State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Environmental Science and Speaking Truth to Power

Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

I am not an expert in toxicology, climate science, ecology or hydrology, but in environmental policy, organizational management, policy formulation, program implementation and evaluation along with public opinion and American politics. I have worked in environmental policy and management since 1976 but my PhD is in political science.  My earliest days in environmental policy taught me that effective environmental policy requires sound environmental science, and one of my jobs as an environmental policy and management analyst was to learn the basics of environmental science and engineering. I needed science to understand the nature of the policy problem, its cause and effect. I needed engineering to understand what could be done to address the problem. I needed to learn how to communicate with and learn from scientists, even though their field was not my field.

The problems we were dealing with in the 1970s and 1980s were obvious and no one doubted they were real. People who depended on well water suddenly realized they needed to tap into filtered public water. Their well water was no longer safe to drink. They could see and taste the difference, and some homeowners had their water tested and found they were drinking toxics. In Buffalo in the 1970s most sewage was untreated and was dumped raw into Lake Erie, just as Manhattan’s sewage flowed untreated into the Hudson. Multibillion dollar investments in sewage treatment plants ended the problem and we finally met federal treatment standards in the mid-1980s. In nearby Pittsburgh, people dusted the orange red dust off their windshields every morning to clean off the sulfur-based particulates that came from the steel mill smoke stacks. And at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, Lois Gibbs and her neighbors were trying to get the government to do something about the toxic ooze that was leaking into their homes and making them sick. There were no “deniers” at the Love Canal. No one doubted that Pittsburgh’s air was dirty and that our waterways were a mess.

The steel mills are gone and Pittsburgh, like New York City, is being reinvented as a high tech city after many painful decades of job loss. Buffalo is still struggling, but hopefully will eventually recover from decades of decline. As bad as the economy is in Western New York, at least the area can offer a high quality of life. It provides a low cost of living, and a livable natural environment. The water in Western New York is filtered and the sewage is treated. The autos have pollution control devices and our air, land and water is safer today than it was forty years ago. But while we have moved forward, other parts of the world are learning the lessons we learned decades ago. In late December, a team of my Earth Institute colleagues was in Beijing and Tianjin, China and experienced an air pollution “red alert.” Roads, factories and schools were closed while government officials anxiously waited for the “fog” to lift. Our team was unable to complete the tasks they had hoped to undertake while they were in China because they and the people they hoped to meet with could not freely travel. Pollution can get so bad that the government needs to shut down the economy to make the air breathable. The anti-environmental advocates heading to Washington should take a trip to China or India if they’d like to see what an unregulated environment looks like. We need jobs and a livable environment, and with adequate modern pollution control technology we can have both.

The science of air and water pollution is not simple, but the solutions are available to purify air and water and they are cost effective. It does not mean they are free. A factory can pollute the air and water and produce whatever they are selling and not pay the costs of controlling the pollution they are creating. Those costs are paid by society in lost productivity, illness and health care treatment. American industry has been regulated for decades. Some manufacturing has fled the country for lower labor costs and less stringent environmental and health and safety rules. But many businesses have modernized, remained in the country, and are competitive globally. Some sources of pollution like power plants and motor vehicles must remain local, and they pollute far less than they used to. Here in New York City we have banned the most polluting forms of oil from our apartment furnaces and replaced them with cleaner oil or natural gas. New York City’s air is better than it was forty years ago and we don’t need to close down due to air pollution.

The science of air, water and toxic pollution seems to have been accepted, even if most people are scientifically illiterate. The more complex modern environmental sciences of ecosystems and climate change seem to be harder for people to accept. Part of the issue is that cause and effect can involve networks of relationships that may not be directly connected. The impact of a declining bee population on farm productivity may be quite real, but more difficult to see and smell than a stream with an orange tint that’s caught fire. And climate change may be the most difficult environmental problem to fully understand. It is created everywhere and much of its impact is in the future and difficult to predict. Climate scientists can measure past temperatures quite precisely and they know that the past hundred years of global warming are without precedent and clearly human made. What they don’t know is the impact this warming will have in the future and what to do about it. The issue of what policies should be used to mitigate and adapt to climate change is beyond the expertise of most climate scientists. While scientific and engineering expertise is needed to frame solutions, the choice of public investments and acceptable risks are issues of public policy, not science.

They are policy, political, ethical and economic issues, not issues of science. These are tough issues requiring difficult trade-off choices.  I live in a city with 60,000 homeless people, most of them children. Despite these homeless children, New York is spending about $20 billion on climate adaptation measures in response to Hurricane Sandy. Is the problem of climate resiliency more important than homeless children? Looking at the city’s capital budget it is. That is a difficult choice. While climate science leads to the conclusion we should stop burning fossil fuels, immediately ending the use of fossil fuels is not on the political agenda, nor is raising the price of energy. Fossil fuels are too important to the economy to disrupt their use without a substitute and so the transition to renewable energy will need to be gradual. Climate change and adaptation are not the only problems our elected officials must address. Science can inform our approach to these issues, it can provide information about probable impacts and risks, but it cannot and should not be used to make public policy.

While science has its limits, denying the science of global warming is absurd. But accepting the science of climate change does not require decision-makers to accept the policy prescriptions of climate scientists.  Policymakers must learn and understand what the historical analysis of climate change tells us and they must learn to understand the probabilities and risks presented by climate models. In a modern world where economic life is increasingly based on technological change, decision-makers cannot afford the luxury of scientific illiteracy. Records of natural climate change in the past demonstrate how frequently and intensely the planet’s climate changed before seven billion humans were around to affect it. But it is very clear that all of us and our fossil fuel powered machines have had a rapid and unprecedented impact on the planet’s temperature. If you doubt it, come visit the Columbia’s Earth Institute and our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. See the thousands of core samples of earth taken from beneath the ocean’s floor, and listen to our faculty explain what those samples tell us. Go to the tree ring lab and see the record of climate change that can be seen with that evidence. There is much more evidence in our labs and in others around the world. Moreover, our scientists have taken these and other data and developed models of our climate’s future.

Our public policy to adapt to climate change and mitigate its causes needs to be based on an understanding of scientific certainty and scientific uncertainties. Climate policy inevitably requires an understanding of risk. Decisions on risk should be informed by scientific fact and analysis, but ultimately must be driven by a nation’s values and ethics. That is the nature of public policy in a democracy. I know that many of my friends and academic colleagues do not know if we still have a democracy, but the national election is over and now we have to do what we can to bring high quality analysis to bear on public decision-making, and to continue to do our job of what the great policy scholar Aaron Wildavsky once called “speaking truth to power.”

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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