Science in the policy process: rational decision-making or Faustian bargain?

August 4th, 2008 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

As a scientist who works on policy, my mantra is, “public policy advances the interests of society most effectively when it is grounded in the best available knowledge.” It is, in my view, a logical philosophy for someone trained in science and committed to the advancement of science in society. Science provides us with an understanding of the universe and can thereby underpin rational and informed decision-making. Without a rational basis, our choices are left to rely on superstition, guesses, or narrow interests—key ingredients to outcomes that are sub-optimal.

Yet colleagues from both the science and policy communities often seem to challenge this view, at least implicitly, when confronted with the most contentious and challenging issues facing society. Most recently, several have questioned my efforts to develop a workshop series on Federal climate policy—and thereby contribute to a more fully informed policy discussion—because the series will include some contentious topics (e.g., carbon fees and geo-engineering) that, if implemented rashly, could pose dangers to society.

Such objections are not irrational. There are risks to pursuing a more fully informed policy process.

To date, policy-makers interested in dealing with climate change have focused the vast majority of their attention on cap-and-trade approaches for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Cap-and-trade is a powerful tool for mitigation because it sets a limit on the quantity of allowable greenhouse gas emission (the cap) and relies on the economic efficiency of markets (through trading of emission permits) to achieve that cap at the lowest price for polluters.

By establishing a price on greenhouse gas emissions, cap-and-trade creates a strong incentive for polluters to reduce their emissions. So the attention the approach has received is appropriate and largely beneficial, in my view. However, there are additional policy options that could also have an enormous positive impact on our efforts to reduce the risks we face from climate change. Our elected leaders and their appointees have done a remarkably poor job in considering this broader range of options. As a result, we’re almost certainly overlooking important strategies for navigating the danger society faces from climate change.

In the broadest sense, society has three pro-active options for managing the risks our greenhouse gas emissions pose. One, we could mitigate, or reduce, our emissions and thereby reduce the magnitude of future climate change. The cap-and-trade approach is one of several possible tools for mitigation. Two, we could increase our ability to cope with climate changes by building our adaptive capacity. Three, we could geo-engineer, that is, develop and deploy additional global scale changes to the earth system in the hope of counteracting the worst impacts of our greenhouse gas emissions (it’s an option that raises the potential for unintended, unpleasant, and uncontrollable side-effects but that could possibly serve as an important desperation strategy).

These three broad risk management strategies are generally not mutually exclusive—we could mitigate, adapt, and geo-engineer simultaneously and in a wide range of different combinations. Furthermore, each broad category contains further, and more specific, policy options. Among the specific policy choices, some are substitutes. For example, we would likely choose either a cap-and-trade or a carbon fee approach to price greenhouse gas emissions—with each approach possessing different relative strengths and weaknesses (as we’ve discussed here, here, here, and here)—but probably not both simultaneously. Other policies are inherently more complimentary: Mitigation and adaptation are different, non-competing approaches to risk reduction and management that can be used in concert. Even so, complimentary policy options could inadvertently act as substitutes in the policy-processes. For example, stronger efforts to mitigate may translate into weaker efforts to build adaptive capacity, or vice versa, if policy-makers’ attention to climate change—which is necessarily limited given the vast range of policy issues they must contend with—is expended entirely on any one element of the solution.

Therein lays one of the potential dangers in raising alternative policy options for consideration. Does exploring carbon fees, the alternative cost-effective approach for putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions, undermine the progress policy-makers have made with cap-and-trade, thereby reducing the chances that we’ll begin a serious effort to reduce our emissions? If so, we may be better off with a more narrowly focused discussion that produces faster societal responses. Likewise, does talking about building adaptive capacity reduce the likelihood of aggressive mitigation? If so, a broad and more informed discussion could ultimately hinder efforts to reduce societal risks.

A second danger arises from the potential for making dangerous options appear more benign and palatable. Does writing about geo-engineering, even objectively, cautiously, and responsibly, increase the potential for policies that recklessly or dangerously alter the earth system? If so, keeping ignorant of the full range of policy options may lead to better societal outcomes.

In some cases a little knowledge may prove dangerous, especially when combined with a lack of humility and a desire for decisive action. But I find it hard to believe that ignorance leads to good policy choices. Indeed, if ignorance is a necessary ingredient to establishing the best policies, then I think we’re sunk. The problems we face are growing ever more complex and the scope of our activities increasingly leaves us with fewer second chances. Against this backdrop, relying on ignorance would seem to ensure that our policy choices become less and less capable of addressing our needs or ensuring our continuing prosperity.

Fortunately, the alternative—responding to uninformed or irrational policy-making by seeking to add ever more knowledge—would have the opposite effect: society becomes better able to deal with complex problems and is more likely to select options that confer benefits broadly.

I believe that society should seek to avoid geo-engineering with all due diligence, and not just because of the risk of nasty, unintended, uncontrollable consequences. Mitigation and adaptation offer considerably more upside potential both in their own right and through co-benefits they may provide, such as improved economic (here) and national security (here, here and here), better resilience to existing hazards, and improved public health.

Nevertheless, I see a real need to explore Federal climate policy options that relate to geo-engineering. Geo-engineering may prove a critical desperation strategy in the event that our efforts to mitigate and adapt come up short. Furthermore, Federal policies can, and in my view should, go beyond promoting the research and development needed for the geo-engineering strategies themselves to include efforts to assess potential impacts and to establish punitive measures that discourage unilateral or poorly conceived manipulation of the earth system.

Of course, knowledge alone is not sufficient for policy formulation. Decision makers must take into account ethical considerations, economic interests, and the distributional consequences of policy choices among a broad range of constituents. All the same, grounding our policy choices in the best available knowledge will advance the interests of society most effectively.

This post is based on an article (pdf available here) that originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

3 Responses to “Science in the policy process: rational decision-making or Faustian bargain?”

  1. David B. Benson Says:

    There is a simple, if rather expensive, solution. The cost is about 1–2% of WGP, in line with other estimates of the cost for other solutions, such as the Strn Report. This solution is simply to grow biomass, carbonize it, and bury the carbonaceous materials in abandoned mines or carbon landfills.

    Using biochar (charcoal if wood is the biomass) or torrified wood may result in materials which will not survive for more than centuries to tens of millennia without special care taken in closing the landfill. The only details I know can be found in the informative review:

    Another method, which does not appear to be actively researched, is hydrothermal carbonization. This exothermic reaction produces actual coal, ‘biocoal’. Presumably such would last in the burial site for many millions of years. (I have not enough information to do a cost estimate for this method. It is probably more costly.)

  2. Dan Wylie-Sears Says:

    We should not “seek to avoid geo-engineering with all due diligence”. The possibilities of mitigation range from complete ineffectiveness to limiting the damage to merely devastating. As for adaptation, it may be great for *us* if we can adapt well, but we’re only one species among millions. If it can be done effectively, geoengineering should be our first choice, not our last. We’re having effects on every other living thing in the world, whether we pay attention to them or not. Ameliorating those effects as best we can is a moral imperative.

  3. Paul Higgins Says:

    Dan, don’t you think geo-engineering (i.e., developing and deploying global scale changes to the Earth system) would impact other species?

    In my view, geo-engineering makes sense if we 1) can’t mitigate and/or adapt to climate change, 2) figure out a way to tinker with the Earth system in ways that will counteract the effects of our greenhouse gases, but 3) won’t cause major unintended damages to our key life support systems (e.g., the biological systems that we depend upon).

    I’m highly doubtful of geo-engineering based on the second and third points but see a need, based on where we’re headed with climate change, for exploring the idea.

    That said, I don’t see the claim that we can’t mitigate as remotely credible. We currently treat the atmosphere like a free sewer for greenhouse gases and subsidize energy use (and energy waste) in a wide range of ways. Not surprisingly, we have inefficient vehicles, buildings, systems for generating and distributing energy, urban planning, etc. Furthermore, human ingenuity, which I believe is vast, has been largely untapped for reducing emissions. All that gives us plenty of room to mitigate (IPCC WG III came to fairly similar conclusions, I believe).

    We haven’t really started to try though, and the political obstacles to changing that aren’t trivial.

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