Monday, February 11, 2008

Only the Beginning: When Science Meets Politics

The debate about anthropogenically induced climate change is taking a wild turn. At the end of this past December, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a statement entitled “Human Impacts on Climate,” which outlined the organization’s recognition of the impacts of Global Warming and called on the scientific community to further research, educate, and communicate their specialized knowledge on the subject with the public and policy makers. Statements such as these have become controversial, not because they are rare – the American Meteorological Society (AMS), for example, issued a similar piece earlier in 2007 – but because of the “consensus” view they represent.

This situation began to coalesce following the issuance of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report which presented hard data on the existence of Global Warming, backed up by expert sources in a variety of disciplines and its impact are exemplified by the rise of the vitriol opposing it and the consensus it represents. Interest groups in the fossil fuel industry, climate skeptics, and their political counterparts have led a fervent charge to discount Global Warming findings. For example, Marc Moreno, a minority staffer of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, falsely misrepresented the dissenting views of AGU scientists (Note Comment #10) in an effort to discredit the organization’s findings. In addition, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has created a list of 400 scientists that he claims debunk the Global Warming argument.

While it is true that not all scientists in the World agree with everything the IPCC, AGU, or AMS say, it is important to note that what is occurring are the unfortunate consequences of the intersection between science and politics. Lists like Senator Inhofe’s represent what happens when politicians attempt to enter a scientific debate. Reports like those produced by the IPCC are part of the many steps the scientific community takes to understand the theory, uncertainty, and future importance of a topic. We as a society do not completely understand the Earth’s climate and therefore climate change, but we do have a considerable amount of information that can be brought to bear in this case. Given this, a large number of the scientific community has become convinced that we are actively and negatively affecting the very environment we live in.

Unfortunately, as science continues to bridge the gap between research and public policy, there will be consequences. Organizations like the AGU must realize that once politics enter their debate, the rules change. The research will be scrutinized more closely; predictions will be used as pure fact; and every error or mistake will be used to show how weak a scientific argument is, all in the name of politics. Regardless, the future of climate science, and in fact our society, lies in interdisciplinary and holistic research, whether we agree with the cut throat nature of policy making or not. Controversy, such as that surrounding the AGU statement and unfounded comments by politicians are only the beginning and it will only get worse. With confidence though, I believe not only will science win in the end, but ultimately society will reap the benefits of the hard fought battle between science and politics. It is only the beginning.


Panhandle Poet said...

I must say that I am, and have been, one of the skeptics. Originally my skepticism was with the idea that the climate was indeed changing. By that, I meant a "macro" level change. I live in West Texas. The weather changes daily. Weather patterns change yearly.

My skepticism arises not just from the politicization of the concept, but from a healthy dose of educational reality that has taught me to question everything. Just because someone says it -- or puts it on the Internet -- doesn't make it true. I am especially skeptical of things that come out of politicians (or University professor's) mouths.

Over time, as I have looked more deeply into the subject of Climate Change, I have grown to accept that there is apparently a macro-level event occurring. Now the question for me is whether the event is human activity induced, or a naturally occurring phenomenon that is part of the rhythm of this planet -- this blue island of life -- that we occupy. After all, there is abundant evidence of dramatic climate shifts throughout history (really long-term history). Is it man-induced? I believe the jury is still out.

The media and politicians will play to our fears. We will likely overreact (by we, I refer to the human animal in general). It is even difficult to trust the experts. I always have to ask the question, "Now, just who is it that pays that expert's salary?"

E. R. Dunhill said...

Given the importance and variety of scientific and technology issues in government, it's unfortunate that we don't see more practicing scientists and engineers seeking elected office.
Franklin and Jefferson were both scientists and statesmen. The current Chancellor of Germany spent much of her career as a physical scientist. But contemporary American voters seem content to elect lawyers and business people to make judgments about virtually anything. I think we need to change this thinking.

Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: Interesting thought. I suspect that the personalities of most scientists and engineers is such that they would not be easily electable.

Sue said...

While I believe it would be beneficial if all citizens, including those elected and appointed to governance positions were more knowledgeable of the practices and outcomes of science, I do not believe we would benefit from being governed by "science." Science deals with the empirical world. The subject matter of science must be perceivable by one of the five senses -- and therefore open to verification and replication by anyone else. This verifiable nature of science is what makes it such a powerful tool. However, this means that science cannot directly study some important forms of human experience (the spiritual for example). Science can observe what people say and do as a result of those experiences, but the internal spiritual experience is unique and not verifiable by others. This does not make it any less important than empirical phenomenon.
While governance should appreciate and be informed by science (more so than it already is), governance is ultimately about values, which are not scientific. We should expect science to discover if climate change is occurring, how much change is occuring, where it is occurring, what physical consequences there are of this change, and reasonable extrapolation from existing trends of future physical consequences. BUT, the d3cision about how much current generations should give up or change in deference to future generations, or what humans should give up in deference to specific other species [yeah, I know, the "web of life"] is ultimately a value decision. Science can tell us that if we do not make certain changes, there are likely consequences for people living in 50 to 100 years. But only values can determine whether we care more about those future consequences or our current consequences.
Personally, despite having no children of my own,(and thus no potential descendents) nor nieces and nephews, I still think we ought to place a higher value on the continuation of an advanced, technological human society over present day profit margins. But that's not science, that's values, and values are what politics and governance should be about.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I don't think most people have personalities conducive to election. I've known a number of scientists and engineers who are astute managers and natural leaders, though. Working as a principal investigator on a multi-year, multi-million dollar research project is not hugely different from running a corporation or a government agency.
I think the largest hurdle may indeed be with the scientists and engineers themselves. In my experience, many of them think of endeavors outside of their own or a related discipline as less important.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I don't see replacing human judgment with the scientific method. However, I'm not sure that the business and law bias we see broadly among our elected officials equips them to make informed value judgments. I don't think having a few more scientists in Congress would be harmful to developing sound science policy.
I'm also concerned that our current political climate (with much corporate money and many lobbyists) works against candidates who want exercise ethical judgment. I don't by any means see scientists and engineers as above such influences, but I do like the idea of more people from more disciplines taking an active role in government.

Progressive said...

Both ERD and Sue bring up very good points!


Yes, there should be more scientists in elected office. Currently, Rush Holt of New Jersey is the only one, I believe, though Jay Inslee of Washington State has written extensively on environmental issues.

Sue -

I think there is merit to thinking that science should not be the ruling thought of government. Social welfare, for example, is considered a "wicked problem" because it is not easy to quantify or for that matter solve. Efforts like the Great Society failed on many fronts because of these characteristics.

With all that being said, science should still play a bigger role in the governmental process. While science cannot solve everything, it is the number one driver of societal progress. The problem now is that elected officials are deciding where science should go, instead of there being an open dialogue between science and politics.

The ultimate point of my post was the point out the consequences of when the two spheres meet and do not talk to one another. The blame can be cast equally to both sides though.

Science has not effectively framed the issue of climate change (a whole other post in and of itself) and will not leave its own bubble of norms.

Politicians need to think past their short term blinders (elections) to solve issues like climate change. While this has been a constant issue with government, climate change cannot be solved incrementally, therefore pleading with politicians to take a step back and work truly for the betterment of society.

Sue said...

An interesting article about scientists/science and politics, telling of an even more interesting upcoming discussions tomorrow at the AAAS