11 March 2010

The Trouble with Climate Science

Dan Sarewitz, a professor at Arizona State University and a long-time collaborator of mine, has a great op-ed at Slate on why it is that more climate science won't aid the cause of reaching a political consensus. Sarewitz explains why waging climate politics through science is wrongheaded:

When people hold strongly conflicting values, interests, and beliefs, there is not much that science can do to compel action. Indeed, more research and more facts often make a conflict worse by providing support to competing sides in the debate, and by distracting decision-makers and the public from the underlying, political disagreement. In such cases each side will claim to have the scientific high ground.

Writing in the New York Times last week, Al Gore made exactly this point about climate change by noting that "the science has become clearer and clearer." Yes, there is a robust scientific consensus that human activity is causing the atmosphere to warm up. But so what? Decision-makers need to know how climate change will affect specific political jurisdictions, and, more importantly, what types of interventions will make a difference, over what time scales, at what costs, and to whose benefit—and whose detriment.

When it comes to questions like these, political beliefs can map nicely onto different ways of selecting, assembling, and interpreting the science. If you believe that government should intervene in markets to incentivize rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, you can justify your preference with data, theories, and models that predict increases in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods. And if you believe, as do many conservatives, that government intervention in markets and in social arrangements should be kept to a minimum, you can find factual support for your views in the long-term unpredictability of regional climate behavior, the significant economic and social costs associated with shifting to more expensive energy sources, and the historical failure of government efforts to steer large-scale social and economic change.

Politics isn't about maximizing rationality, it's about finding compromises that enough people can live with to allow society to take steps in the right direction. Contrary to all our modern instincts, then, political progress on climate change requires not more scientific input into politics, but less. Value disputes that are hidden behind the scientific claims and counterclaims need to be flushed out and brought into the sunlight of democratic deliberation. Until that happens, the political system will remain in gridlock, and everyone will be convinced that they are on the side of truth.
You can read much more about Dan's views on this topic in his excellent paper titled, 'How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse":
Sarewitz, D., 2004. How Science makes environmental controversies worse, Environment Science and Policy 7:385-403.
These themes are ones that I also address in my book, The Honest Broker, in which I argue that science ought to play different roles in different political contexts. Science most directly influences decision making when values are shared among various parties participating in the decision making process and uncertainties are limited or bounded. Neither situation characterizes the issue of climate change.

In such a case the most appropriate roles for science are to act as an arbiter of questions posed by policy makers. In a 2007 paper Sarewitz and I described in some detail one model for how such an interaction might be structured, with the goal of providing usful information to policy makers:
Sarewitz, D. and R. A. Pielke, Jr., 2007. The neglected heart of science policy: reconciling supply of and demand for science, Environmental Science & Policy, 10:5-16.
Another option for scientists would be to participate in providing a range of alternatives for decision makers to consider, the honest broker of policy alternatives. I expand on mechanisms of honest brokering, especially as related to interdisciplinary, problem-oriented research in the following paper:
Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2010. Expert Advice and the Vast Sea of Knowledge, pp, 169-187 in A. Bogner, K.Katenhofer and H. Torgersen (eds.) Inter-und Transdisziplinaritat im Wandel? Neue Perspektiven auf problemorientierte Forschung und politikberatung, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden, Germany.
Sarewitz includes an uncomfortable admonition:
A dangerous idea has taken hold in modern politics, and the sooner it is discredited, the better. The idea is that political disagreements can be resolved by science. Its basic logic seems sensible: As good children of the Enlightenment, we should turn to science to establish the facts about problems such as climate change before deciding what policies to implement. Yet the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don't have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide.
He is right: the sooner that we figure this out, the better.