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30.6.05

Scientist or Advocate?

Mark Lynas recently wrote an article urging climate scientists to come "off the fence" and act as advocates for policy to address climate change. His article begins with the observation, familiar to the risk management community, that debates about the science of climate change are often really proxy battles for social agendas (he suggests anti-socialism and anti-capitalism as the key ones). But this is exactly the reason why climate scientists needn't, and shouldn't, be political leaders in climate management. Being an expert at analyzing ice cores or building atmospheric models says nothing about your expertise on the relative merits of socialism and capitalism. Knowing what a ton of carbon dioxide will do in the atmosphere has little to do with knowing what kind of regulations and incentives will most efficiently and equitably prevent the release of that carbon dioxide. Too many environmental tragedies have already resulted from the assumption that understanding the biophysical systems involved is sufficient for knowing how to solve a problem.

By placing a special burden on climate scientists to take a leadership role, Lynas is in effect asking them to use the prestige and public trust they accumulated through their work in one field and use it to give a stamp of approval to policy choice where their opinion is equivalent to that of an educated layperson. A natural scientist could be a political leader, but to become so is not a matter of stepping up to the responsibility of his or her role as a natural scientist. Rather, it's a matter of developing a second core of expertise, the social scientist and policymaker's toolbox of understanding how to listen to people's values and create the organization and incentives that will allow them to implement those values. More realistic would be a stronger and more explicit collaboration among natural scientists, social scientists, and professional leaders (politicians and activists) to ensure that climate scientists are producing useful information and that someone will make actual use of it (as opposed to merely cherry-picking rhetorical clubs from it).

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