Saturday, 12 April 2008

political climate versus climate science

edge has a nice interview with Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford. It's worth reading, but here are a few highlights and reactions:

One of the challenges for scientists such as Schneider is balancing good science with policy advocacy. Good science means
don't be too arrogant about the belief in your models; what you do is make projections, and then you crank a knob to try to avoid the more catastrophic outcomes or the outcomes that don't match your values, but we better be reflexive. That means we had better have what in the language of the systems guys is a "complex adaptive system". We need to always build in knobs so that as we get new information that changes our understanding of the structural bases of models, we can in turn crank up or down our degrees of policy control. But we rationalists, we systems analysts, think that's a great model of reality.
Most politicians think it's also the right way to do public policy. But changing public policy often entails
a five-year knock-down political debate—with the auto industry that wants to make big fat polluting cars, and the mining industry that wants to get the coal and uranium at lowest cost—and when all is said and done, they will reach some political compromise that satisfies nobody. But at least it's progress—and the last thing anybody wants to do is go back in five years and revisit that ugly debate and rekindle, among all these already not very satisfied stake-holders, more reasons for them to be angry.

That is why when we intellectuals say, hey, set up a complex-adaptive system, adjust the management knobs as we learn more; politicians say, oh no, we solved it, don't reopen festering compromises. Problem's over. Don't take me back there anytime soon.

The more scientists are aware of the difficulties of the political climate, the better able they will be to work with politicians to "build a rational management system that recognizes that very wide tails on uncertainty distribution mean that you have to be able to crank up or down as you learn more; that you can't claim that the problem's solved and never revisit an issue once legislation is passed."

Schneider also discusses the three roles he takes on as a scientist: education (helping people gain a nuanced view of climate science), understanding the science (how will the climate change in response to CO2, and how will agriculture change in response to climate change), and asking what to do about it. I think all three of these roles are appropriate for scientists, but I find it fascinating that their own education explicitly prepares them only for understanding the science. It's worth asking why this is so.
[When contemplating a policy recommendation, Schneider asks] what will it do to a poor person? It might affect the quality of protein on their family's table. It's a dilemma. On the one hand you have a moral principle: the polluter pays. On the other hand, the relative fraction of my disposable income that that would represent is much less than that of a poor person in a hot country, or even a poor person in the United States. Energy costs are in that sense a regressive tax.
The same goes for many proposed taxes, including the gasoline tax. It will encourage public transit, innovation, and fuel efficiency, but it will also aggressively target the rural poor (who do not have access to public transit and cannot afford new vehicles). The carbon tax, the panacea of the season, has many of the same difficulties.
How do you make deals where the over-consumers (us) work out a deal with the over-populated and the not yet fully consuming group (developing countries), so that they don't just repeat the Victorian Industrial Revolution with the sweatshops, dirty coal burning, internal combustion engine, etc.? The answer is that these economies in transition need to leapfrog right over it to high technology. Exhibit C: cell-phone.
In central China, Schneider explains, there are no traditional telephone lines, but there are millions of cellular phones. Our collective efforts, therefore, should be put to convincing China to invest in infrastructures that support cleaner utilities. [more]

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