State of the Planet

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Translating Science into Action

By Maria Gracia Aguilar

Steve Cohen giving welcome remarks. (Photo: Avantika Goswami)

How can science be used and transferred effectively by decision-makers?  What are the obstacles when communicating science to policy makers? How can we manage scientific uncertainty? These are some of the questions that were tackled on Monday, April 2 at a panel event on Speaking Science to Power: The Importance of Facts in Decision-Making.

The Earth Institute’s executive director, Steve Cohen, moderated the event and opened the evening by noting: “this is a critically important issue today, a time where science and reasoning do not seem to prevail.”

The panel was hosted by the Earth Institute, including the MS in Sustainability Science program, the MS in Sustainability Management program, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, and the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management. These programs carry on the Earth Institute’s work to interlink environmental science with decision-making. The panel and reception were attended by 150 students, faculty and interested professionals, as well as an audience on the live webcast. You can watch the full panel below, or read on for some highlights from the discussion.

One of the featured panelists was Tom Jorling, who has held positions on the staff of the U.S. Senate, at the EPA, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and has been key in drafting U.S. environmental laws. He provided examples from his own career on how science has been used effectively in decision-making. At a macro level, acid deposition or acid rain legislation was impacted by data from the scientific community, which allowed them to establish the source of the pollution. He then presented a localized example focused on water supply for New York City, explaining how scientific data was used to decide between implementing water filtration and managing the Catskills watershed.

Panelists in Low Library Rotunda. (Photo: Avantika Goswami)

Richard Moss, visiting senior research scientist at the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, is at the Earth Institute continuing the work of the advisory committee for the National Climate Assessment. This committee was created to prepare mitigation and adaptation advice for local decision-makers to use the information contained in the National Climate Assessment. Moss explained that the disbanding of this committee was an example of a barrier to sharing science with power. He then acknowledged the Earth Institute’s leadership in providing a space to continue this important work.

Sara Law, vice-president and head of global initiatives at CDP North America—an organization that supports the disclosure of corporations’ environmental impacts—talked about how science is being used for decision-making in the private sector. Investors are demanding more information from publicly traded companies on their social and environmental impacts, making sustainability a “need to do” instead of a “nice to have.” Some 2 to 3 percent of companies already have science-based targets, and the trend is increasing. However, there is still a need for the public sector to provide a clear message that science is valued. Law said that from the data that CDP collects, it is clear that companies are good at evaluating their short-term risks, but without scientific knowledge they will not have a clear sense of how their portfolios will be affected in the long run.

Art Lerner-Lam introduced the Montreal Protocol as a classic example of how science can be used effectively in decision-making. Research allowed understanding of the ozone hole problem and was used to put in place an international treaty. Lerner-Lam is a seismologist, deputy director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and director of the new MS in Sustainability Science program at Columbia University.

Cohen continued the conversation by stating that while we all benefit enormously from science and technology, the latter can also have detrimental impacts on human health and the environment. The impacts are sometimes not clear or may have long-term consequences. This leads to the question of how uncertainty and risk are interpreted in decision-making.

Lerner-Lam said that “science is directed to reducing uncertainty, but is it often not well-communicated.” He went on to say that this is a failure on the part of science, because scientists are often not able to communicate the process itself, which is not compatible with how people perceive risk. Especially when dealing with emerging risks like climate change, science expects people to invest money or social capital in an uncertain future.

Law noted that in comparison, the private sector does not shy away from risk, but that “uncertainty is the worst friend a company could have.” Science can help by providing a degree of certainty to what is to come. For example, the business sector responded very well to the Paris Agreement, as it set a specific policy and science framework which reduced uncertainty.

Moss pointed out that many decisions are made under some degree of uncertainty. So, the question should really be how to make decisions when there is uncertainty. He believes that this goes back to each person’s values. While it is crucial to use facts and science, “we should not expect facts to make the decisions.” It is the people who make decisions, and they will be influenced by their own values.

Maria Gracia Aguilar is a student in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, and an intern in the executive director’s office at the Earth Institute.

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