exist all over the world. We often focus on North America and Europe, but a lot is happening in Asia and Africa in this area. I think we can learn from each other. 

Web portal of the Climate Rights and Remedies Project coordinated by Prof. Helen Keller at the University of Zurich

In a second phase, we will focus more on the content of the cases: How do the courts deal with questions of admissibility that arise in these climate lawsuits in a very specific and new way, e.g. who can look after the interests of future generations? How do the judges deal with the great technicality of the questions and the scientific data situation? And finally, what impact do these judgments have on improving the environmental situation in reality? 

Professor Helen Keller received the Madame de Staël Prize on 6 November 2021 in a hybrid event during the Berlin Science Week, where she also delivered an interactive lecture relevant to her research at the Climate Rights and Remedies Project. You may read our summary of the event here and watch the full livestream here.

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Videos and Illustrations of Science Communication Conference Available

ALLEA and the German science communication organisation Wissenschaft im Dialog organised an international conference on the Future of Science Communication last June. Videos and graphic recordings of the sessions are now available.

Funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research, the event brought together different approaches from research and practice to science communication. Experts debated the trade-offs and latest developments of this field in an age of great transformations and crises where science plays a defining role.

Climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, disinformation, target audiences, citizen science or science advice were some of the guiding themes of two days of keynotes, debates, workshops, lighting talks, and a virtual poster exhibition. A closing panel discussion invited leading experts to provide their advice on how to shape the future of the field.

More than 1000 registered participants attended the conference and provided an impetus for stronger networking and further transfer of activities from research to practice and viceversa. Most of the sessions were recorded via Zoom and recorded graphically by illustrator Lorna Schütte.

 

Further documentation will be available in the coming months, but in the meantime you can already read a summary with some take-home messages of the conference, as well as reports on the Day 1 and Day 2 of the event published on the German science communication portal wissenschaftskommunikation.de.

Noam Chomsky on Academic Freedom and Intellectual Dissent

US linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky delivered the keynote “The University at Times of Crisis” as part of the international conference “Academic Freedom and Intellectual Dissent” co-organised by Scholars at Risk and ALLEA on 8 June. 

In his keynote, Chomsky reflected on the crisis and privatisation of universities and academic institutions. He advocated for enabling  the scientific community to make use of research funds without the intervention of politicians or donors.

He pointed out to this underlying tension within academic institutions as one of key aspects impeding the scientific community to reach an ideal of academic freedom. “Looking over the centuries, the ideal has often been uphill, but it has been a constant battle to try to sustain it in the face of external, social, economic and ideological pressures”, he argued.

He also challenged the idea of attributing the drivers of innovation and discovery in today’s societies to private businesses’ risk-taking. “This doctrine is mostly myth. Most of this work takes place in the public sector with public funding”, he stated.

An international conference on academic freedom

Chomsky’s keynote was preceded with an address by Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins and followed by Q & A with the public moderated by Maria Baghramian (University College Dublin).

The conference focussed on the importance of intellectual dissent and academic freedom to democratic societies in a Western, particularly European, context. The speakers and the panel discussed the scope and the limits of academic freedom in the context of political populism, neoliberalism and the exigencies of the post Covid social and educational landscape.

Topics of the event included but were not limited to academic freedom in relation to other core academic values, e.g. openness, trustworthiness, research integrity, and social responsibility; the scope and limits of intellectual dissent and academic freedom; ways of strengthening academic freedom in a changing university funding landscape, the impact of social media on academic freedom and lessons from a global pandemic.

The full video of the events and the programme can be accessed on this webpage.

“When We Explain the Facts, We Should Also Explain How Misinformation Can Distort Our Facts”

 

Dr John Cook (Monash University) is an award-winning scientist and cartoonist who fights climate misinformation with humour and critical thinking. He is also the creative mind behind the Cranky Uncle, a “male, older, white, and politically conservative” caricature of those who are dismissive of climate science according to psychological research. His acclaimed book “Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change” and game app expose misleading techniques of science denial and offer tools to build public resilience against misinformation. His work has not only been used in schools, but he has recently developed a project to counter climate disinformation with Facebook, jointly with other researchers.

He will be one of the contributors to the workshop “Using experiments to fight science disinformation online: an evidence-based guide” at the Future of Science Communication Conference organised by ALLEA and Wissenschaft im Dialog on 24-25 June. Ahead of this conference, he offers some tips and insights on how to combat misinformation in the science communication and education fields.

Question: “Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change” is the name of your book and the game you developed which brings together climate science and dealing with misinformation. Where does this name come from and what is your tip as a first step to dealing with a “cranky uncle” in our real personal lives?

John Cook: Psychological research finds that people who are dismissive of climate science are more likely to be male, older, white, and politically conservative. Cranky Uncle is the embodiment of that demographic type. And anecdotally, almost everyone has a family member, friend or colleague who captures that “cranky uncle” personality type. My first tip in dealing with your own cranky uncle is to recognise that the odds of actually changing their mind is very small, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t make much headway in your conversations. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage with them however. Often the beneficiaries of such conversations are not our cranky uncle but everyone else witnessing the exchange. That’s the purpose of the Cranky Uncle book and game – not necessarily changing our cranky uncle’s mind but inoculating everyone else against his misinformation.

“The purpose of the Cranky Uncle book and game is not necessarily changing our cranky uncle’s mind but inoculating everyone else against his misinformation”.

Q.: You wrote a paper on “which counters misinformation better: facts or logic?” concluding that logic outperformed facts in your study. How can we translate these findings for practitioners of science communication?

J.C.: The key thing that science communicators need to realise is facts are vulnerable to being cancelled out by misinformation. When people are confronted with conflicting pieces of information and they have no way of resolving the conflict, the risk is they disengage and don’t internalize our factual explanation. Our research found that if we explain the facts to people then they afterwards encounter misinformation casting doubt on the facts, the misinformation cancels out the facts. However, logic-based corrections that explain how the misinformation misleads is not vulnerable in the same way – the positive effect from logic-based corrections are not affected by misinformation. What I recommend is when we explain the facts, we also explain how misinformation can distort our facts. This is like wrapping bubble wrap around our facts to keep them safe as we send them out into a world filled with misinformation.

“If we explain the facts to people then they afterwards encounter misinformation casting doubt on the facts, the misinformation cancels out the facts.”

Q.: The Cranky Uncle game has found users all over the world, but can it be used equally effectively everywhere, or can cultural differences in communication and science communication influence how to handle misinformation?

J.C.: Currently the Cranky Uncle game is only available in English so obviously that does make it less relevant to the non-English speaking world. Even so, I was surprised to see the game being picked up in a number of European countries and hope to see that trend increase once the game is available in other languages. We are currently in the process of translating the game into German – our first test of the translation procedure. Once that process is worked out, we’ll begin translating into other languages (we’ve had volunteers approach us to translate the game into around a dozen languages and more volunteers are always welcome). There are some language difficulties in translating parts of the game from English. For example, we talk about the ambiguity fallacy, where words with double meanings can be exploited in order to mislead people. Unfortunately, words with double meanings vary across different languages so we’ve been exploring creative ways to tackle this issue. We’ve also discussed adding new cartoons for new languages. For example, a cartoon of Neal deGrasse Tyson features in the current game, as an example of a famous astrophysicist from the United States. We’re exploring incorporating the German equivalent of Neal deGrasse Tyson – an astrophysicist who is well-known in Germany.

Q.: For our Future of Science Communication Conference, we have also focused on battling science disinformation. Have you observed any trends in SciComm practice in recent years which have been particularly successful?

J.C.: The approach of using technology – particularly digital games – has exploded in recent years. Misinformation is nimble and adapts to new technologies and online platforms with disturbing rapidity. That means that science communicators need to be adaptive and innovative in our responses to misinformation. We’re dealing with a complex, ubiquitious problem which requires interdisciplinary solutions that can scale up to meet the huge challenge. Scientists need to be working with practitioners in other fields such as game and app development to develop technological solutions that can reach large proportions of the public. I am excited to see that this is already happening with a number of clever and engaging digital games springing up in response to the problem of misinformation.

“Misinformation is nimble and adapts to new technologies and online platforms with disturbing rapidity. That means that science communicators need to be adaptive and innovative in our responses to misinformation.”

Q.: You recently published a teachers’ guide for your game, and in the past you have authored textbooks for university students on climate change facts and denial. What have you learned from teachers who use your game in their classroom?

J.C.: It was enthusiasm from educators early in the game development that made me realize the classroom would likely be the venue where the game would make its biggest impact. Teachers are crying out for interactive resources that engage their students while strengthening their critical thinking skills. The other thing that struck me in my interaction with teachers has been their creativity in combining the Cranky Uncle game with classroom activities. One example is a delightful classroom assignment where students were assigned to write an email to their teacher, explaining using multiple logical fallacies why the teacher shouldn’t fail the student despite the fact that they hadn’t studied. This assignment is an elegant example of active inoculation, where students get inoculated against misleading fallacies by learning how to use the techniques of science denial. It is also an excellent opportunity for the students to practise humour and creativity, with some hilarious assignments!

“Teachers are crying out for interactive resources that engage their students while strengthening their critical thinking skills.”

Q.: Schools, universities, teachers seem to be natural partners to tackle science misinformation. In your experience, are they willing to join this “fight”? Is there enough understanding of the problem and/or resources to do this? 

J.C.: On the one hand, a number of schools and universities have eagerly embraced the opportunity to teach critical thinking and build resilience against misinformation. On the other hand, there are many more schools and teachers that are already so time-crunched, they struggle to fit extra content into their classes. It is important that more resources be developed that make it easier for teachers to incorporate these kinds of activities in their classes, while meeting their curriculum requirements. We also need to build awareness among educators of the powerful benefits of “misconception-based learning” (also known as agnotology-based learning) – teaching students by directly addressing misconceptions and misinformation. This doesn’t need to be seen as negative or combative – rather, it’s an opportunity to combine the teaching of facts with critical thinking (or from a psychological perspective, combining fact-based and logic-based communication). This type of education shows stronger learning gains which last longer than standard lessons – it’s a powerful form of education.

“We need to build awareness among educators of the powerful benefits of “misconception-based learning” (also known as agnotology-based learning) – teaching students by directly addressing misconceptions and misinformation.”

Watch Recording: Webinar on “International Sharing of Personal Health Data for Research”

International Health Data Transfer, publication

On 3 June, ALLEA, EASAC and FEAM co-organised an online discussion event to present the results of their first tripartite collaboration, in which they join forces to explore how barriers for sharing personal health data outside the EU/EEA for research in the public sector can be resolved. The joint report was be presented by the lead experts and then discussed with relevant stakeholders in a panel discussion. 

Event Agenda  

Introduction and presentation of academy networks 

Welcome by Professor Christina Moberg, President of EASAC 

Presentation of the project 

Chair: Professor Antonio Loprieno, President of ALLEA 

  • Why we did this project together; what is the value of international health research and what may now be lost – Rosa Castro, FEAM Policy Officer 
  • Main findings from the project – Professor Giske Ursin, Cancer Registry of Norway; and Dr Heidi Beate Bentzen, University of Oslo 

Panel discussion 

Chair: Professor George Griffin, President of FEAM and co-chair of the working group 

Short interventions followed by questions and discussion 

  • Professor Robert Eiss, US National Institutes of Health 
  • Brendan Barnes, EFPIA – European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations 
  • Gözde Susuzlu Briggs, Data Saves Lives/European Patients’ Forum 
  • Professor Christiane Woopen, Professor of Ethics and Theory of Medicine, chair EGE 
  • Alisa Vekeman, European Commission, DG Justice 

Summary and closing remarks 

Professor Volker ter Meulen, co-chair of the working group 

‘Across Boundaries in Sciences’: Watch the Symposium’s Recordings

The boundaries of science have been increasingly pushed and pulled during the Covid-19 pandemic, shaking our understanding of science not only within the scientific system, but in relation to politics and society in general. In this evolving scenario, ALLEA and the Council of Finnish Academies hosted an international scientific symposium online on 5 May 2021.

Featuring a wide range of international perspectives from research, politics, and civil society, speakers shared and discussed their latest insights on this complex topic. The recordings are now online and available to watch (see the playlist below, or click here).

To learn more about the scientific symposium, visit www.alleageneralassembly.org.

 

©Krister Majander