… though even scientists will don robes if required by the occasion … (Climate scientists Steve Wofsy and Scott Saleska in Bhutan)
It all began with this 2001 National Academy of Sciences Report on climate change: “Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions” (NAS/National Research Council 2001)
which the White House solicited (in just 30 days) on the following questions: “Are greenhouse gases causing climate change?”
which the White House solicited (in just 30 days) on the following questions: “Are greenhouse gases causing climate change?” “Is human activity the cause of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change?
which the White House solicited (in just 30 days) on the following questions: “Are greenhouse gases causing climate change?” “Is human activity the cause of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change? What is the range of natural variability in climate?”
to which a distinguished panel of scientists answered as follows: “The changes observed over the last several decades [0.6 °C/ 1.1 °] are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability.”
and also: Surface warming and sea level rise is expected to continue through the 21 st century at larger levels and faster rates than experienced in the 20 th century. “[N]ational policy decisions made now, and in the longer-term future will influence the extent of any damage suffered by vulnerable human populations and ecosystems later in this century.”
The U.S., responsible for 1/4 th of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, is: is a party to only the UNFCCC, which does not mandate emissions reductions has no mandatory program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars or from factories; is committed only to voluntary efforts to achieve reductions in GHG intensity, which amounts to no more than a business as usual trajectory Combine the current status of U.S. (federal govt) climate policy...
with frustrated states govts and citizens … In absence of federal policy, states and regions are taking the lead in developing climate policy initiatives. Concerned about: flooding water scarcity energy reliability storm damage
and you get requests that EPA take regulatory action to reduce GHGs:
Why did states, cities, and environmental groups target vehicle GHG emissions and ask EPA to regulate them? Transportation sources are responsible for 27% of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2003 (1,866.7 CO2 eq.) Thus U.S. vehicles responsible for roughly 5% of world greenhouse gas emissions With sole exception of California (and states adopting CA’s stnds), the Clean Air Act gives EPA exclusive authority to regulate vehicle emissions.
... moreover: Section 202 of the Clean Air Act broadly provides (emphasis added): (1) The Administrator [of EPA] shall by regulation prescribe... standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from any class or classes of new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines, which in his judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare
and furthermore: The Act defines “air pollutant” broadly as: “any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological … substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.” and the term “welfare” to: “includ[e], but not [be] limited to, effects on … weather”
But EPA denied the petition (a position backed by a federal appeals court) arguing: (1) GHGs cannot be “air pollutants” under CAA because the Clean Air Act does not apply to a global pollution problem like global warming; (2) We (the EPA) have discretion not to regulate GHGs because of: the continuing uncertainties in climate science; conflict with U.S. fuel efficiency stnds; potential to weaken U.S. efforts to persuade developing countries to reduce the GHG-intensity of their economies
more on what EPA said about the science: Cited the NAS 2001 Climate Change Science Report as its sole scientific authority and claimed document supported its decision to delay regulation. In particular, EPA noted that the NAS Report said “causal linkage” between buildup of GHGs in atmosphere and observed warming during 20 th century “cannot be equivocally established”.
Challenge to EPA refusal to regulate is now before the U.S. Supreme Court: Petitioners: MA, CA, CT, IL, ME, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VT, WA, DC, Amer. Samoa, NYC, Baltimore, 13 environmental groups Various amici (climate scientists; former EPA Administrators) Respondents: U.S. Envtl Protection Agency Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers Industry associations MI, AK, ID, KS, NE, ND, OH, SD, TX, UT Various amici
Climate scientists speak out: 18 join with attorneys to file an amicus brief: Six (out of the original 12 member panel) on brief were authors of the NAS 2001 Climate Change report: Inez Fung, UC Berkeley James Hansen, NASA Goddard Inst. Space Studies James McWilliams, UCLA Sherwood Rowland, UC Irvine Edward Sarachik, U. Washington John Wallace, U. Washington
Why did the scientists believe a brief was necessary? In their own words: “We feel an obligation to inform this Court that they [EPA and the Court of Appeals] misunderstood …the science contained in this report, to correct the public record as to what Climate Change Science and subsequent NAS reports say about climate change, and to offer our professional insight on using scientific evidence to judge whether a particular standard for regulatory action is met….” -- Climate Scientists’ Amicus Brief at 3.
Point 1: “Absolute certainty is impossible in principle in climate science, as in all fields of science. -- Climate Scientists’ Amicus Brief at 18.
Point 1 cont’d: Scientific knowledge is developed incrementally, using experiments and observations to test / refine hypotheses Scientists never know anything for sure – the best they can do is characterize the degree of certainty (and here “very likely” and “likely” are pretty darn good) In the face of scientific uncertainty, a regulatory decision to act/ not to act must be based on the applicable standard of risk (derived from policy, economic, legal or political considerations).
Point 2: EPA misrepresented the findings of the NAS 2001 Climate Change Science report, giving an appearance that the science is far more uncertain than it really is.
Point 2 cont’d: EPA selectively quoted statements about uncertainty while ignoring statements about certainty or near-certainty; implied that no risk attends waiting for future research prior to regulating GHG emissions ignored the Report’s finding of a causal link between rising GHG concentrations and temperature rises
Point 2 cont’d: “It is as if a summary of Newton’s Principia – which advanced the theory of gravitation as the common explanation for how apples fall to earth and planets move in the heavens – repeated Newton’s description of the motions of apples and planets, but never got around to mentioning gravity.... -- Climate Scientists’ Amicus Brief at 19.
Point 3: Given the inherent uncertainty of climate science (as in all science), regulatory decisions to act/ not act are not purely scientific questions, but turn on the standard of risk found in controlling policy documents and against which the scientific uncertainties can be evaluated.
Point 3 cont’d: The standard of risk applicable here is Clean Air Act § 202, which requires regulation where air pollutants “cause or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Given this protective standard, EPA was incorrect to demand “unequivocal” proof of link between GHG buildup and 20 th century temperature rises prior to regulating. Evidence that GHG emissions meet the § 202 standard is compelling.
Point 3: the example of lead regulation In 1973, EPA regulated lead additives in gasoline in face of considerable scientific uncertainty. EPA did so by interpreting language (at the time) identical to § 202 in a precautionary manner to protect public health. The result: billions of dollars of savings and the protection of the health of tens of millions of people, especially children.
Perspective Lawyers and others want scientists to participate in policy and legal debates – lends their side the mantle of seemingly “objective” authority; But is it a good idea from the perspective of scientists and the scientific community as a whole?
… not everyone thinks it’s a good idea... “The decision to become a political advocate is not unlike the decision of a medical researcher to take funds from a big company.... Indvidual decisions by scientists have collective consequences. I do think it is a bit disingenuous of a few of the scientists who have publicly stated that they are focused not on advocacy but correcting the scientific record. Lets be clear, taking sides and participating in a court case is not about science; it is about politics.” Comments of Roger Pielke, Jr. U. Colorado, on his weblog: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/.
A lawyer’s “take” on the value of scientists’ involvement in legal debates Avoids “telephone tag”: here scientists “speaking” directly to decisionmakers about the relevant science. The scientists are in control: Scientists can seek to ensure that scientific data and reports are used and interpreted correctly. Refocuses attention on the proper analysis: Comparing what is known to the standard of risk contained in the relevant policy documents.
Conclusion Because it is so powerful, policymakers are tempted to misrepresent science. Often this misrepresentation turns on how “certain” or “uncertain” the science is on a particular question. Scientists provide a valuable public service when they communicate directly to policymakers and judges with respect to how to interpret scientific findings. Such communication informs the debate, enhances public understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry, and ensures that debates over science do not substitute for debates over environmental values.