On Sunday, Post reporters Tom Hamburger, Joby Warrick and I reported that the conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council is stressing that (in our words) it “does not deny climate change” and has been “overhauling their organization to be more transparent and more welcoming to divergent views.” The story also reports that the Southern Company, a major utility, will cease funding the climate “skeptic” scientist Willie Soon later this year.
The apparent shift here is epitomized by a quotation in our story:
“The science issue just isn’t as salient as it once was,” said Scott Segal, who represents energy interests at Bracewell & Giuliani. Debate over climate science was “all the rage” in the past, he said. “But today, the key issue is whether proposed regulations cost too much, weaken reliability or are illegal.”
The Post’s Dana Milbank today writes that this means that climate change “skeptics” are “in retreat.” Indeed, it’s possible that we’re living through a moment that will later be remembered as a key marker in the decline of climate change doubt as a whole.
It’s hard to recognize such a moment right as it happens. But many signs of a turn in the debate are already there, mainly in the form of huge political momentum developing on climate this year — an expected encyclical from the Pope, and a major international meeting in Paris in December to bring the world together around new carbon cuts.
So what would happen if we actually stopped fighting about the science of climate? The answer, as Segal’s quotation suggests, is that then we would fight over the policy of emissions reductions measures. And there would still be broad disagreements — for example, there is debate over whether the EPA’s Clean Power Plan will indeed “weaken reliability” of the grid, as Segal says — but the difference would be that everyone would share the same baseline information about the nature of the problem.
It would basically amount to a kind of frame shift — with major implications for the tone of debate (it’s harder to compromise or find shared ground when you’re arguing over the very existence of a problem, rather than how to address it) and for how we focus our attention. And our story about ALEC makes the point that much of this is occurring for pragmatic reasons: While some ideologues may always feel the urge to fight science, energy companies need to operate in a given economic and regulatory environment — and they can plainly see that change is coming to that environment.
But there may be broader implications of ceasing to fight about the science of climate change, ones that go beyond the climate issue itself. Let me explain.
For many years now, we’ve been living in a world of highly politicized science. What that means is that again and again, we’ve seen politicians and the interest groups that support them refuse to accept the mainstream scientific community’s expertise and advice on topics like climate change, embryonic stem cell research and many others.
Instead, those skeptical of mainstream science have embraced a kind of “fight the science” strategy, which involves second-guessing the conclusions of mainline experts, on climate and on much else. We saw the epitome of it two weeks back, with a widely challenged statement from Republican Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who had asserted that “satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years, there’s been zero warming. None whatsoever.”
Cruz didn’t take the scientific community’s word for it on climate change — he found his own data, and his own way of looking at it, to undermine the consensus. But many scientists, including satellite specialist Carl Mears, explained that it’s misleading to seize on an especially warm year 17 years ago in order to start a trend analysis — and that it’s also questionable to only look at satellite data.
The point, though, is that Cruz’s remark fits “fight the science” to a tee.
But in the ALEC story and in Segal’s quotation, we see the glimmer of what could be a different relationship between science and politics — an understanding that scientists produce knowledge, and politicians and political actors consult that knowledge as one factor (but only one) in decision-making.
In this view, both groups have different spheres. Scientists operate in the realm of knowledge creation and knowledge assessment — but it’s not their job to make explicit policy recommendations. Politicians, meanwhile, operate in the realm of decision-making — and they can base their decisions on many factors beyond purely scientific ones, such as economics or morality — but it’s not their job to second-guess science.
The principle, as articulated by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is for scientists to provide information that is “policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive.”
Thus, sticking with the climate example, climate scientists can tell us the world is warming, how fast it’s happening, and what the likely projections are for temperatures and sea level rise out to 2100 and beyond. But they can’t tell us, based strictly on science, why a cap-and-trade plan is better than a carbon tax, or whether the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is the right way to go.
In some ways, a “policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive” approach would not be so much an innovation as a restoration of an older paradigm — one that prevailed before the modern era of highly politicized conflict over science.
A key precedent here is the long dismantled Office of Technology Assessment, which provided science advice and technology forecasting to Congress until its demise in the early years of the Gingrich Revolution. Across a body of hundreds of reports, the OTA avoided making explicit policy recommendations, but it nevertheless gave sound, mainstream assessments that let elected leaders know which ideas were worth taking seriously in the world of science, which ones weren’t, and what the future would look like if key trends — like, say, global warming — were to continue.
The dismantling of OTA and the new era of increasingly politicized science arrived at around the same time. But across the intervening two decades, scientists never gave up on the idea of remaining policy relevant but also policy neutral. And in our story about ALEC, we hear at least a hint of the idea that that’s how things could be again.
It would be a very long, hard road back — but hey, you can hope.