Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Science and Policy: Climate

Sometimes when teaching about the ethics of climate change, I hope to find a really short but authoritative newspaper article to give students. I like them to see some figures about the magnitude of climate change and to get an idea about the effects of global warming in terms that are easy to understand.

Here is a one-page news article from the AAAS, describing the contents of the latest NRC report.

The closest the committee comes to a policy recommendation is to point out the magnitude of the challenge. "Emissions reductions larger than about 80%, relative to whatever peak global emissions rate may be reached, are required to approximately stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations," it observes.

The paragraph sounds critical. Is such restraint from recommending specific policy choices required by objectivity, professional respect for policy-makers, common sense, or good taste?

On the one hand, a report focused on science should not make recommendations that can't be justified within the space given. So a recommendation for a cap-and-trade policy, or a rejection of a tax on emissions, or an expressed preference for investing more heavily in the development of tidal power, would certainly be beyond the scope of the report. On the other hand, reports, like journal articles, are rhetorical devices and are structured so that it is clear which parts are descriptive and which prescriptive. Other NRC reports have not shied away from offering prescriptions for change in education, in medical practice, and in other policy areas. There is no good reason the NRC couldn't maintain neutrality with regard to specific alternative energy development policies and conservation policies without offering much stronger verbal support that more needs to be done. Much, much more.

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