The Science and Politics Problem

Before proceeding to the issue of global warming, climate change and hurricanes, it is important to address the "science and politics problem.'' As Sam Earman (1996:13) has written, "although there may be such a thing as 'science policy,' science and policy are two entirely different things, and they are practiced by groups that are, for the most part, mutually exclusive.'' The public official and the scientist operate in two different worlds with two different cultures and two different languages. It has become increasingly apparent that the two fields work to ensure more collaboration in the field of environmental policy in order to effectively address global environmental problems. So, what role should science play in the environmental policy making arena where officials who speak for the public exhibit both shared and diverse concerns? Offering an optimistic view on this issue, Kai Lee has written, "the appropriate application of science to political decision making will provide humanity with the guides it needs to direct itself away from its current course of destruction'' (Switzer 1998:307-308). Moreover, Arild Underdal (2000:184-185) sets forth the position that "Governments rarely explicitly dispute what the scientific community considers to be 'consensual knowledge','' that "faced with broad consensus among competent experts on the description and diagnosis of a (severe) environmental problem, governments do in fact most often take some kind of collective action,'' that in "thinking about the role of science in international environmental regimes we probably see science as a supplier of warnings serving as spurs for protective measures,'' and finally that "we would also expect to find a positive relationship between the demand for and the supply of scientific inputs.'' However, as Lynton Caldwell (1990:19-20) has lamented:

Science alone cannot save the environment. Political choice is required to translate the findings of the environmental sciences into viable policies. Scientific information, even in its limited present state is far from being fully utilized in contemporary society. Unless political will and ecological rationality can bring about the transformations necessary to achieve a sustainable future of high environmental quality, science can do little more than to slow the pace of environmental decline and to project the consequences for a world in which all things are not possible.

Moreover, Lawrence Susskind (1994:63-64) argues that there are several reasons why the scientific community does not have the kind of impact assumed by the public. These factors include uncertainty and complexity that result in "rough estimates at best;'' political actors that use any notion of uncertainty to delay or oppose collective action; and members of the scientific community itself that enjoy promoting debates over issues that confuse the lay public and policy makers who don't understand the difference between real scientific conflict and "intramural disagreements among experts.'' In addition, Neil Harrison and Gary Bryner (2004:329) conclude, "Uncertain problems . . . are especially difficult to handle in the anarchic international system, because the nature of the problem must be negotiated through contending national preferences and interpretations."

Continued debate exists over the role of science in policy making and the need for an improved effort to bridge the two diverse fields. For instance, where policymakers and citizens are inclined to look at the short term, the scientific community can keep the policy process focused on the long-term. For instance, where scientists are guided by the scientific method, objectivity, the collection of data and the replication of their studies, politicians are more likely to view issues through the prism of partisanship or ideology or be influenced by interest groups. Where scientists might need time to experiment, politicians might need an answer prior to the next election. The science and politics "problem" can be viewed in the following way - scientific knowledge might be ignored or politicized by officeholders or it might be integrated effectively into the policymaking process. In short, as Desler and Parson (2006:39) argue, "In addition to the challenges that policy debates pose to science, science also poses hard challenges to policy debates, because citizens and politicians are not generally able to make independent judgments of the merits of scientific claims.'' Nonetheless, the discoveries of science must be used to educate the public and must be effectively mediated through the political process in order to provide policymakers with the knowledge needed to implement appropriate environmental policies both nationally and globally.

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