Evidence-based policymaking, extreme events, humanitarian crises, and the new US presidency

This short essay has been written for anyone who would care to join me on a short journey of reading and thinking. I would welcome dialogue on this issue. The title of this piece is a bit unwieldy, but I wanted to yoke together those particular ideas right at the beginning.
By way of introduction, I will just say that over the last few decades I have guided postgraduate students in weighing up all kinds of research findings and evaluating them critically.
What I would like to do in this short piece is to link seven online statements, ranging from a tweet to a PhD thesis. It is almost intuitively obvious that a tweet leads itself to expressing an opinion, briefly, and that a PhD is a perfect vehicle for laying out an argument in detail, and defending it at length.
Here are the seven pieces:
Now the challenge in starting to talk about any of them is we need to avoid a few traps, such as (1) assuming that a certain phrase such as ‘global warming’ has the same meaning for you and me, (2) deciding that an issue is hopelessly polarised that it is impossible to progress the debate and (3) convincing ourselves that we are right before we even start talking.
So protect myself against those traps, let me declare at the outset, as modestly as I can, and as impartially as I can, that I am simply venturing to express a viewpoint that might be helpful. I just ask the reader to accept that my motivation is to contribute, not to persuade, criticise or defame anybody.
I should add, as I began this foray, that it might be valuable to recall the wonderful advice expressed in The argument culture by Deborah Tannen and Etzioni’s, The new golden rule. For example: Don’t demonise those with whom you disagree. I have tried not to do that in this piece. Don’t affront the deepest moral commitments of your opponents. One way to do that is to avoid taking the high moral ground, being sanctimonious or holier than thou. Talk less of rights, which are non-negotiable, and more of needs, interests and wants. This is highly pertinent, for in a previous professional role I had thought that human rights were, front and centre, one of the key issues to be resolved. As I transition to a different role now, I can perhaps begin thinking more deeply and clearly about the needs, interests and wants of a whole range of people. Leave some issues out. Yes, it helps to travel lightly, to focus on one or two things clearly, before turning one’s attention to something else. Engage in a dialogue of convictions. Don’t be so reasonable and conciliatory that you lose touch with a core of beliefs you feel passionately about. Again, this is sound advice. My conviction is that the planet earth is being transformed and challenged by mega-urbanisation, careless destruction of natural environments, and pollution. As a grandparent I would love for these trends to be moderated–or better, reversed– so that my two wonderful grand daughters will have a world they can love and appreciate as they grow up. At the same time I appreciate that there are hardworking people in extractive industries (coal, oil and gas) helping to supply an energy-hungry world. Their immediate needs and interests have to be considered.
Amy & Liora, Nov 2015.png
My two grand daughters talking while drinking babicinos, November 2015
It is not my purpose now to provide a short cut and summarise all of the items I listed above. If you are interested, you can read them yourself. Nor am I going to tell you the conclusion I came to, for that would be giving you the punchline without you doing your own reading and thinking!
All I will venture to do for the moment is to offer these three reflections: (1) Australia is fortunate to have a Bureau of Meteorology that includes climate scientists such as Dr Blair Trewin, who writes often for The Conversation. The subject of his doctoral research was Extreme temperature events in Australia. (2) Since scientists are inclined to labour over long reports, and politicians to dash off quick tweets, it can be difficult to see any middle ground, where actions and events can be intelligently and dispassionately discussed, but that doesn’t mean that the effort to locate some space in which such dialogue is possible is a waste of time. (3) Professor Paul Cairney reminds us of the choice we have: we can bemoan policy makers’ quick decisions, or adapt to them by working out why they say and do certain things so that we, in turn, can understand the results of their fast thinking in context, and deal with that, regardlesss of whether we see it as denialism in a ‘post-truth’ society. It is harder to try to see the whole picture than it is to cling to the elephant’s leg and swear, hand on heart, that the animal does not have a tail. To evaluate and compare ideas, it helps to value practitioner experience, but there is a strategic choice to be made. We need to be clear about whether we want to be honest brokers, who present some evidence and leave it that. Or are we seeking influence? To seek influence is to get our hands dirty by beginning to issue emotional appeals, and manipulating people in an effort to persuade, in the knowledge that people do make emotional decisions.
Choosing the most effective technique in a difficult debate can be the beginning of a slippery slope. We may end up being as manipulative as those we criticise. I accept the legitimacy of democratically elected leaders saying and doing unpopular things. Yet, as a citizen, I think it is reasonable to try to encourage others to frame a contentious issue in a more constructive way so that we all benefit, now and into the future.
“This is what is likely to work in your context. This is the kind of evidence that seems relevant”. To what extent is this a reasonable starting point when dealing with politicians who deny that planet earth has a problem, and that all that counts is the economy, protecting jobs and all of that?

5 thoughts on “Evidence-based policymaking, extreme events, humanitarian crises, and the new US presidency

  1. Your position seems reasonable as well as thoughtful. I hope you get some interesting responses. While my rational self agrees with
    you my more emotional self still says but what about the people who are dangerous and irrational and appear to be expressing themselves in ways that will be dangerous to us, our children and our granddaughters? Sometimes being reasonable is not enough. I still believe though that people do need to try and behave reasonably as long as it’s reasonable to do so. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the links. Xxx


    • When Donald Trump addressed supporters in Scranton, PA the day before the election, he told them that he would “cancel billions of dollars in global warming payments to the United Nations–billions and billions and billions–and use that money to build the infrastructure of the United States” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s7sB2h0oq4). In fact President Obama had only arranged for $500 million to be paid to the United Nations Green Climate Fund. The multiple billions must have been conjured out of the air for rhetorical purposes.

      If a known climate change denier such as Myron Ebell is appointed to head the crucial Environmental Protection Agency, it may well be that the new administration will try to ignore the Paris Agreement. Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s climate chief, had hopefully predicted that the Agreement might “shut the door on inevitable climate disaster”, thereby allowing the nations of the world to “set off with determination towards a sustainable future”. Let us hope she was right!


  2. Brian, this is a wonderful and exciting challenge and I do plan to read these works and (hopefully) interest others in reading them and debating them as well. However–like Nancy–my fear is that we need to find timely ways of specific action if we are to block Trump from installing Stephen Bannon as his strategist or to stop Ryan from dismantling Medicare. The Trumpocalypse is already under way. It”s probably rather late to pick through philosophical and scientific plums trying to find the right framework to rationalize our methods of resistance.


  3. Hello Sandra

    Thank you for your encouragement.

    I am sure you are right about the importance of identifying “timely ways of specific action” now that the President-elect has appointed the chairman of Breitbart News as his chief strategist in the White House. That is a concern, particularly if we are focused on what messages this might send to those who favour anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, White nationalism, and other alt right positions. This is a very important topic, and may become critical in time.

    That, however, was not my starting point. The rationale for my post is that before the Paris Agreement came into effect on November 4, Donald Trump repeatedly stated during his presidential campaign that he would cancel it, and that he would restore the ailing coal industry. His claim is that the Agreement would leave the U.S. disadvantaged, economically, especially in relation to China, which had been allowed a freer hand with its carbon emissions. I cited his tweet, which alleged that climate change is a Chinese hoax.

    Given that the most abundant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is the product of burning fossil fuels, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I wanted to find out who were playing leading roles as advocates for action to deal with this problem. I was aware, of course, of Bill McKibben’s excellent book, Oil and Honey, and I knew about his active resistance to the fossil fuel industry. What was Australia doing, I wondered. It was a concern to me that climate science expertise at Australia’s CSIRO was under threat. As I looked around, I came across Blair Trewin’s accessible articles in The Conversation; for example, World set for hottest year on record: World Meteorological Organization. I then dug deeper and started reading Trewin’s PhD thesis on extreme temperature events.

    The Red Cross has signalled that it needs new approaches and tools to help deal with the ‘natural disasters happening more frequently and being more impactful because of climate change’. As a result ‘this humanitarian system has difficulty coping with the new dynamics’.

    What would persuade the President elect to accept the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and to accept the need to limit average global temperature increases and to cope btter with its impacts?

    So, I am not offering ‘philosophical and scientific plums’ as a way of implying that here might be the right framework to help us rationalise our methods of resistance. Rather, I am asking these questions, given that a powerful incoming political leader is refusing to accept the numbers (the evidence), and is rejecting the scientific advice it is based on, because of other short-term economic and political reasons:

    (1) Is there a way to support the Paris Agreement and reason with its political opponents and do so in a way that does not involve demonising people, condon ing violence, or vicious, polarised debate?
    (2) What is the evidence that the theory of climate change is based on? Do those who are not in denial know why they accept it? Could they state in a couple of sentences what the evidence is? Do they know what the three main findings of the IPCC are?*
    (3) Can we (as concerned citizens of the Paris Agreement’s signatory nations) mitigate the effects of climate change while at the same time proposing sensible alternative employment and training for those caught out by the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power stations and other carbon fuel industries?
    Best wishes
    *The three main findings are
    • From 1880 to 2012, average global temperature increased by 0.85°C. To put this into perspective, for each 1 degree of temperature increase, grain yields decline by about 5 per cent. Maize, wheat and other major crops have experienced significant yield reductions at the global level of 40 megatonnes per year between 1981 and 2002 due to a warmer climate.
    • Oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished and sea level has risen. From 1901 to 2010, the global average sea level rose by 19 cm as oceans expanded due to warming and ice melted. The Arctic’s sea ice extent has shrunk in every successive decade since 1979, with 1.07 million km² of ice loss every decade.
    • Given current concentrations and on-going emissions of greenhouse gases, it is likely that by the end of this century, the increase in global temperature will exceed 1.5°C compared to 1850 to 1900 for all but one scenario. The world’s oceans will warm and ice melt will continue. Average sea level rise is predicted as 24 – 30cm by 2065 and 40-63cm by 2100. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions are stopped.


  4. Reflections about evidence based policy making versus tweets and persuading through manipulation and lies…

    • Brian, I welcome your initiative to write about these issues. It is such a positive move. “Those who are successful find ways to make themselves successful. There is no recipe, no secret handshake, and no magic potion. The consistent theme is that they each pay attention to current trends and leverage their own skills to build their influence. They find ways to sway history, as opposed to waiting for history to sway them.’ (Tina Seelig, 2009, What I wish I knew when I was 20, p. 69). So I am delighted to be invited in joining the discussion.

    The dilemma is to be ‘either honest brokers or get our hands dirty to persuade’.
    What a fantastic discussion point!

    • What you are writing about climate change is similar to the dilemma I am going to face with the dissemination of the findings of my thesis: Breaking the silence: Teachers speak out about classroom behavioural problems. The topic is also controversial. I have no difficulties with front line teachers, who experience problems on a daily basis and are seeking for solutions, but I have major difficulties with leaders who have very definite mindsets. So how to contribute, ‘persuade’?

    • I like the way you are setting the parameters before starting the discussion by stating the need to avoid the following mindsets that are traps: Assuming that words mean the same for everyone/ thinking that some issues are so polarised that the debate cannot progress/ being too convinced that we are right.
    So thank you for the tips: I will quote you, if I may: “My motivation is to contribute, not to persuade, criticise or defame anybody”. But that will be my ‘official’, strategic statement, as deeply, I will always want to persuade!

    • The following comment from Deborah Tannen and Etzioni is very pertinent: Despite understanding the needs, interests and wants of different groups, “don’t be so reasonable and conciliatory that you lose touch with a core of beliefs you feel passionately about”. It reminds me of a citation from Bertrand Russell: “L’ennui en ce monde c’est que les imbéciles sont sûrs d’ eux et que les gens sensés sont pleins de doutes”. (The trouble in this world is that idiots are sure of themselves and the people sensible are full of doubts). Yes, it is necessary to value “confidence but not certitude in the face of complexity (Fullan, 2008,p.14) or as Franklin D. Roosevelt is reputed to have said: One thing is sure. we have to do something, we have to do the best we know how, at the moment…”

    • I agree with Nancy’s comments: “People do need to try and behave reasonably as long as it is reasonable to do so’, and with Sandra’s views about selecting “timely ways of specific actions” Her recommendations are logical and positive particularly the action of stating and …re-stating the main findings from the IPCC.

    • In conclusion, at this stage:
    – There is a need to speak out, to break the silence about issues that we are deeply passionate about.
    – We need to be strategic with the different groups we want to inform, convince. It does not mean being manipulative, telling lies, but for different groups, different approaches are necessary: Therefore we need to plan how to go about it.
    – We need to present evidences from our expertise and engage our listeners/ readers in further co-construction of knowledge.
    – We must not deviate from what we believe in at the time…, and be outspoken about it, but we cannot lie… We have a reputation of trust to maintain to ourselves and others. However, somehow “we have to put pressure, we have to force the change process despite all the groups that are resisting it. We have to put our weight on the side of a better future. Only then we will get things moving” (Marias, 1999, p.22).

    • So, to be continued… Thank you Brian for starting “Snippets”.

    As Etherington (2004) stated about her writings: “If this book resonates with your experience, affects you emotionally and intellectually, if it raises new questions in your mind and /or moves you to write or take another action, if it challenges assumptions and sustains interest, then in my terms I will have succeeded. That depends as much on you as a reader as on myself as author.” (Etherington, 2004, p. 22)


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