Science and politics, the twin realities of climate-change fight

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 June, 2009, 12:00am

US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said that, despite President Barack Obama's pledge to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, his ambition was unlikely to flourish in the face of political opposition.

This irritated environmentalists who condemned the Nobel laureate and physicist for acting like a politician, not a scientist. As ever, such a political exchange reeks of hypocrisy from both sides and is unlikely to yield any meaningful solution to the problem. The precautionary principle in science suggests that one should treat threats as 100 per cent real even though hard evidence does not offer the same level of certainty. Yet, as much as it sounds reasonable, one can't help questioning whether we are once again addressing the issue of climate change too little too late.

The focus on global warming has so far centred on the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. This implies that people need to be frugal, use less and save. Such rhetoric is unlikely to win popular support as it contradicts the human experience of progress. The 20th century was a time of intelligent revolution, it saw the rise and fall of Concorde, the internet and globalised markets. All these were beyond the realms of reality in previous eras. The new century will have to be at least as ingenious as the last. The first hydrogen car has hit the roads of California, apprentices in England and Australia are being trained to build and fix wind turbines, and the people of Hong Kong can buy grocery bags that match their fashion sense.

These efforts are testament to the reality that the environment issue can be tackled in a positive, instead of a negative, light. Clean technology can, and will, replace that which is dated and old fashioned. The only question is how far the US is willing to go in supporting such efforts in the face of continual influence from lobby groups and the capricious tide of public opinion.

What environmentalists have to realise is that, in the real world, science and politics cannot be seen as controlled factors in a laboratory. They have always been interdependent. The appointment of Dr Chu and his honest opinion is a first step in that direction.

Chan Sing-nam, Quarry Bay