Call to join the Open Task Group on Climate Change

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To motivate people to participate in the Open Task Group on Climate Change.



Introductory letters about Opasnet

See also a Finnish example.

Example 1

The climate change research is lacking what you suggest: that the researchers talk to the policy-makers and stakeholders and learn about the issues they are concerned about. We should have much more of these discussions.

My own research approaches this problem from a theoretical point of view. I have tried to understand, whether it is possible to build a platform or collaborative workspace that enables and facilitates these discussions in a way that allows for completely open participation but still maintains the scientific integrity at the same time.

I think that the results have been very promising. We have opened a website Opasnet for making assessments (My own field is environmental health, but the assessments can be from any field). A special information structure and discussion rules keep the content in order even with a very large participation. Well, that's what we hope - the system has worked well, but the assessments we have performed have not yet involved large groups of people outside the research groups. An example of our own assessments is

The assessments could be state-of-the-art science and guide policy-making, but at the same time they could involve the concerns of the policy-makers, citizens, and stakeholders. Of course all the traditional ways of communication are needed as well, but we also need a system that collects and synthesises the outputs of face-to-face discussions into the assessments, and then distributes the conclusions to policy-making.

My impression from the scientific Copenhagen meeting March, 2009, is that there is a great need of severe discussions on carbon pricing systems: tax, trade system, hybrid, or something else. Many countries have their own concerns, and they are likely to be ignored when there is a strong pressure to get out a common carbon pricing system. On the other hand, there is a danger that the system is weakened by compromises that are needed to make it acceptable to key players.

My conclusion: we urgently need a worldwide participatory democracy process, where everyone is heard and we all together try and find systems that acknowledge the real concerns of countries or citizens, and at the same time are effective and ambitious enough to clearly relieve the climate pressure of the mankind. We need people who can and want to talk to people, but we also need platforms for the discussions, something like what Opasnet tries to be.

I think there is a good opportunity for collaboration, although my thoughts are not yet clear enough to know what it could be. I hope that the discussion goes on.

Example 2

The issue about the science-policy interface is very important in understanding climate change, developing policy options, and making decisions. Although the importance of the interface is acknowledged in the Copenhagen climate congress in March, 2009, I have unfortunately seen few practical examples of really intensive collaboration and development of joint understanding between scientists and politicians. There is an urgent need for this.

It is important to understand the hindrances in this area and suggest ways around them. As a researcher, I and my group have tried to do the same from the scientist's point of view. We have developed a website Opasnet (, which attempts to be a collaborative workspace for politicians, scientists, and stakeholders.

Opasnet is completely open, and anyone can participate. The basic idea is to write detailed descriptions about the issues related to a policy problem. The descriptions are quantified and developed into decision models that can be run over the Internet. We hope that the descriptions and models (and most importantly the collaborative work through which they are developed) are able to clarify many policy questions, show easily forgotten impacts of policies, and thus guide and enhance policy-making.

We have a practical example of policy assessment about emission trade systems on the city level ( We are looking at climate and health impacts in Helsinki after certain international, city-level, and individual decisions. We hope that our collaborative approach enhances this kind of multi-decision, multi-decision-maker assessments where the interplay of actors and decisions can be studied.

I hope that you or someone in your team has time to look at our website and give comments. We are continuously open to new assessment topics and collaboration, as we want the assessments to be policy-relevant and come from a real policy need. We also welcome any suggestions about Opasnet to improve it. What features and functionalitites should be added? Which things don't work as well as they should?

Example 3

... We are especially interested in learning about real-life policy questions and issues. We have seen too much scientifically interesting assessments, where the policy relevance is actually quite limited. We as scientist should learn about the real questions asked by real politicians, and try to answer to those.

Screenplay for a movie


Hello, my name is Jouni Tuomisto. I am an academy researcher in Finland. I am worried about climate change.

In this video, I will tell you why we need a global task goup on climate change. We need to assess climate change. We need to assess policies and actions that attack climate change. We have five tasks in our way to a sustainable society.

  • First, politicians must base their decisions on science. All policies must be subject to scientific evaluation. Also, researchers must do scientific evaluation of policies.
  • Second, researchers must immediately release all detailed data and synthesised information that might help in understanding climate change and the actions we need to take. The scientific publishing process must be made a lot faster: publish first, review later.
  • Third, citizens must take an active role on the policy process. They must tell what they really want and what they do not want.
  • Fourth, everyone must talk a lot to each other, especially across different groups in the society. But this must be done in a systematic and organised way. We don't want hullabaloo, we want good argumentation.
  • Fifth, we must act together, fast, and in a concerted way. There are vicious cycles where individual interests prevent mutual benefit. We must brake these cycles with careful analysis and cooperation, not with force.

Earlier this week, I was in Copenhagen. There was a climate change congress with 2000 researchers from all over the world, and a lot of important politicians. Their shared opinion was that climate change is a serious threat to the mankind. We must act now. Every kilogram of carbon dioxide that is emitted today will cause trouble for decades. We all are emitting several kilograms of carbon dioxide every day due to reasons that we will shame to confess to our grandchildren.

The climate system has an adjusting capacity. But the adjusting capacity is limited, just like your personal money. If you spend your money in a stupid way today, you will have less money tomorrow even if you badly need it. Therefore, actions cannot wait. The challenge we are facing is global and larger than any other we have seen before.

Problems occur after simple things

(Aatu takes the carboard and biowaste to recycling bins.)

What can we do? There are millions of things that we can do to slow down greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The start is easy. Save energy. Switch off lights. Recycle. Walk or cycle instead of driving. Don't buy energy-intensive products. There are lots of things you can do yourself, without a need to learn about Kyoto protocol, or without the need of the Government to interfere. (Jouni puts the for sale sign to the car and cycles away)

But there are two large problems. First, there are a lot of things that seem to be useful but actually increase emissions and make things worse. Burning wood instead of oil sounds like a good idea. But poor burning of low-quality wood produces methane that is even worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the smoke is toxic. Only good knowledge can prevent us from doing these mistakes.

Second, there are a lot of things that nobody can do alone. You cannot start using a bus if there are no buses running. And buses don't run until people use them. Much more difficult is to get an international tax on carbon. Still, concerted actions are desperately needed. We need large agreements to actually make these happen.

How to make knowledge-based decisions and concerted actions?

The researchers in Copenhagen said loud and clear that the rich countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 % before 2050. What would you do if you had to live with only one fifth of the fossil energy you spend today?

Well, you can't make it alone. The whole society must change. And this is why it is very tricky. If people stop buying cars, car factories close down and many people become unemployed. We don't want unemployment, but we cannot afford the car-intensive lifestyle either. And in many places, there are no alternatives to cars.

Therefore, we must solve many problems at the same time using concerted actions. We must solve the unemployment, the bus services, and even the way we think about moving from one place to another. And all these things must happen at the same time. Different things must happen in many countries at the same time. We live in a global interdependent society.

It is not enough to have good intentions. We must act. But it is not enough to do something that looks good, either. If you suddenly had only one fifth of the money you used to have, you would need to plan really carefully what you do with the money you have now. There is little room for mistakes. This is also the case with climate change.

Almost a hundred years ago, people wanted to solve contemporary problems using concerted actions. They applied communism. Well, we know that it was not really a success story. Some people have said that communism should first have been tested in rats.

I used to do toxicology once, and I know that rat studies are difficult and slow to do. And one study brings in only a small piece of data. With climate change, we do not have time for that. That is why I switched to making assessment. It is the fastest way to get the scientific understanding to the hands of politicians.

Assessments inform decision-making

What is a scientific assessment? In an assessment, you try and describe how things are and predict how they will be. You predict what will happen if you decide to do something, compared with some other decision. For example, in one of our assessments we tried to predict how much the health of citizens will improve if Helsinki replaces all buses with new buses that run with natural gas.

Assessments are important, because they can tell us where the big mistakes are before we do them and find out the hard way. With the help of assessments, we can avoid mistakes and spend our money, or climate adaptation capacity, wisely. What is an assessment? It is simply a quantitative description of some important things we need to know before we decide. I'll show you a simple example. I am planning to give up my car but I am not sure.

I draw a diagram showing the important things. First, this rectangle is my decision: To sell or not to sell. This node is the price I can get from the car. These are the costs of keeping and driving the car. And finally, I need one node in my model about how important the car and the kilometres I will drive with this cat are for me. The car is of course useful, but I'm mostly cycling, so I put a fairly low value here. And then we sum these all up into a into a single indicator that we use to find an optimal solution. I have the quantitative estimates of this diagram on this other piece of paper. The assessment advices me to sell the car.

Pieta (looks at the diagram): Hey dad, you don't have a node about how much WE give value to the car in the model.

Jouni: Gee, you are right. We should add that into the assessment. You tell me your valuation, and I'll add it to the model. (They look at the calculations.)

This is the updated assessment. It is now based on what we call a participatory process. Assessors are rarely the right people to tell which things and which valuations should be included in an assessment. So, who should participate when we decide about the future of our planet? Everyone, especially young people.

One thing why I like diagrams is that they are much easier to read and understand than the detailed calculations and descriptions. Diagrams facilitate participation.

Task 1: Policy-makers must use science

  • A typical request from a policy-maker to a researcher is: "Tell me the number [of e.g. emission or some other policy target] that we need to achieve, and I'll use my negotiation skills to get that through." Climate change is too complex an issue to allow for this approach.
  • Policy-makers must learn enough about the topic itself to understand the impacts of different policies and policy options. They must also understand the roles of different actors in the society. This is difficult, but it should be done more.
  • Policy-makers should also ask these questions from researchers. They should demand answers to practical questions and impacts of detailed decisions. It is not enough to understand the importance of a general target value. The understanding must go into the details.
  • Science is the best way to learn about the world. Therefore, politicians should be humble in front of science, where each piece of information is the product of hundreds of people and years of work.
  • On the other hand, politicians should understand that not everything is known. There are surprisingly obvious questions that nobody has really tried to answer. But the mirror is a good tool here: did the research funders ever really ask that question from the researchers?

Task 2: Researchers must make the information available

Even with a simple assessment, we need truthful information about our topic. It is often difficult to find. With a complex assessment, we almost certainly would need more information than what is available. It is said that we live in an information society. Let's look at what that means in practice.

I recently published a scientific article about fine particle air pollution. I have it printed in this envelope, which was sent to me by the publisher in ##DATE. How long did it take to get this information available to everyone? Let's have a look.

(Show from the calendar.)

The journal came out here, but the article was actually on the web already at ##. Before that, it was in the editorial process of the journal for ## weeks after it was accepted for publication. Before the acceptance, it was peer reviewed for ## weeks after I had sent it to the publisher. During that time 3 # researchers read it and made comments. I replied to those comments and corrected the manuscript accordingly. Before that, I had spent ## weeks in writing it. Of course it does not take so long to write the text, but I was mostly spending my time in other projects and the manuscript was sitting on my desk. The data for this study was collected during the summer 2004. So, it took almost four years to get the numbers we had collected to be available to other researchers. This is not rare. Usually it takes at least two years to get studies published.

With climate change, this is much too long. We must act now, and we cannot wait that important information is sitting on someone's desk. Why is this so slow?

There are two reasons for this. First, researchers live from publications. They get new research funding by showing that they are good researchers, and that is based on good publishing records. Publications are like elections to politicians: if you fail there, nothing else matters.

The publications cannot be anything. They must be peer-reviewed articles, otherwise they don't count. Peer review means that usually two or three other researchers from the same field have read the manuscript and concluded that it is based on good science. Otherwise junk could be published as science.

Second, someone needs to take care of the publishing. There are thousands of scientific journals in the world. They have editorial boards and large groups of reviewers, who are voluntary researchers. The editors select interesting manuscripts and reject boring ones, and the reviewers check for the scientific quality. This takes time. Also the rejected manuscripts are usually sent to another journal with lower publishing standards. Scientists want their manuscripts published in top journals, and therefore a lot of manuscripts get rejected several times before they are finally accepted to a journal. Each attempt may take several months.

Journals only want original research, because they need to sell the journal to readers. Researchers don't want to pay for journals with old news. Therefore, researchers are keeping their precious data hidden until it has been published in a journal, usually a few years afterwards. The culture of scientific publishing is based on printed journals with limited number of pages and specialised fields.

We must not accept this any more. We must minimise the lag between obtaining the data and publishing it to a minimum. The best way to do this is to adopt the principle: Publish first, review later.

The scientific merit of a study can be evaluated afterwards. We just need to keep record about who published what and when. There are no page limits in the Internet. All information can be published immediately. It can be used immediately if it is useful for some purpose. A peer review can be performed afterwards by someone who wants to be sure that the information really is based on good science. And if it is not used anywhere, why should we care whether it is peer reviewed or not? Of course, researchers that produce useless information will dis-benefit from the new system because it is harder for them to get things reviewed. Is that such a bad thing?

Task 3: Citizens must take an active role in the policy process

The most important feature of democracy is that it is an efficient tool to prevent the most stupid decisions. But it only works well, if several things take place.

  • The citizens must be interested in what is going on in policy-making, and who is deciding about what.
  • The citizens must have a realistic view about the things that are on the table.
  • The citizens must

The citizens are the right people to say which things are important.

Task 4: Everyone must talk to each other in an organised way

The web blogs are popular ways for distributing information and opinions. But the information is structured in a very inefficient way all over the place. It is laborious to make a synthesis based on a blog, and it is impossible to make a syntrehsis of all blogs that say something important about the climate change.

Therefore, there must be a place where information and opinions are collected in an organised way. The natural structure is to describe things based on two things:

  • Issues must be organised in a modular way. This means that information piece is fairly independent and can be developed separately.
  • Issues must connect to each other in a natural way. This means in practice causal connections: one issues affects the other one.

There should be a place in the Internet that systematically collects information in a modular way into causal diagrams. Politicians, researchers, and citizens must all participate in developing these descriptions forward.

Task 5: We must act in a concerted way to brake vicious cycles

With climate change, there are vicious cycles or interrelated problems that cannot be solved by attacking one thing at a time. Concerted actions must be taken to brake the vicious cycle. If people don't buy energy-efficient products these products are not produced, the society must act to promote the choice for energy-efficient alternative in both the production and the consumption end.

See also