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If Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then …

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

If Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then … :

The first paragraph of Sheila Jasanoff’s book, The Fifth Branch, starts

“Scientific advisory committees occupy a curiously sheltered position in the landscape of American regulatory politics. In an era of bitter ideological confrontations, their role in policymaking has gone largely unobserved and unchallenged. …” (1990, The Fifth Branch, Chapter 1, Rationalizing Politics; 2009 Interview with Professor Jasanoff)

The first chapter of The Fifth Branch is something that I think that all managers of science in the U.S. Agencies should read. The book, quickly and compellingly, describes the role of scientists in the U.S. political environment. There are references to and case studies of many instances where scientific investigation is motivating and informing policy. There are examples from environmental science, from waste management, and from approval and management of prescription drugs. The book makes it clear that if scientific investigation suggests a need to change, to regulate, or to restrict a certain practice or behavior, then there is a response to oppose that change, that regulation, or that restriction. The depth and vigor of the opposition depends on the wealth and power of those who perceive themselves as impacted; there is often the funding or the advocacy of “opposition science.”

As part of the opposition, there is the tactic of searching for, finding, and amplifying any weaknesses or indiscretions of the scientists. Occasionally, there is revelation of true fraud. (Previous blogs on all of this are listed at the end.)

Building off of the opening sentences quoted above, since 1990 bitter ideological confrontations have become more bitter. There is little evidence that this trend will change until some sort of catastrophe forces the change. The evolution of political tribalism has entrained the scientific advisory panel into politics and brought the role of the scientist out of obscurity.

As background, Professor Jasanoff describes the Fourth Branch of the U.S. government as the Agencies, which have evolved to carry out the functions of the government. This includes the pursuit of scientific investigation for the benefit of the country. These agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NASA, are formally in the Executive Branch. There are political appointees in the agencies, and there is a standing force of civil servants and associated private-sector contractors. The agencies fund research outside of the government. The staff and longevity of the agencies gives them a life that extends far beyond the term of any particular President. (these are perhaps D.H. Lawrence’s “… good sort of society of people in the government who are not tip-toppers, but who are, or would be, the real intelligent power in the nation: people who know what they’re talking about, or talk as if they did.” Lady Chatterly’s Lover)

In February I wrote that in the absence of comprehensive policy to address climate change in the U.S. the 2007 Supreme Court Decision that allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon dioxide becomes more important. As the EPA plans to move forward with the authorization to address carbon dioxide as a pollutant, some legislators are moving to block the EPA. ( see also) This is a classic political push and pull, with the argument that the regulation power of the agencies is out of the hands of voters, because the agency is not an elected representative (see Wall Street Journal Review and Outlook) Interestingly, the sponsors of the bill are, in fact, bipartisan, which shows the ultimate rule of their constituencies, which include coal mining, automobiles, and oil.

If there is any doubt that climate science has moved from a discipline of science to, de facto, an element of politics, then Senator Inhoff’s Minority Report should remove that doubt. Aside from amplifying the political positions about the EPA in the previous paragraph, this report implies the criminal investigation of a set of scientists involved in the IPCC Assessment Reports. The increasing role of point-of-view journalists and public relations professionals is discussed in this The Daily Climate Article. These are disruptive and, often, intimidating political tactics in the tradition of, well, unsavory participative politics. (see also, Climate Science Watch).

All of this has motivated a series of open letters by Ben Santer. The last in the series is an eloquent statement that the sustained political attacks does not stop the fact that the Earth will warm, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. (Santer’s Open Letter # 6, The List of 17).

What’s the purpose of my article?

At this point we have established that, going forward, “climate change” is a political issue, and it is subject to both the well founded and the pernicious aspects of the political process. This is nothing new; in fact it is ancient. Scientific investigation has challenged, with dire consequences to scientists, that the Earth is at the center of the universe and many other tenants of nations, religions, and corporations. The ramifications of their investigations rarely enter the minds of young people motivated by the scientific process. Therefore, not only are scientists not well positioned to participate in the realm of bitter ideological confrontation, scientists are, I assert, by both training and predisposition, easy foils for savvy political strategists.

This leaves the scientist in a lose-lose situation. They are required to defend themselves, but their self-defense perpetuates and amplifies the political confrontation. The confrontational process is not one, as one of my readers more eloquently stated, where we are looking for knowledge-based reconciliation of an issue. Knowledge-based reconciliation is the scientific instinct.

The knowledge that this is a political process that has been repeating itself for centuries, that there is always a community motivated by factors other than knowledge, and that we are in a world of nuanced language of words like “consensus” – this knowledge, derived from social scientists, does offer strategies. First the scientists need to think, individually and collectively, that their responses are, by definition, political. We need to adopt a position, not of defense or isolation, but to do no damage. In a political process certain individuals evolve to the point that there is nothing they can say that serves to advance their position. Nothing. I have been there. This is a difficult-to-accept powerlessness. There is a need to learn, at times, to be quiet – to do no damage.

There are other voices in the community of science, and their voices bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge. Often these voices are young, the next generation, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us. There are voices outside of the community, from other fields, those who study the process of science, those who are impacted by the results of scientific investigation, those who use the results of investigations – these are powerful, independent, and supportive voices. They provide informal external review; they could provide formal, external review.

There are organizational steps we can take. In the United States we need to use our principles of checks and balances to have different organizations that generate science-based knowledge from those which use it – perhaps a provider-customer relationship. Or for the scientist, setting up a “validation process” that is independent; an organization that affirms value. This would help to break the perception of a conflict of interest, where scientists are often viewed as both provider and customer. As a matter of practical policy, scientists are pushed into this position by the requirement that “they prove what they have discovered is important.” (If we develop a Climate Service, this service should NOT be responsible for the use of the information they provide, for example, climate adaptation. Perhaps we need an organization made up of Agriculture, Interior, the Centers of Disease Control, etc., that are users of the Climate Service.)

We, scientists need to learn, better, that scientific knowledge is used and misused in both the political process and in all forms of decision making. And that misuse is part of the process – knowledge, once released, is no longer controlled. We need to learn that uncertainty is part of all decision making processes, and that systematic reduction of uncertainty in a complex problem like climate change is not the natural evolution of investigation. We need to learn that promising reduction of uncertainty is both scientifically and politically naïve.

Most of all, there are those, and this is perhaps what is really happening, what the majority will do – there are those who will take the knowledge that the Earth is warming, sea level is rising and the weather is changing and act on it. They will think about the investments of their companies, the management of our resources, and the incremental development of policy, that will take advantage of the tremendous and unique opportunity offered by the projections of climate change.


Strength in Many Peers

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

Trust, but Verify

Scientist as Advocate

Science, Belief and the Volcano

Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence

And here is

Faceted Search of Blogs at climateknowledge.org

How to Prevent Climate Change Summit from Failure

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

In December 2009, the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Copenhagen. Their aim will be to conclude an agreement that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which terminates in 2012. Given the abysmal failure of Kyoto one may be permitted to ask, Will Copenhagen succeed any better? The answer depends on expectations of what can be achieved in this short amount of time; the answer depends on how “success” is defined.

It is easier to define failure. Most climate watchers would define failure to mean lack of an agreement by states to “commit” to limiting their emissions dramatically. I would define failure to mean repeating the mistakes made in Kyoto in 1997. The worst outcome would be for the United States to “commit” to meet quantitative targets and timetables of emission reduction without being sure that these obligations will be approved by Congress. (more…)

Science and the Carbon Market

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

Science and the Carbon Market

With the change of U.S. administrations, there is renewed discussion of climate change policy. Ideas at the forefront are environmental pollutant markets and tax-based controls. The market-based approach, called cap and trade, is posed in opposition with the tax-based approaches. This polarization is not a useful or correct way to advance policy.

The advocacy of a cap and trade market follows from the success of the sulfur market, which controls acid rain. The amount of pollutant that can be tolerated is informed by scientific investigation. This leads to a “cap” on the amount. (more…)

An Insightful and Provocative Keynote

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Herman Daly delivered a fantastic keynote address to AMS’s workshop on Federal Climate Policy. The text is reproduced here in full.

Climate Policy: from “know how” to “do now”

Herman E. Daly

The recent increase in attention to global warming is very welcome. Most of the attention seems to be given to complex climate models and their predictions. That too is welcome. However, it is useful to back up a bit and remember an observation by physicist John Wheeler, “We make the world by the questions we ask”. What are the questions asked by the climate models, and what kind of world are they making, and what other questions might we ask that would make other worlds? Could we ask other questions that would make a more tractable world for policy? (more…)

How Optimism and Pessimism Shape Our Views on Climate Policy—Part II: Evidence

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

In my first post on this topic, I explored how optimism and pessimism can influence policy preferences for dealing with climate change. I mentioned two key issues relating to policy choices: 1) society’s sensitivity to earth system disturbance, and 2) our potential to mitigate. Each can be viewed with optimism or pessimism, which leads to four possible perspectives: the true optimists, true pessimists, earth system optimists (who are mitigation pessimists), and mitigation optimists (who are earth system pessimists).

Today I’ll focus on the evidence that can support or diminish the standing of each of the four perspectives. (more…)

Designing Post-2012 International Climate Change Policy

Friday, December 7th, 2007

The 2007 UN-sponsored climate change negotiations opened in Bali, Indonesia this week. By the end of the conference on December 14, the world community may agree to a two-year “roadmap,” as called for by the UN Secretary-General, for negotiating an agreement to guide climate change mitigation efforts after the end of the Kyoto Protocol’s 2008-2012 commitment period. A number of academics, analysts, nongovernmental organizations and related processes have proposed various ways of moving forward with international climate change policy, including the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s Dialogue at Pocantico, the UN Foundation and the Club of Madrid’s Global Leadership for Climate Action, and the Centre for Global Studies’ L20 concept of engaging the most important developed and developing countries on this issue, which is similar to the Bush Administration’s Big Economies process. (more…)


Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Readers of ClimatePolicy.org may remember a four-volume assessment of the social science research relevant to global climate change that appeared about a decade ago, entitled Human choice and climate change, edited by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth L. Malone. If not, here’s a bit of background. This was a truly extraordinary effort, centered on a Vancouver meeting in 1997, and involving more than one hundred contributors. Especially intriguing was a small satellite document issued with the assessment entitled “Ten suggestions for policymakers.” To quote Rayner and Malone:

“What can public and private decisionmakers learn from a wide-ranging look at the social sciences and the issue of human choice and climate change that illuminates the evaluation of policy goals, implementation strategies, and choices about paths forward? At present, proposed policies are heavily focused on the development and implementation of intergovernmental agreements on immediate emissions reductions. In the spirit of cognitive and analytic pluralism that has guided the creation of Human choice and climate change, we look beyond the present policy priorities to see if there are adjustments, or even wholesale changes, to the present course that could be made on the basis of a social science perspective. To this end we offer ten suggestions to complement and challenge existing approaches to public and private sector decisionmaking: (more…)


Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

This post identifies real and perceived risks of climate policy and explores ways to minimize those risks. I’ll focus on four risks:

1) Damage to the economy as a whole
2) Damage to some sectors within the economy
3) Lost opportunities from the investment of limited resources on climate change
4) Potential political costs of supporting climate policy

Most risks, perceived & real, can be managed well but not all can be eliminated entirely. (more…)

Cap-and-Trade vs. Emission Tax – Design Issues

Monday, August 20th, 2007

The cost and environmental efficacy of either a cap-and-trade program or an emission tax will depend on several important design issues: the point of regulation; the coverage of emission sources; “complementary” programs; and possible hybrid policies that integrate elements of both approaches.

Point of regulation. It would be infeasible to regulate all greenhouse gas emissions at the very point where they enter the atmosphere – monitors will not be placed on every car and truck tailpipe, every home that heats with natural gas or heating oil, as well as every smokestack in the industrial and electricity sectors. One approach – often referred to as upstream regulation – would impose the emission tax or the requirement to hold permits on energy suppliers, such as at coal mines, natural gas wellheads, petroleum product refineries and importers. The carbon content of all fossil fuels that enter the U.S. energy system would be covered by this approach. This approach would be administratively simple and straightforward because it accounts for almost all U.S. CO2 emissions (more than 98 percent) by focusing on a relatively small number of firms; incorporates existing monitoring and measurement of fuel supplies; and takes advantage of the fundamental molecular properties of fossil fuels that allow for precise measurement of emissions based on the physical amounts of these fuels. (more…)

Cap-and-Trade vs. Emission Tax – Differences

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

Building on my previous posts in this series providing an overview of cap-and-trade and emission taxes and a discussion of their similarities, this post illustrates some of the differences between cap-and-trade and an emission tax: the trade-off between cost certainty and emissions certainty, incentives for R&D, and revenue generation.

Cost certainty versus emissions certainty. In an uncertain world, it is impossible to design a policy that simultaneously guarantees an emissions outcome at a certain cost. An emission tax provides cost certainty – the incremental increase in energy prices is transparent and fixed under a tax – while cap-and-trade provides emissions certainty by capping aggregate emissions. Under a tax, emissions in aggregate can vary depending on the realized costs of abatement (that cannot be predicted ex ante with certainty), economic growth, relative changes in energy prices unrelated to a carbon policy, etc. These factors can likewise drive the variation in costs under a cap-and-trade program. (more…)

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