For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2009. “Facing climate change.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (August 12): 11A.
A few days ago I read an article in the New York Times about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IGPCC). Andrew Revkin’s report said in part, “Although the panel, founded in 1988 and operating under the United Nations’ auspices, has garnered awards and acclaim, there is scant evidence that nations are acting on its warnings.”
If you have been following the debate, you know that an overwhelming majority of scientists who study climate change agree about many important matters. They agree that human actions have unequivocally caused increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level. They further agree that it is “very likely” that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-1900s is due to human-caused increases in “Greenhouse Gas” concentrations (especially carbon dioxide). They agree that we are very likely to experience a 1.8 to 4.0°F increase in the global average surface temperature between 1999 and 2099. These scientists, who spend their working lives studying particular aspects of the topic, further agree that the consequences (upon polar and high mountain communities and ecosystems, for example) will be especially severe if we don’t start reducing global Greenhouse Gas emissions now.
I find these arguments to be compelling—especially when I think about grandchildren—and have altered my own behavior in response.
But if you have been tracking the public debate, you also know that many people condemn these claims as a hoax, and they point to a small number of scientists who dispute the IGPCC scientists’ findings. Up to now their objections have proven influential enough to block effective action within the United States. Hence Revkin’s observation that “there is scant evidence that nations are acting on its [the IGPCC’s] warnings.”
The scientists are puzzled. They needn’t be. They would have greater success in persuading national leaders and the public to act on their warnings if they let go of the tightly-held belief that policy should be “fact-based” and driven by “good science,” and recognized that the meaning of a fact depends on the context in which it appears.
I am not suggesting that policy should be based on ideology. We had enough of that during the Bush years. But I am suggesting that we could make far better progress with regard to climate change policy if we (scientists and the rest of us) supported a form of policy-making based on four key features.
First, good policy-making should encourage public discussion and debate both about “what is” (the empirical) and “what should be” (the normative). Scientists can and should influence such a public discussion by doing the best possible research and enhancing our collective knowledge about the topic, but there is nothing about science in a viable democracy that authorizes scientists to tell us what we should do. Unless, that is, we consciously choose to delegate authority to them.
Second, public discussion and debate must provide space for ordinary people (you, me, and others) to influence policy-making and action. Instead of presuming that scientists will provide “policy-makers” with the best possible information, and that those “policy-makers” should “make the tough call” and enact policies the scientists recommend, the meaning of that information needs to be informed by public debate about what matters, and why. It is necessary but not sufficient, for instance, to say that western pine forests are dying because warming has enabled pine beetles to survive winters. One must also present a coherent argument about why healthy pine forests matter. This calls for interaction between scientists and the rest of us, not a one-way flow of information.
Third, proposed policies must make sense to ordinary people in terms they understand, and it must encourage actions that have good practical consequences in terms of their day-to-day lives. In part this means that one has to translate scientific talk into ordinary language. But it also means that these policies cannot be focused exclusively on predictions about the distant future. Good policy must draw upon ordinary knowledge too, and be framed in terms of providing economic opportunity and fairer access to better lives in the here and now.
And last, effective policy-making has to engage the sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear that many people feel in the present moment. If current efforts to disrupt town hall meetings about health care provide any guide, some Americans feel so threatened by change and so ideologically opposed to the Obama administration, that they are willing to do anything to block it. Effective policy making about climate change has to work though those fears.
In sum, what we need is a collective display of practical wisdom rather than scientific guidance.